Avatar: producer Jon Landau interview

Michael sits down in a roundtable interview with Avatar producer Jon Landau. He talks money, Murdoch, and a bit of Avatar 2...

Avatar is out today, and we’re capping off our coverage of last week’s swanky Claridges-based press junket with an interview with producer Jon Landau. A charming, affable gent, Landau started his career producing films such as Dick Tracy and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, before first collaborating with James Cameron on True Lies. Subsequently, he jumped ship to work with Cameron on Titanic, a move that won him an enviable amount of awards.

In this roundtable session, the assembled, hard-nosed journos were intent on grilling Landau about Avatar‘s inflated budget, as well as the price of 3D exhibition, and the production’s dealings with Fox, Murdoch and News Corporation.

Here’s a question that no one has answered yet, and it’s about profitability. When will the film break even? Because it has a rumoured negative cost of $300 million…

It will break even when the income exceeds the expenditure.

Ad – content continues below

And you have two private equity partners as well?

You know, we’re not part of the financing at all, that’s all handled by Fox. So Fox handles it all. I don’t think that it’s unusual on large budget movies. We certainly went in knowing that this would be an expensive movie, for the studio to see out such financing to help fun the movie. One of the interesting things that we did on this movie is, we asked Fox to support us for a year – while we learned to walk. Most movies, you have to run right away. They sit there and say okay, we’re ready to green light the movie, here’s the release date, and try and make that date. And that’s where things go off kilter.

We said to Fox, let us learn to walk for a year, it’s not going to be a small sum of money – several million dollars – but we’re going to figure things out. Because we didn’t know, we didn’t have any of the answers.

And then we said, okay, now, at the end of that year, we’ll deliver to you three things. One: a flushed out script, taking what Jim had written ten years prior in the scriptment, and flush out your real script. Two: we’ll begin to develop the look of the world. And three: we will do the R&D, but not only will we do the R&D on the technology side, but we will deliver you a 45 second scene from the movie, so you can see what it looks like finish. And we will have known what it’s like to go through that process, you will have known as a studio what it’s like to go through that process, and we’ll look at the result and say – is that a viable movie? And we’ll have walked, and then we’ll ask you to let us run. And that’s the process we went through.

Has Rupert Murdoch seen the film?

Rupert I don’t think has seen the whole movie. I think he’s seen large chunks of the movie, and he’s very excited.

Ad – content continues below

Rupert also sees it, and his mind immediately starts going to – how else can News Corp take advantage of some of the things that we’ve been able to showcase? Ranging from the 3D, how can they roll that into everything else that they’re doing. I did an interview – both Jim and I did – for Sky, in 3D. How do you take Premiership League football and bring that into 3D? How do you do all of those different things. Rupert gets excited about that.

Rupert saw enough of the movie to then have some follow up meetings and talk about other, broader ideas of where things were going.

Jon, two figures have been mentioned with regards to cost – 180 million and 300 million – which is it closer to?

180 million, certainly. Closer to? Yeah! Definitely.


I didn’t say that. You asked me which one was closer to it. I think it’s interesting. Truly, I believe that we’re the only business in the world that doesn’t charge you more for more. You walk into a hotel, you want to get a bigger room, you pay more money for it. You sit up front on a plane, you pay more money for it. You get a larger order of fish and chips, you get more money for it. Movies, it’s the same thing if you see a $2 million movie or you see a $100 million movie or a $150 million movie.

Ad – content continues below

Do you think it was only because James Cameron was behind the project that it was given such a budget?

Well, a couple of things. One, success in Hollywood is really judged on more than just one movie. And I think if you look at Jim’s track record – it’s Terminator, True Lies, it’s Aliens, and almost at every step of the journey, people were saying ‘oh, it’s the most expensive movie’. I will tell you in no uncertain terms, that when we made Titanic, we were not the most expensive movie that year. But everybody wanted to think we were. In fact, we were not.

Avatar is a hard movie, no matter who you have on board, to get a studio to commit to. It’s not based on a sequel, it’s not based on some great comic book, or a television show. It’s original, and you know what, it’s got blue people in the middle of it. Studio executives, they run away from those of type of projects, and that’s part of what that first year really was to prove to them – and to ourselves – that you can put engaging and emotive characters that people would buy watching. But they would ask questions like ‘do they need tails?’, and Jim’s response was ‘yes, they need tails!’.

I don’t think there are many directors who have showcased what we showcased, who could have gotten the green light. But I think because of who Jim is, and his ability to execute a dramatic story in the light of sophisticated technology – that is what sold the studio on it.

Do you think that the cinemas are justified in charging their customers extra for seeing the film in 3D?

That’s on the exhibition side, we have no control over ticket prices. I know there was a lot of back and forth between the studios and the exhibitors, over who should pay for what. And, the way I look at that side – and that side I can certainly speak to – and that is, the exhibitors never asked the studios to pay for stereo sound.

Ad – content continues below

You know, it’s your responsibility as an exhibitor to bring a certain quality of presentation. For them to say ‘my overhead and my expenses are greater, and I’m going to have to pass that off to stay in business’, that’s their side of the business. I think it’s our responsibility to deliver product that drives the consumer out of the home. and I think that it’s the exhibition community’s responsibility to be able to present that material in the highest possible quality, so that people do want to leave their homes.

So what about sequels to this?

I think sequels to this is really going to come down to what the public wants after they’ve seen the movie. The movie is ripe for other stories, and Jim has those in mind, both before our movie opens and after it. But whether those stories are realised in publishing, or if they’re realised on the big screen, whether they’re realised in other ancillary opportunities, I think we’ll find ways to tell them.

What’s the one quality that you think makes a great producer?

I’ll tell you what Warren Beatty said to me, when we were finishing Dick Tracy. He asked me, ‘Jon, what do you think is your best quality as a producer?’. I thought it was a weird question, and I gave him three of what he told me were wrong answers. And he said, ‘I’ll tell you what your best quality is as a producer: you dream about the movie. I know that, because every day you come in with ideas or suggestions about the movie’.

And I do think that that is what it is, because it’s igniting a flame of passion and excitement about the creation of what we’re doing. And if you don’t live and breathe it, you can’t do your job as well as anybody else.

Ad – content continues below