Interview with a Filmmaker: Jon Landau - ICTA Interview with a Filmmaker: Jon Landau - ICTA

Interview with a Filmmaker: Jon Landau

February 28, 2019

legendary producer Jon Landau, who’s been behind such mega-tent-pole movies as Titanic, Avatar, and others, shared his passion for quality moviemaking and his experiences on the role of technology in great storytelling. Here is his interview by Stuart Bowling, Director of Content and Creative Relations for Dolby Laboratories…


Alan Roe: Yesterday, I introduced our next host by giving you his professional background. I don’t want to repeat myself, so today, I base my introduction on his Instagram account. He is the only person I know who’s created an operational R2D2 from scratch — and who fills his garden with animatronics at both Halloween and Christmas. I would like to introduce the industry’s favorite bee keeper – who spends the rest of his time as the director of Content and Creative Relations for Dolby Laboratories, Mr. Stuart Bowling.

Stuart Bowling: It’s my pleasure to bring producer Jon Landau to the stage. Jon has produced some incredible movies you may have heard of: Titanic; Avatar. We were actually just talking about the fact that the worldwide gross of Avatar is $2.7 billion and it’s the only movie to have grossed over $2 billion from just the international market alone. That’s just incredible. So with that, I would like to bring up Jon Landau.

Jon Landau: Good afternoon.

Bowling: Welcome Jon. You have a lot going on right now between Alita and the Avatar sequels, so we certainly appreciate you giving up some of your valuable time. Can we begin by having you explain what the role of a producer is and what you have to deal with?

Landau: The way I look at it, every movie is a start-up company. And as the producer, you’re sort of like the CEO of that company. Other companies might go hire engineers. We hire production designers – and just like the right engineer for one company is not the right engineer for another, the same thing with the production designer. It then becomes our job to bring to the marketplace a product that at least meets — and hopefully exceeds — the public’s expectations. So that starts with the script; the script is really our business plan. But then it goes from the script to the casting, through the production, through the publicity, through the marketing. I can’t tell you the countless hours I spend with the studio, dealing with publicity and marketing, and at the end dealing with exhibitors, and the theaters on how to present the movie — because it is about the end to end presentation. It’s not just what we do, but it’s what does it look like when a consumer receives the product that we’ve in some cases spent years on. Jim had written Avatar in 1995. We didn’t release the movie until 2009. Alita, we acquired the rights in 1999 and we’re not releasing it until this year. It’s a long haul.

Bowling: We spent this week talking about presentation aspects — quality criteria in the cinema. You and Jim are really prominent filmmakers who care passionately about how your product is presented – and should be presented. Can you talk about that — and about the challenges of how do you present that content in such a plethora of different formats, 2D, 3D, higher brightness levels, immersive audio formats, etc.

Landau: From our end, we want to create the content at a caliber that reaches and strives for the highest of what is available. No matter where it is, no matter what it is. Then we spend the time, to customize each of our release presentations – because instead of people saying, “I saw a movie in a theater,” we want them to say, “I experienced a movie in the theatre.” And that experience should start from the minute they walk in a theater door, to sitting down in their seats, the whole preshow, the concessions, all of that — to what we present. We’ll work with companies to make sure that the theater can achieve the proper light level. We’re going to color time it for that light level. If we’re releasing in IMAX, we’ll drive David Kieghley nuts and work with exhibitors to do the best possible in-theater presentation. For Alita, for example, we have set a minimum light-level standard for 3D and we will not release the movie unless the theater can achieve that minimum light level.

Bowling: What is your thinking about the viability of 3D?

