On Monday, January 20, with #FreeFail, the Sundance Film Festival will dedicate a day to exploring a vital aspect of the creative process: Failure. To lead off the festivities, Sundance alum and film executive Tom Rothman divulges the early failings of “Titanic” at 20th Century Fox.
“Success has many parents, but failure is always an orphan.” So goes the old Hollywood saying. But not with me, I hope. I have been in the movie business for 30 years and have had many failures. I try to own those failures and learn from them. They are ghosts that haunt me, yet spur me on. I fear failure (anyone in this business who says they don’t is either lying, nuts, or independently wealthy), but I try hard to not let it stop me. Indeed, it pushes me forward every day. My high school coach Lucky Mallonee said it best: “No balls, no glory.”
I was lucky enough to have the quintessential lesson in the power of failure to forge success at an early stage in my career. I was the President of Production in charge of the greatest movie failure in history—or so the pundits said. That movie was…Titanic. It became the biggest hit ever, but the making of it was the stuff of nightmares. It was over budget by more than any other film had ever cost, and it missed release date after release date. Moreover, we at Fox had made a bad deal with Paramount and they were gleefully letting us drown. And I was one of three executives responsible for the “debacle.”
The press was relentless in dancing on our grave. Newsweek‘s headline read: “20th Century Fox, glub, glub, glub…” and Variety put a daily Titanic “watch” calendar on its front page with our logo and the ship sinking more each day. It was hell. We felt powerless and foolish, and yet somehow, through it all, inspired by a director who never ever lost his vision, we continued to believe. Every day, we would suffer the brickbats in the press and “the town” about how stupid we were (“everyone already knows it sinks!”), but then I would go down to the “Z Room,” named for the legendary Darryl Zanuck, the only man in the studio’s history to run production longer than me, and watch Titanic’s dailies. And they were great. The product of a truly extraordinary director reaching new heights.
I would beg the press to wait on our obituary at least until we could finish the film and let people see it, but that is not the world we live in. Instead, we had to endure; to keep pushing and stretching for greatness, as that was the only way out. And we had to continue to believe in the filmmaker. I certainly battled with Jim Cameron on some of those days, but my admiration for him was, and is, boundless. The pressure was greater on him than anyone. The production problems were engineering mistakes, not typical filmmaking ones and he was killing himself every day. In the face of all the “failure,” he never ever lost sight of his goals.
Events, as the world knows, proved him and Fox right. The failure that was the production process became a legendary, record-breaking, enduringly iconic triumph! But it did so only because none of the team, on any side of the process, lost faith. And because, in the end, both the filmmakers and the studio had been right–it was a great story, brilliantly and bravely told by one of the best who has ever lived.
The lesson of Titanic has nothing whatsoever to do with either the cost of the movie or the size of its gross. I have supervised both the least and the most expensive movies that Fox ever made (The Brothers McMullen/Avatar). I have worked for an independent studio (The Samuel Goldywn Co.), invented the “dependent” (Fox Searchlight), run a major and, now, a new mini major (at least I hope that’s what Tristar will be, if I am still willing to dare to fail). I have been a producer for directors ranging from Jim Jarmusch to Steven Spielberg. And the lesson is always the same—big or small, indie or major. Never give up. Never lose heart. Never stop believing. Persevere through the fear of failure and the paralysis it can bring.
Because if you were right in the very beginning, you will be right in the very end.