'Avatar' Producer Jon Landau on Cirque du Soleil Show 'Toruk,' Ignoring Bad Reviews: "We Make Our Content for Audiences"

Toruk + Landau inset - H - 2016
Errisson Lawrence/Cirque du Soleil; Kevin Mazur/WireImage

While accepting an honorary membership in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers at the org's Centennial Gala on Oct. 28, James Cameron said he has advanced ambitions for the much-anticipated sequels to Avatar

“I'm going to push," he said. "Not only for better tools, workflow, high dynamic range and high frame rates — the things we are working toward."

And while the world waits for that work to be done and the follow-ups to the highest-grossing movie of all time to hit theaters, audiences who are hungry for anything Avatar-related can snag a ticket to see the next best thing.

Cirque du Soleil's latest touring spectacle, Toruk – The First Flight — a massive arena show inspired by James Cameron's epic 2009 sci-fi fantasy epic Avatar — will post up at Staples Center for a series of shows Nov. 11-13. (It opens at Citizens Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif., on Nov. 2, playing through Nov. 6, followed by Staples Center and a 2017 run at The Forum in Inglewood Jan. 12-15.)

Ahead of its L.A. run, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with one of the key creative talents — producer and Lightstorm Entertainment partner Jon Landau — to talk about the challenges of blending the highest-grossing film of all time with the well-defined Cirque universe. Toruk arrives years ahead of the planned Avatar sequels, dated for release from 2018 to 2023, and it's safe to say that anything associated with the name must aim to cross a pretty high bar of success. As Toruk artistic director Fabrice Lemire puts it, "People have high expectations because of the brands associated to the project."

Toruk is described by Cirque as "a mythical tale set thousands of years before the events depicted in the film Avatar, and before any humans ever set foot on Pandora." It's narrated by a "Na'vi Storyteller" and centers on two Omatikaya boys (Ralu and Entu) who attempt to save the sacred Tree of Souls when a natural catastrophe threatens to destroy it. 

How did your Cirque relationship first come about, and when did conversations begin to turn Avatar into a Cirque show?

Jim was up front about Cirque being an inspiration for the world of Avatar, both in movement and the colors. After the release of Avatar, they approached us and said, "We would like to talk to you about an Avatar-themed Cirque show." It wasn't yet defined as to what that would be (yet). Out of those conversations we made the trip to Montreal, Jim and I. They presented the idea of doing the show on an unprecedented scale of what they had previously done — doing it as an arena show. Telling a story that would not conflict with the story worlds of the movies, or the sequels that we are doing now, but that still holds true to ethos and theme of the universe. It turned out to be the perfect fit.

This show follows your previous collaboration on the Cirque du Soleil film Worlds Away. How pleased were you with that experience and the performance of the film?

I was only a part of that film tangentially. Jim was more involved as consultant. The experience of working with Cirque creatively was great. In respect to how the show performed…on any of our movies, we can only speak about we pleased we are with the product that we deliver. How it does at movie theater is up to so many other people.

Avatar is an epic, and Cirque shows are equally epic. What's the first step in attempting to translate a film of this scale to the stage? Is it the story?

What we've been doing with 20th Century Fox is that we've taken control of franchise development. What happens inside a studio's umbrella — specifically people who deal with franchise-type stuff — they have to worry about 20 movies in one year. We want to worry about one franchise for 20 years. We work in great collaboration with them and keep them apprised with what we are doing. One of the things we challenge our partners to do — whether it's Cirque or Disney with Pandora — is not to tell the stories of the movie. We do that. But we challenge them to come up with unique stories that are consistent with work we have established in our films.

Do you think this Toruk show will help whet the appetite for Avatar fans who are itching for the new installments?

What the Cirque show does for fans of the film is a great reminder of why they responded the way that they did. There is a story here in Toruk of the unlikeliest of heroes rising to occasion and saving, effectively, an entire planet. It draws people into the diverse and beautiful world of Pandora, and that not only satiates a yearning for people who are fans of the film, but for people who are not fans of the film. It introduces them to the world.

The reviews have ranged from absolute raves to the not-so-raves in The New York Times. How closely do you pay attention to reviews?

Not at all. I would like you to go back and read the first review that was ever published about Titanic, which slammed Titanic. We make our content for audiences. Of course we want to reviewers to like it because they, too, are audience members. But the voice of people en masse is more important than any single critic who might or might not comment on something. What Cirque set out to do (with Toruk) is not to present a traditional Cirque show. The goal was the antithesis of that. This is a new paradigm of what Cirque is presenting in arena show. It still has all of waking-dream qualities that any Cirque show has, but presented in very different format.

The story of the summer at the box office really has been underperforming sequels, possibly in part due to the length of time between installments. What's your take on that, heading into delivering new Avatar installments?

Anytime someone looks at something like these underperforming sequels, they are missing the bigger issue. Whatever was new wasn't working for audience they went after. If you look at the number of years between first Terminator and the second, that was quite a large window that didn't impact people's enjoyment. Jim Cameron has done two sequels, and I would argue that both times the sequels lived up to, if not exceeded, the originals. We are setting out to make standalone cinematic experiences so that people feel the movies fulfill expectations or exceed expectations no matter how long the gap was. People get into a trap when they say that just because this movie was successful we should make a sequel, without asking, "Is there a story here to tell? Is there a sequel is worth making?" As we got into our own development, we realized there was enough of a story not only for three but for four movies.