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Big, Big, Big, Big Movies: Jon Landau (1960-2024)

"I can't act and I can't compose and I can't do visual effects, so I guess that's why I'm producing."

That was what Jon Landau said when he accepted the Best Picture Oscar for producing James Cameron's "Titanic." He made the job sound like a fallback. 

But as Cameron's producer for almost three decades, Landau helped figure out how to make already big films even bigger. He coproduced some of the top-grossing movies of all time: "Titanic" ($1.8 billion worldwide), "Avatar" ($2.9 billion) and "Avatar: The Way of Water" ($2.3 billion), plus the Robert Rodriguez manga adaptation "Alita: Battle Angel," a cult sensation that Cameron produced, plus multiple mega-hits from his earlier career incarnation as a studio executive. Landau, who died over the weekend of cancer, knew how to make big, big, big, big movies. No matter how many bucks a studio had already kicked in, he could still stretch them. Maybe he was fated to partner with Cameron, whose career has been a series of incremental escalations of cost, technology, and ambition. 

Landau was the son of film producers Ely and Edie Landau ("Long Day's Journey into Night," "Hopscotch") and attended University of Southern California's film school in Los Angeles. In the 1980s he was a production manager for Disney blockbusters like "Dick Tracy" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" as well as Michael Mann's 1986 "Manhunter," then became executive vice president of feature film production at 20th Century Fox in the early 1990s, helping to oversee the "Home Alone" films and "Mrs. Doubtfire," plus "Last of the Mohicans," "Broken Arrow," and "Speed." 

Those last three were large-scale, action-driven movies with elaborate sets and lots of locations and special visual effects — the kinds of films Cameron had been building towards throughout his career, ever since he was a twentysomething Hollywood striver working for indie film maestro Roger Corman, drawing storyboards, designing and building and painting creatures and vehicles, and trying to make cheap things look expensive (for "Galaxy of Terror," he used styrofoam takeout food containers to add "metal texture" to spaceship hallways made of plywood). 

Michael Mann wrote, "Jon's level of brilliance at what he did and his drive only occurs in those rare individuals who have within them a bright shining enthusiasm for creating and it lights up everything. I loved working with Jon on 'Manhunter' and 'Mohicans' and in the years following, he was always there with his generous spirit and advice." 

Landau was at Fox when Cameron filmed "True Lies." Budgeted at $115 million, it was the most expensive film ever made at the studio, though adjusted for inflation, Fox's 1963 "Cleopatra" would have come in at more than twice that price tag. It was marked as a likely box-office disappointment until it became the second top-grossing production of Cameron's career ($378 million). 

If that narrative sounds familiar, it's because it's the story of every Cameron film since 1991. Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" was the most expensive movie of his career at that point in time, and the most expensive ever made, with a budget of over $100 million, and ended up making $581 million in theaters alone. Cameron's next one, "Titanic," was so big ($200 million) that it had to be financed by two studios, Fox and Paramount. Some believed this would not only be the end of Cameron but would take down both studios. The movie grossed 11 times its production budget in theaters and swept the Oscars.

Landau's collaborations with Cameron didn't just hit big at the time of their initial release, they've proven to have legs. "Titanic" made another $22 million during its 25th anniversary re-release, while the 2022 reissue of "Avatar" in advance of the sequel made $76 million worldwide, a re-release record. 

Cameron offhandedly described Landau as "the studio suit" assigned by Fox to oversee "True Lies," but grew to like and trust him, and began thinking of him as more of a collaborator than a liaison to money people. Paula Parisi's book Titanic and the Making of James Cameron describes Landau as "the most important hire" that Cameron made in advance of starting that production.  Landau was at Fox from 1990-95, a period that included the release of Kathryn Bigelow's "Strange Days," which Cameron executive produced and cowrote. According to the making-of book, Landau "... had offhandedly mentioned to Cameron at the 'Strange Days' premiere that he planned to go back into producing. Fox had already agreed to give him an independent deal. As casual as he made it all sound, those who knew him were convinced he cooked up this exit strategy in the express home of working on 'Titanic.'" 

Cameron brought up the idea of hiring Landau to Rae Sanchini, president of Cameron's production company Lightstorm; she agreed, and Landau not only came on board but became Cameron's "chief co-strategist." Landau was just 35 at the time.

Cameron told Parisi that he and Landau gamed out "the broad strokes" of "Titanic" together, in every area except for visual effects, which were overseen by Cameron's FX company Digital Domain, cofounded with master creature designer Stan Winston. "Jon and I figured out how to do everything on the movie," Cameron said. "The broad strokes. How are we going to do this? What are we going to build? Are we going to build this side or that side? Are we going to build this length? Are we going to build the forward well deck? Is it going to be attached or is it going to be a separate set? If Jon didn't think of it, I thought of it, and we bounded stuff off each other until we eventually homed in on the answer."

Landau's experience as a studio executive in the early years of what was called "vertical integration" also helped him plan out wider marketplace strategies for Cameron's work, beyond the film itself, its life in theaters, and its afterlife on home video. According to Variety, Landau "was the architect of Lightstorm’s ancillary projects, such as Dark Horse Comics and Penguin Random House’s various 'Avatar' print spinoffs. Landau also advised the creation of 'Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora,' the well-received Ubisoft game that released in December, as well as an online multiplayer role-playing game from Tencent Games’ Level Infinite called 'Avatar: Reckoning.'" 

"I view every movie as a startup company," Landau told The Talks in December 2022, before the release of the second "Avatar," which was (true to form) expected to disappoint but ended up grossing over $2 billion and getting multiple Oscar nominations. "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 worked with Jon Landau for 31 years and I never saw him downcast once," Cameron said in a statement released after Landau's death. "He led with a balance of humor and fierce will, and true joy in the work."

Jon Landau is survived by his wife of 40 years, Julie, their sons Jamie and Jodie, and two sisters and a brother.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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