Landau: We still firmly believe in 3D. 3D is something that has gone down domestically, but the product hasn’t been there to support it. Filmmakers haven’t been shooting in native 3D, filmmakers haven’t been taking the time to convert movies properly into 3D. When you do 3D correctly, 3D is a window into a world — and not a world coming out of a window. When you break that suspension of disbelief, you’ve lost your audience. It’s just like — when you sit there and you don’t have good stereo, you get headaches. 3D does not make a bad movie good — but if you don’t do 3D right, it makes a bad movie even worse. So, we really work to present the best quality where people don’t even think that they are wearing glasses. I believe that in many ways that’s what we achieved with Avatar, and that’s what we hope to achieve with the four Avatar sequels. Our goal is to remind people that when you do it right, it’s a really unique experience. A year ago, we re-released Titanic in 3D HDR and somebody came up to me and said, they’d seen the movie 15 times before this screening, but when they went to the theater to see it, it was like seeing the movie for the first time all over again. When you present it right, it really is a transformative experience. Where technology is going with the laser projection, with HDR, and with all those things, that’s very exciting for us because I believe that’s a more discernable difference for the consumer than resolution. Higher light levels and HDR – those are things a consumer can just palpably feel.

Bowling: You raise a good point that after writing Avatar or Alita, there was a period of time where Jim had to wait for the technology to arrive to make that movie. But now, with high dynamic range and immersive audio, how does that really help you and Jim as filmmakers?

Landau: I just want to be clear. Jim waited not because of the presentation format. He waited because in Alita and in Avatar we wanted to create central characters using CGI computer-generated imagery and we needed to make sure they were engaging and emotive. Now, we are able to showcase Alita in so much better quality than we could 10 years ago with Avatar. And that’s thanks to the advances in the projection systems and advances in some of the 3D glasses technology. Back when we were doing Avatar, I don’t believe there were any laser projectors; now we’re seeing laser projectors and those light levels, it really changes everything. Because when you put on the 3D glasses, you lose light. People go, “oh, it was a dark image.” We’ll grade for 4 ½ -footLamperts, we’ll grade for 6-footLamperts, but ideally we want to be playing it at 10-footLamperts, or at 14-footLamperts, to really showcase what we’ve done with the film.

Bowling: Does that make it more challenging for you, that we have gone from film — where you could only release in flat or scope – to the multiple possibilities we have with digital today? How many versions of Avatar were released?

Landau: There were quite a few versions because our philosophy in terms of exhibition was we would always take the maximum screen width. If the theater had variable masking, we would also adjust the height of the image up to 16 x 9 — and then we had an Imax version also. So, we drove Fox and the distribution system nuts because we said if a theater can show it in the wider aspect ratio, we want to do that. What’s more challenging than anything is the expectations we put on ourselves — that we sit there and we go: OK, we can’t rest on the laurels of our past. We have to be going to the next place and we oftentimes think that we can be the impetus to push technology to do things that it didn’t know it could do. And we’ve certainly done that on the production side, and we’re working with manufacturers and the exhibition community to showcase that out to the public.

Bowling: And you’ve also pushed technology beyond the movie-going experience. For example, there’s Flight of Passage at Disney World.

Landau: Flight of Passage is an attraction that we created for Disney, before they were ever in talks for acquiring Fox, and again, we went through a lot with them about image quality and higher frame rates and all these different things. They were happy at 24-frame, 2D. We said we will be 60 frames per second, 3D – and there was a whole long conversation up until the day they saw it. And the day they saw it, they could not imagine doing anything else. The transformative experience for their guests, it’s the highest-rated attraction they’ve ever had. Over the holidays there were 5 ½ hour waits for the ride, and it’s still the highest attraction they have and it’s because of the brightness level, the 3D quality and again, it’s knowing how to present the image with a pleasing experience for the audience.

Bowling: Were there any learnings or takeaways from working in that frame rate that Jim may utilize in the future Avatar movies?

Landau: Well, even before we started working on Alita or working on Avatar sequels, we shot a test where we set up a whole medieval set with people in costume and a lot of detail and we shot it at variable frame rates. We shot it at 24 frames per second, we shot it at 48 frames per second, we looked at it in all the different formats and there are definitely advantages to higher frame rates on certain shots. But what we’ve concluded is that high frame rate is a presentation format and not always a capture or creation format. You don’t have to capture or create at the higher frame rates; you could play it back at a higher frame rate, even by double printing the frame. For example, we don’t record our movies in Dolby Atmos. But we release them in Atmos, so we do that as a finishing process — and we see that very similarly for how we’ll approach the Avatar movies. Peter Jackson allowed us to really study what he had done — and sequences where we thought the high frame rate would be an advantage — in an action sequence, for example — it’s actually not, because it takes away some of the cinematic quality that you get from the strobing, from that kinetic feel that the 24 frame rate creates. So, we’re going to do it very selectively. There will be sequences that are natively completed in the high frame rate for creative reasons. But by presenting sequences back at a higher frame rate, there is this perception of a brighter light level because the shutters don’t close as much in between the frames.

