Jon Landau has produced two of the most successful movies of all time, Titanic and Avatar, both, of course, directed by James Cameron. As you might expect, he’s hoping for a third with this month’s sequel, 13 years after the release of the original, Avatar: The Way of Water. Though, Landau claims it’s not really a sequel since it’s a standalone film on its own. Which led to a healthy debate about what a sequel is (For the record: I do think it’s a sequel.)
Also, Landau gives his opinion on the whole thing about Avatar not having a cultural footprint. Look, that’s obviously not true. The recent re-release of the first film made $76 million. (In this interview, when I threw out “$70 million,” Landau was quick to correct me.) A movie that no one cares about isn’t going to make that much money. And with the Avatar: The Way of Water marketing hitting full stride, it sure does feel like it has a cultural footprint right now. But there is something about Avatar specifically that makes people feel that way (I have a theory) and we dive into that.
Also, Landau has known The Way of Water title for nine years now. And he knows the titles for all the other Avatar movies. And he knows the plots for all of them. Ahead, he gives us his tip on how he never slips up and reveals something he shouldn’t.
Over the last 13 years since Avatar came out, was there ever even a day where you thought a second one wouldn’t come out?
Not one minute? Not one doubt in your head?
No, no, no. Look, this is something that both Jim and I had a passion for doing. But we didn’t have a rush to do it. I think that’s where people would get confused.
Right, but there are human lifespans that we have to deal with here.
No, but also there’s human life. Right? We had just come off of finishing Avatar. We had other things that we wanted to do in our life. Jim wanted to explore the Mariana Trench. There were other things we wanted to do. And then we said, Okay. Now, let’s tackle Avatar. And once we really started doing that, it became obvious, especially in the end of 2012, when Jim had 1,500 pages of story notes. And they were all worthwhile notes. It wasn’t like, Okay, that’s a jumbled mess. What do we do with it? And then, it was just a question of let’s do it right. Let’s take our time. If you really think about it, there was how many years between Titanic and Avatar?
Right, but that’s not a sequel to Titanic.
But it doesn’t matter. We’re not looking at this as a sequel.
Well, most people are. I mean, it is a follow-up to another story.
It’s a follow-up. Yes. So was Maverick. How long did that take?
Well, that’s also a sequel.
But I mean, why Maverick works? Because it’s a standalone movie. You don’t need to have seen the first one.
I’ve seen Maverick quite a few times now, but I think you do need to see the first one to fully understand the relationships in the second one.
I would argue differently.
You need to know the relationship between Ice and Maverick for that scene to really hit the way it does.
No, it just hits you differently than it does. My son, who had never seen it, loved Maverick.
I agree with you it does work as its own movie, but I think it’s enhanced by watching the first one.
And I will agree with, for you, it was.
Okay, well, speaking of Top Gun: Maverick, James Cameron said the box office is only maybe 80 percent of what it was pre-pandemic and he knows things have changed since 2009. But then do you look at what Maverick did and think, well this can still be done?
Absolutely. And Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Black Panther. I think that people want this. We just, as an industry, need to deliver them a product that justifies it. And I think Avatar: The Way of Water is the ultimate cinema-going experience in terms of cinema. And I’m not taking anything away from any of those other movies. So, I think that it’s going to remind people of why they go to cinema to do it.
And that actually reminds me of something else. The whole “does Avatar have a cultural footprint” thing. First, you just re-released it and it made $70 million…
$76 million, but that’s okay.
Yes, $76 million. I am wondering though, I think Avatar is very specific to this. Like, I can watch Kramer vs. Kramer at home, and I can have a pretty good experience with that. I don’t think we can watch Avatar at home and get the same experience we did in the theater. It’s like going to a Broadway show. You have to go. And I think that plays into why people think it doesn’t have cultural significance, even though it does.
Yeah, I’m going to argue with you again on this one.
Do you know what the most successful home entertainment title of all time is?
I’m guessing it’s Avatar.
Yep. You know what the most pirated movie of all time is?
Well, that’s Ordinary People.
Oh, it’s Avatar? I get what you’re saying, but I’d never seen anything like it when I saw it in 2009, and I can’t recreate that at home.
That’s my point. But you still get something different. But there’s still something in it that people do it. If you look at how it’s done on Disney+. It’s not the same experience. And that’s what we’re trying to get people to understand. And I think when you get to see the new film, I think that you too will go, “Wow, they went beyond what they did on the first movie in terms of the cinema experience.”
When did you have the title, The Way of Water?
I didn’t. Jim did. That is something that he landed on, and that was something that he already had in mind for it several years ago, I think when he really wrote the four scripts. That was a title he came up with.
When did he tell you?
I want to probably say 2013.
Oh wow, you’ve known that long? And you have to just keep that in your head and not tell anyone?
Do you know the title of the next one? I know you’re not going to tell me, but do you know what they are?
And in situations like this you have to just be careful to not say it instead of “Avatar 3.”
Not only do I know the title, I know what happens in those stories. And that’s more important to keep a secret. That’s why I don’t drink. Because I’m afraid I’ll slip on something.
James Cameron said he has six more movies in him. But he’s made two movies the last 25 years, which you were a part of both of those. I hope that’s true, but do you understand the skepticism when there’s been that much of a gap?
I understand the skepticism. Also, Jim also made Alita: Battle Angel. He made it as a producer, not as a director…
Well, you know what I mean. We love it when he directs.
I understand. But I’m just saying that I think that what Jim is saying and representing by this is that Avatar as an IP is something that can fulfill him creatively for what he wants to do. It does that by telling new stories, advancing how he does his filmmaking art as a craft, and it’s something that allows him to deal with themes that are important to him outside of movies. That are important to him that he sees are real-world issues.
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