Jon Landau
Photo by Aude de Cazenove

Jon Landau: “I can’t do anything unless I’m all in”

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Short Profile

Name: Jon Landau
DOB: 23 July 1960
Place of birth: New York City, New York, United States
Occupation: Film producer

Jon Landau and James Cameron's new film, Avatar: The Way of Water is in theaters 14 December 2022.

Mr. Landau, as the producer of films like Avatar and Titanic, how do you measure the success of a film?

For me personally, I enjoy going to the movies, so a film’s success depends on whether it provides for me that escape — I don't want to think about Avatar, I don't want to think about bills that have to be paid, all of these things. Do I walk away from the theater having felt something emotionally? That's how I view a movie that I go to as successful.

Does that happen very often?

It probably happens more often than you would think because I go not to be a critic. I go to be an audience member. And I think that's also what helps me as a producer of films, I don't view it any differently than what would I want as an audience member. Whether I go see, you know, a movie like Black Panther or Top Gun: Maverick, which work not only in a visceral sense, but in an emotional sense. That’s why I enjoy going to the movies.

“One of the things that I’ve learned is to only worry about the things that you can control, and I can’t control the box office.”

Is that the same measure of success for the films you produce and participate in yourself?

Sure. Just last week I screened Avatar: The Way of Water for Zoe Saldaña, Sam Worthington, and Stephen Lang, and watching them watch the movie, seeing the tears, seeing the emotion at the end of the camaraderie with each other. And for them feeling that the movie lived up to the promise that we made to them of what the movie would be and that they would see their performances up on the screen. That was the biggest moment of pride for me.

You once said that box office numbers have little to do with your idea of success — that you’re not even thinking about the box office when you’re making a film.

Well, by definition, the box office is the last thing for us to think about, literally, because making the movie, marketing the movie, publicizing the movie; all those things come first. And when the movie comes out in the theaters, we can't do anything. One of the things that I've learned is to only worry about the things that you can control — I can't control the box office. I can have an influence on the movie we're making, I can have an influence on the marketing we're doing, on the promotions we're doing. But once it's out there, there's so many other factors. And we have to get to a point where we go, “We've put our best foot forward and done everything we can.” I mean, take a movie like Alita Battle Angel, that's a movie that didn't do $2 billion at the box office. But it's a movie we're really proud of.

I’m sure it does help when a movie makes $2 billion at the box office, though — and you’ve made two of those: Titanic, and Avatar. Has the success of those two movies changed your approach to filmmaking at all?

I would say it has not changed it, but it has motivated me to even strive for newer heights cinematically. If you look at Titanic and the standard that set; I'm talking about Deborah Scott and her costumes, Russell Carpenter's cinematography, Peter Lamont’s production design… With Titanic, we were doing history. It was all real. Now, with Avatar: The Way of Water, we're world building. You have to combine the visuals seamlessly between a CGI world and a live action role. And all of that has to be better than the last Avatar.

It sounds like rather than thinking about what other film franchises are doing, you’re actually your own biggest competition.

I will tell you one hundred percent, we're not thinking about what other franchises are doing. It doesn't matter to us, we have to be true to ourselves. As filmmakers, we have to be true to Avatar. James Cameron and I both want to exceed what we've done with the last job. And I'm not just talking about a technological basis, I'm talking about on an emotional basis, on a character basis, on a world building basis.

Warren Beatty apparently told you many years ago that what makes you a good producer is that you dream about the movie, and every day you come in with new ideas and suggestions for the story and the characters.

I remember that, yes. I view every movie as a startup company. I am the only one who is involved from the inception to the conception of it. And I have to do that across a plethora of different avenues: What are we doing in publishing? What do we do with Cirque du Soleil on their show? I'm involved in all of those things from a stewardship standpoint of the film, and when we make a movie, my responsibility, I think, first and foremost, is that we realize the vision we set out to make at the beginning. And my responsibility is not just to deal with Jim and help him do that, it's to communicate to our crew, what that vision is, to empower them to take responsibility. And we do that out of a sense of creativity.

“I can’t do anything unless I’m all in... Maybe I get too involved with everything, but that’s just who I am.”

Is there a certain level of devotion you need to have as a producer, Or could you ever just sits at a desk and signs off on things?

I could never just sit up a desk and sign off on anything. Not just as a producer, but in life. I want to participate, I want to have a voice, I want to have an influence. I want to be able to inspire people to go beyond what they think their own capabilities are, for them to feel pride in what we're doing. I think that's a very big thing. I never want to be that guy just at a desk anywhere in life.

Is that why you’ve chosen to work on fewer films over the course of your career? In order to give each story as much of your time and respect as possible?

You nailed it right on the head. It's funny when we were doing Alita Battle Angel, which was happening simultaneously to Avatar, people said to me, “Jon, how are you splitting your time?” I said, “I'm doing 70 percent of my time on Avatar, I just have to. And then I said, I'm doing my other 70 percent on Alita.” (Laughs) But that's just the way it is. I can't do anything unless I'm all in. People that are working on two, three, four or five films, I don't know how they do it. I credit them for it, but it's not something I can do. Maybe I get too involved with everything, but that's just who I am.

I did wonder if the reason also had to do with creating these two incredibly successful films, and maybe you felt like, “Okay, I’ve reached that mark.”

No way! We haven't reached the mark yet. And that's what keeps us going. Jim also doesn't make movies that frequently, and that's because each of these movies are challenges. But those challenges are what motivate us every day to get up and to be excited. To me, it's about taking your time and doing it right so you can give 110 percent of yourself to any one project.