Pete Hammond

Are you ready to go back to Titanic?

That is not just a famous line from the 1997 Oscar-winning box office phenomenon, they are also the words producer Jon Landau used this morning in front of a packed theater of journalists at Paramount to introduce 18 minutes of the film’s new 3D conversion.  Paramount and 20th Century Fox — which holds international rights after bringing in Paramount to be domestic distributor when the film was sailing way over budget — will open the new 3D-converted Titanic on April 6, 2012. That’s just days before the 100th anniversary of the ship’s maiden launch on April 10, 1912.

“We didn’t want to release it on the day of the sinking, we wanted it to be about the ship itself, but obviously it sank,” said the film’s writer/director/co-producer/co-editor and all-around King of the World James Cameron, who explained that with the 100th anniversary of the fabled ship’s sailing the time was right not only for 3D but to bring the movie back for a new theatrical experience — even though it has been out in various video formats for years. “It has to do with the psychology of going to a theater. We make a committment to spend those two or three hours in a shared experience with others … and there is a whole generation that hasn’t seen it at all,” Cameron said, adding that in the modern world of cell phones, texting, emailing and other distractions, it is hard to get the full intended impact of a film like this at home.

Of course, Cameron has publicly stated he isn’t a fan of 3D conversions for films that have a choice. But he makes an exception for those “20 or 30 classic films out there” that can find a new audience with the format, and Titanic fit the bill. “I love 3D; if I had the 3D cameras at the time, I certainly would have loved to have shot the film with them,” he said. When I spoke with him afterwards in the lobby, his enthusiasm was infectious for the film and the new technologies he now has at his disposal to give it new life. He said the whole movie would have been shot differently today than in 1997: Rather than building those massive ship sets, he would have relied much more heavily on CGI and other techniques than the not-so-cost-effective way they did it then. He said that fortunately for him the film made money (that’s an understatement), but it could have had a very different outcome. In other words, a lot of dice were rolled on Titanic, which of course went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time until Cameron’s own Avatar usurped it a couple of years ago. It would now take another billion or so for it to come back from the video bins and topple Avatar — an unlikely outcome — but one informed source working on the new re-release told me another “4 or 5″ (hundred million) could be in play. Certainly Disney’s success with The Lion King’s 3D conversion is whetting appetities all over Hollywood for the boxoffice possibilities of library titles.

Tom Sherak, who is consulting on the film (his son William’s company Stereo D has done at least 90% of the conversion work on the film, according to Cameron and Sherak) was almost giddy. He tells me that the film has never played theatrically in two huge markets — Russia and China — meaning the sky’s the limit in those countries, “and it could be even bigger in Japan, too,” he said.

The conversion process has taken 60 weeks at a cost of $18 million. As for Cameron’s direct involvement, three tech people with knowledge of the original shoot go through every frame before giving results of the work to the director, who spends three- to four-hour sessions checking it shot by shot for the desired effect — which he and Landau told me is all about getting real depth into each frame. It’s all about depth. Cameron said that even when he was shooting the movie in 2D he was subconsciously making a 3D film in terms of the depth he tried to bring to every frame. ”I believe 3D is an enhancement not only for action but for intimate dramatic scenes. (With the 3D conversion), we’re hoping to turbo-charge the experience and make it new again for audiences,” Cameron told the assembled media. He also emphasized that he hasn’t changed single frame from a creative point of view, feeling he got it right the first time. “I am not a revisionist. I am not re-inventing the film artistically,” he said. The directors’ cut in 1997 remains the director’s cut in 2012.

Cameron says the film will be available in all formats, not just 3D. There will be Imax 2D and 3D  and regular 2D prints that he says will look “stunning.” They have created a 4K master, gotten rid of the grain, and color-corrected everything so it looks even better than it did for its first release.

The footage shown today (and previously at a session in New York) did look great — a remarkable conversion job at least on those scenes shown. I remember seeing the film for the first time in the very same theater at Paramount on Halloween morning 1997. When I came out, I wrote a prediction on a piece of paper and hung it on my wall at Access Hollywood, where I was working at the time. I still have it: “Titanic will break All About Eve‘s all-time Oscar nomination record and get 15 nominations.” It got 14, tying Eve, after Cameron’s original script was unexpectedly snubbed by the writers branch. I told this story to Landau this morning. He said, “Actually, I think it also should have had a nomination for Leo (DiCaprio, who was not nominated even though co-stars Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart were).” In terms of Oscars, Titanic still shares the nomination record with 1950′s Eve and is tied with 1959′s Ben-Hur and 2003′s Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King for the most Oscar wins with 11 each.

I facetiously suggested to Cameron and Landau that they ought to try to qualify the new 3D version for the Oscars. Judging by the competition it could probably triumph again if there wasn’t a silly rule making previous winning movies ineligible from doing it all over again.  “I don’t think I’d like to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” joked Cameron, who more recently endured a brutal Oscar race with Avatar against eventual winner The Hurt Locker.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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