Oscar ratings have been sinking ever since 57M viewers watched TITANIC win the best picture on March 23, 1998.
That telecast was, is, and likely will always be Oscar’s top-rated show — unlike last year when just 10.4M viewers tuned in. TITANIC took home 11 Oscars, tying with 1959’s BEN-HUR remake for the most Oscar wins ever. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING joined the club in 2004. TITANIC was made by 20th Century Fox, which distributed it internationally. Paramount helped Fox manage the film’s $200M budget by paying $65M for U.S. distribution rights. With reissues, TITANIC’s grossed $2.2B worldwide.
In 1998 the Academy only had five best picture nominees. Unlike today, with 10 nominees, the field was small enough then for people to see all the contenders. Academy members had a very different mindset than about what kind of films to celebrate. They didn’t think twice about nominating worthy mainstream movies for Best Picture. TITANIC’s four competitors had also been embraced by U.S. moviegoers — unlike today’s mix of mostly smaller films with modest ticket sales or none at all because they streamed exclusively.
Those super Oscar ratings were driven by fans rooting for TITANIC while others cheered for: AS GOOD AS IT GETS — Jack Nicholson & Helen Hunt in a romantic comedy-drama that did $148.5M; THE FULL MONTY — Robert Carlyle & Mark Addy in a British comedy-drama that expanded after specialized success and did $46M; GOODWILL HUNTING — Matt Damon & Ben Affleck in a romantic drama that did $138.4M; and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL — Kevin Spacey & Russell Crowe in a crime mystery that did $64.6M.
TITANIC was the first Best Picture winner without a screenwriting nomination since THE SOUND OF MUSIC in 1966. With 14 noms, it was the most Oscar-nominated film with no acting wins — Kate Winslet lost to Helen Hunt for AS GOOD & Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t nominated for best actor (Jack Nicholson won for AS GOOD). TITANIC’s 14 noms tied the record set by Best Picture winner ALL ABOUT EVE in 1951. LA LA LAND matched them in 2017 but didn’t also win Best Picture, famously losing to MOONLIGHT after a misreading of who won. GOOD WILL & CONFIDENTIAL were strong competitors, each with nine noms.
In the end, what mattered most was writer-director-producer-editor James Cameron’s vision from the very beginning when he pitched his project to Fox by calling it, “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic.”
Rose: “You’re crazy!”
Jack: “That’s what everybody says but, with all due respect, Miss I’m not the one hanging off the back of the ship here.”