Right up until its premiere on December 19, 1997, Titanic was expected to be the biggest disaster since the actual ship went down. (The CGI-laden movie, which was wildly over its original budget, got bumped from summer to winter.) Instead, the James Cameron film spent a ridiculous fifteen consecutive weeks at the top of the box-office charts, eventually blowing past Star Wars to become the highest-grossing release of all time, a record it held until Cameron’s Avatar displaced it twelve years later. Because of Titanic’s unprecedented reach, its impact on popular culture was immediate and enduring. Not only did the film made household names of its young stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, it embraced marketing opportunities by packaging every possible aspect of the film for sale: the historical research, the legendary production process, the clothes, the jewelry, the music, the actors. And the film greatly benefitted from a new type of fan culture emerging on the Internet, one that allowed anybody, no matter how young or technology-challenged, to create a personal webpage documenting his or her obsession. Here, as part of our ongoing series on fame in 1998, Vulture presents a titanic timeline of Titanic’s cultural dominance throughout that pivotal year.
January 1: National Geographic releases a collector’s edition of its 1986 “Secrets of the Titanic” special on VHS.
Leonardo DiCaprio appears on the covers of People magazine and Vanity Fair.
Kate Winslet, break-out star, does a whirlwind TV post-release press tour, appearing on The Rosie O’Donnell Show … and Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight … and Good Morning America … and Oprah. Meanwhile, Leo DiCaprio stopped by Entertainment Tonight.
January 10: Saturday Night Live runs a sketch about fifth-class black passengers trying to evacuate from the Titanic, starring Tracy Morgan and guest host Samuel L. Jackson.
January 16: Entertainment Weekly editor (and future top editor) Jess Cagle publishes an anti-Titanic piece called “When the Ship Hits the Fan: Why I Hate Titanic.”
January 18: Kate and Leo go together as “buddies” to the Golden Globes, where each is nominated. Neither actor wins, but Titanic takes home four awards: Best Drama, Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Song. While accepting the Best Drama award, James Cameron snidely quips: “Does this prove once and for all that size matters?”
January 26: Deja Vu releases its dance remake of “My Heart Will Go On.” The peppy track peaks at number 69 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart on May 30.
January 31: Twentieth Century Fox estimates that 7 percent of all U.S. teenage girls have seen the movie twice.
February 1: Newspaper comic “Fox Trot” begins a weeklong arc about the mother’s obsession with Titanic.
February 6: EW runs a cover story called: ”Titanic: How It Will Change Hollywood.” The author’s conclusion: “And there it is — what may be the biggest sea change of all in Titanic-shaken Hollywood: the ascendancy of a new post-ironic, neo-romantic era of mainstream, big-budget filmmaking. Or, if you prefer, the return of schmaltz.”
February 13: Fox airs the hour-long promotional documentary Titanic: Breaking New Ground that reels in 7.7 million viewers on a Friday night opposite the Winter Olympics and new TGIF episodes of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Teen Angel.
February 10: Titanic receives fourteen Oscar nominations, tying All About Eve (1950) for the record.
February 10: Curly-haired smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G releases an instrumental version of “My Heart Will Go On” as a promotion CD single. The following year, it is nominated for a Grammy in the Best Pop Instrumental Performance category, losing to the Brian Setzer Orchestra song “Sleepwalk.” (Celine Dion won Record of the Year for her vocal version, edging out Brandy and Monica, the Goo Goo Dolls, Madonna, and Shania Twain.)
February 10: Thirteen-year-old Edith Hoag-Godsey launches her Tripod page “Titanic Rules.” Her profile specifies that she has already seen the film six (”6!!!!!”) times.
February 12: Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” breaks the record for most radio plays in a single week, with 117 million plays.
February 14: The movie scores the highest Valentine’s Day grosses of all time: $13,048,711.
February 17: A collection of 32 telegraph distress signals from the Titanic, including one that says “we have struck an ice berg,” sells for $123,500 at a Christie’s auction.
February 24: Titanic beats out Jurassic Park to become the all-time leader in worldwide theater revenue. The film pulled in a total of $920 million internationally in its first ten weeks.
March 1: Winslet appears on the cover of Rolling Stone. The accompanying profile, in which Kate talks about getting her period on set (“If it suddenly looks like Jaws, it’s my fault”) and trading sex tips with DiCaprio, is described as “the last non-star interview she gives.”
March 1: Kate and Leo are the “most-searched Oscar nominees on Lycos.”