Bowling: OK. Let’s talk a little bit about the role of social media today. I think Rotten Tomatoes launched a year after Titanic — but social media has such an impact in the way audiences connect with each other, how they share information. How does that impact you as a filmmaker?

Landau: The way it affects us, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity – one, prior to a release of a film, to reach out to a community and get them excited about what we’re doing, to tease them with what we’re doing. It’s also an incredible opportunity after a release of a film to expand the world of the film. When we’re making a movie, we’re only telling a 2- to 2 ½-hour story in our movie. But some of the worlds we create, in Alita: Battle Angel or in Avatar, there are so many other stories that we can tell, and social media and digital devices afford us that opportunity. One of the things that we are going to be doing with Alita for example, we’re going to be doing a series of advance screenings. Not just showing it to press, but letting the public come see the movie because we believe the best voices that we can have are from the fans themselves, more-so than the critics. We screened the movie last weekend in New Zealand and the buzz just coming out of that from people who saw it is great; we want to do more of that and let that build through the social avenues. We wouldn’t have done this before social media because the impact would not have been as great.

Bowling: What are your thoughts and wishes for cinema in the next five or ten years?

Landau: It’s funny. My friend Jim Giannopolis, I saw him do a presentation years ago when he put three slides on the screen at the start of his presentation. Each one of them talked about the demise of the film industry — that, you know, entertainment could now be had at a cut-rate at home and the cinema industry would die. He then revealed that those quotes were from 1953, 1976 and 1987. So, I’m a firm believer that the theatre is here to stay. That it’s human nature to seek out the communal experience. The analogy that I make to the music industry is we have Spotify, we have Pandora, we have Slacker, we have Sirius, we have all these avenues, but there’s still something special about going to a live concert. Movies are the visual media equivalent of the live concert and people will continue to seek those out if we deliver a caliber of presentation, or a total experience that justifies it. That’s why I think it’s that end-to-end experience — it’s what we do, it’s what theaters do, it’s what the projection manufacturers do — to provide something that people can’t get at home. People at home, their TV sets are getting bigger, their sound systems are getting better. We have to go beyond that in what we present in the theater.

Bowling: So today we have far more screens than we’ve had. We’re on a digital platform now with the ideology of making and delivering content that’s more accessible, easier from an operational exhibition perspective — yet it almost feels like we still haven’t fully realized the diversity of content that can be in a cinema. Just recently we’ve heard Alfonso Cuaron talking about Roma and the challenges of making a black-and-white, noir, Spanish language film. How can we get films like that in the theatre?

Landau: I think we need filmmakers like Alfonso making product. It sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy; if you are not making any product like that, people aren’t going to go see it. Look, not every movie should be released on 5,000 screens. There are movies that you build — and you build up — and you make work. When my parents were lucky enough to grow up around the film industry, they were producers. They produced art films before there was such a thing. You know, whether it’s films like The Pawn Broker or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or things like that — these are movies that could not go out there and play on 5,000 screens. Or even a movie like Green Book; it finds its opportunity. What I’m excited about is digital presenting opportunities. Whether it’s in theater, whether it’s through the home, through streaming, through satellite, whatever it is, the more opportunities we have as filmmakers to make films, the better. Today, more young filmmakers have the opportunity to put the tools in their hands. Technology has been democratized. When I was a film student, we had to go find a 16-mm camera, buy the film, go to the lab, process the film – all of those things. Now people can pick up their phones and go make movies. I tell students, go do that, go make your movies and find ways to get them out there to people.