March 6: Following Leo’s Oscar snub, more than 200 fans call and e-mail the Academy to demand a recount. ”The calls did not just come from teenagers,” says the spokesperson. “One older woman called and said the whole state of Florida was upset.”
DiCaprio has moved on to promoting Man in the Iron Mask, but he still only gets asked about Titanic – much to the amusement of co-stars Gabriel Byrne and Gérard Depardieu.
March 8: Gloria Stuart wins Titanic’s only SAG Award. (Winslet was also nominated.) In her acceptance speech, she says, “I’ve waited 60 years for a moment like this.”
March 13: Celine Dion rides a boat on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and announces her plans to pursue an acting career. Also in this issue: the headline “Yoga Becomes the Latest Craze in Hollywood.”
March 13: A British travel company called Wildwings announces that it is now booking Titanic-themed vacations, in which voyagers will travel 12,460 feet into the ocean in Mir submersibles to see the wreckage.
March 13: From a political humor page last updated on March 22, 1998:
Q: What is the difference between Clinton and the Titanic?
A: Only 200 women went down on the Titanic.
March 15: Nine books about the movie, the ship, or Leonardo DiCaprio make the top 25 best-selling books on the New York Times nonfiction list.
March 23: Titanic wins eleven of the fourteen Oscars for which it was nominated, tying Ben-Hur’s record from 1960. The telecast is the most-watched ever, with 55 million viewers. At 3 hours and 47 minutes, it is also the longest. Some highlights:
March 23: Host Billy Crystal opens the ceremony on a Titanic set and sings about the film to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song.
James Cameron declares himself “king of the world” when he wins Best Director, endearing himself to nobody.
Madonna lauches a shot at the bow (at 2:35).
March 23: Accurately predicting Oscar night results, The New Yorker runs this cover.
March 26: Leo files a lawsuit against Playgirl for obtaining unauthorized nude photos of him. The magazine settles and the pictures are never published.
March 28: James Cameron attacks Titanic-hating L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan in an editorial: “Nobody’s interested in the vitriolic ravings of a bitter man who attacks and rips apart movies that the great majority of viewers find well worth their time and money.”
April 2: The J. Peterman Company, which is selling licensed Titanic film props and reproductions through its catalog, announces that they are back-ordered on their $198 Heart of the Ocean necklace. Meanwhile, Fox sues Ohio’s Lindenwold Fine Jewelry, which has received “tens of thousands of orders” for a $19 knock-off called Jewel of the Sea.
April 4: Saturday Night Live turns the doomed boat into a chipper Disney character named Titey for an installment of “TV Funhouse.”
April 4: Titanic ends its run at the top of the U.S. box office, after fifteen consecutive weeks at No. 1.
April 14: Celine Dion performs “My Heart Will Go On” at the inaugural VH1 Divas concert.
April 15: Thirteen-year-old Joey Russell makes national news when he sells his most valued possession, a 1912 postcard of the Titanic, to fund his friend’s mother’s cancer treatments.
An urban legend about a cursed mummy aboard the Titanic makes the e-mail rounds.
Apr 24: Tourists flood the removed Fairview Lawn Cemetary in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where 122 Titanic victims are buried. From an EW article: “Kayla MacLellan of Wellington, Nova Scotia, took her friends to Fairview for her Titanic-themed 11th-birthday party before they all headed to see the movie again. Two of the girls ran between the graves shouting, ‘I’m the king of the world!’”
April 24: Leonardo DiCaprio is introduced on the cover of Entertainment Weekly as the leader of Hollywood’s new “Frat Pack” (which includes Damon, Affleck, and … Van Der Beek).
Fundamentalist Christian group United Church of God includes an article called “Lessons from the Titanic” in its March/April newsletter. Excerpt: “This age is like the Titanic. We naively assume society to be unsinkable. Yet it is destined to go down. But we don’t have to go down with it. By establishing a relationship with God and upholding the way of life He calls us to, we can locate a lifeboat.”
May 11: DiCaprio is the cover boy for People’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” list. Gloria Stuart also makes the list, and tells People that Hollywood beauty regimens have changed since the 1930s: “I don’t even remember knowing about personal trainers. We played tennis on Sundays and went to Palm Springs and lay in the sun and swam.”
May 15: Leo joins the grand Hollywood tradition and shoots a fifteen-second commercial in Japan for a $4 million payday.
J. Peterman releases its Spring/Summer catalog, offering reproductions of Titanic costumes like Rose’s “jump dress” ($35,000, only one available) and the “heaven dress” from the last scene ($2,000, recommended for brides).
May 16: Conservative media group ChildCare Action Project declares that “there has not been a more subliminal, far-reaching theft of innocence of such scale and dimension in the history of childhood than Titanic!”
May 17: Titanic surpasses Star Wars to become the highest-grossing film ever, prompting George Lucas to take out a congratulatory full-page ad in Variety.
May 18: Opening of a People article: “Created at great expense and delivered with feverish hype, it may be the most remarkable thing ever to happen to romance. No, not Titanic; we’re talking about Viagra, the sky-blue, diamond-shaped pill for men that treats sexual impotence.”
May 21: Two feature-film Titanic parodies go into pre-production: Titanic Too — It Missed the Iceberg (set to star Leslie Nielsen) and Gigantic (about a ship that’s two-and-a-half inches shorter than the Titanic). Both are dead in the water a few months later.
May 30: The MTV Movie Awards award Titanic Best Male Performance and Best Onscreen Duo, though it loses Best Kiss to The Wedding Singer. A highlight of the ceremony: Stiller and Vince Vaughn pitch a sequel to James Cameron.
May 31: Dave Barry publishes a humor piece containing the script to his own Titanic sequel.
June 20: Ozzy Osbourne debuts his Ozzfest video intro, in which he pulls a Billy Crystal and gets swapped in for Kate Winslet via editing for the nude-portrait scene.
June 25: Dan Akroyd brags to People about his new film Pearl Harbor, saying, “It is going to be bigger than Titanic … the biggest movie in the history of the film industry.”
July 24: After nine rumored film leads (including American Psycho), DiCaprio announces that his next project will be Danny Boyle’s The Beach. His salary, which was $2.5 million for Titanic, is now $21 million.
July 30: Leonardo DiCaprio pays a well-publicized visit to paralyzed teenage gymnast Sang Lang.
July 30: “Titanic: The Exhibition,” featuring salvaged artifacts from the ship, debuts at Boston’s World Trade Center.
August 16: The Family Channel premieres “Leo Mania,” an hour-long documentary about DiCaprio’s fan following.
Aug 21: Leslie Nielsen parodies the “King of the World” scene in the film Wrongfully Accused.
August 25: Back to Titanic, a sequel to the bestselling soundtrack album, is released.
September 1: The Titanic double-cassette VHS box set hits stores.
Blockbuster chains stay open until 2 a.m. in order to start selling at midnight. In Bay Ridge, a video store promotes the release with an 8-foot ice sculpture of the ship; in Dallas, stores offered a free rental to the customer who brought in the largest chunk of ice.
September 2: A Utah video store offers to cut the racy scenes from Titanic VHS tapes for $5. More than 50 customers take them up on it in the first day.
September 5: The Mariners’ Museum in Virginia opens an expansion of its exhibit “Titanic: Fortune & Fate,” which has been visited by 200,000 people since opening in January.
September 13: Katie Holmes shows off the trend in Titanic-inspired ladies’ fashion with her cap-sleeved lace gown at the 1998 Emmys.
September 11: The Starr Report goes public, revealing that one of Monica Lewinksy’s last gifts to Clinton was “a romantic note that she had written, inspired by a recent viewing of the movie Titanic. In the note, Ms. Lewinsky told the President that she wanted to have sexual intercourse with him, at least once.”
October 30: Director Steve Oedekerk announces that filming is near completion on Thumbtanic, a Titanic parody in which all the characters are played by thumbs. (The 26-minute film doesn’t see release until 2002.)
October: Galoob releases a limited-edition collector’s doll of Rose DeWitt Bukater.
November 3: “James Cameron’s Titanic Explorer,” a three-disc CD-ROM reference guide to the ship’s history, hits stores.
November 13: DiCaprio reportedly crashes Kate Winslet’s wrap party for Quills, wearing a Dennis the Menace mask.
November: A series of Titanic trading cards is released in a limited-edition box shaped like a steamer trunk.
November 22: Celine Dion guest stars on the CBS drama Touched by an Angel.
December 6: The new Titanic Restaurant in London opens its doors for the Tatler magazine Christmas party.
The long-running Las Vegas burlesque show “Jubilee,” which features a thirteen-minute dance sequence about the sinking of the Titanic, is now playing to capacity crowds.
December 28: People announces there are “more than 500 web pages” dedicated to DiCaprio. These are joined by the many sites with Titanic-inspired humor, poetry, fiction, passionate defenses, passionate takedowns, and art.
By the end of 1998, the name Rose has risen 100 spots on the Social Security Administration’s list of most-popular baby names. Jack, Leo, and Kate also increase in popularity.