Bowling: That’s great. But what about consolidation. We’ve seen a lot of consolidation in the exhibition space and now in the studio space. How do filmmakers feel about that? Do they feel you’re getting fewer outlets now or is it still to be determined?

Landau: I think you could sit there and say there are fewer outlets from a studio standpoint, except what do you call Netflix? What do you call Amazon, what do you call Hulu? When one goes away, another one seems to fill it in. I think it comes back to the creative side that’s the driver of this. If there is enough good creative content, there’s going to be enough outlets to create and produce that content — and that’s what we’ve seen with the rise of the Netflix and Amazon.

Bowling: It is interesting that Amazon specifically honors the theatrical window and to a degree Netflix is doing somewhat day-and-date, but still allowing its filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron and others to get their movies shown in theatres. But would you like Netflix to have a longer window?

Landau: Look, I have been a big supporter of windows for exhibition. I think we have to protect the special quality of the film-going experience because we make our movies for the big screen. We’re not going to go make Alita for Netflix and have it be day-and-date; we’re not going to make Avatar and have it be day-and-date. These are the movies for cinema. I think it’s important that we preserve them for that purpose, but I also understand the need for people like Alfonso who had a passion to make Roma, to find a way to get it made. That’s why I talk about the opportunity. But I think as an industry, we have a responsibility to protect the window to allow it to play out in the cinema; we have other opportunities to come back in the home. And I think that’s exciting.

Bowling: Let’s talk a little bit about Lightstorm. You have a slate full with Alita: Battle Angel and the Avatar sequels, but you also have other movies as well. Can you talk to any of that?

Landau: We’ve been developing a version of Fantastic Voyage with Benecio del Toro attached to direct and we’re very excited about that. It’s a project that when I joined Lightstorm many years ago, I wanted to bring with us and we’ve been developing it ever since and finally got to a point where there is a script and filmmaker that we are very excited about. We have some novels that we are excited about too, based on a series. The first book is called The Informationist. It’s a Taylor Stevens novel, it’s a series of 7 novels. Think of a female Jason Bourne character who has to go back to the Western coast of Africa to solve today’s situation that she’s faced with, and only by dealing with her past can she solve that — because she grew up there. Bowling: How are you going to find the time to do all that?

Landau: You know when we were doing Alita, I was bouncing back and forth to Austin on the set, down to Orlando for the theme park, back to LA for Avatar, and somebody asked me, “Jon, how are you splitting your time?” I said look: “We’re doing four Avatar sequels. Jim insists that I give 70% of my time to Avatar. The other 70% of my time goes to Alita.”

Bowling: Let’s open the floor to questions. Who’s first?

Question: Jon, how do you feel about direct-view screens? Landau: To date, I have not seen one that says to me — this is what we should be projecting on. I think there are issues when you’re talking about the LEDs and I think there are a certain amount of sound issues also. Some of the colors that I’ve seen on them, don’t live up to what we are able to project on the screen. I have not been exposed to everything, but we’re open to learning more. Right now, we’re not saying let’s go race in that direction, but we also are not saying to stay away from it.

Question: I have a question that you may or not be able to answer. How likely is the Avatar to release date be pushed again – or to stay where it is?

Landau: As of today, it’s staying where it’s at. We go for the goal line until we realize we can’t make the goal line. Sometimes we’re an inch away from that goal line and we can’t get there. When I was a studio executive, people would say, “we have to make this movie to make this release date.” I would say to them, “look, release dates don’t make movies. Movies create release dates.” I remember years ago, someone said, “oh that movie has to make Silence of the Lambs release date. Before Silence of the Lambs came out, there was no Silence of the Lambs release date. Our focus is on making the movies; we’ll let the studios figure out the release date.

Question: Jon, would you tell the exhibitors in the room how the studio plans on qualifying those theaters for the higher brightness 3D?

Landau: The studios are going to work with Real D on helping to define that and they have been in conversations with Michael Lewis about that. I think it’s something we owe to the consumer. It’s not just about ourselves. We make a movie in 3D, we’d love every showing to be in 3D, but we don’t want the consumer to go and say: “that was not a good experience.” And we believe that light levels contribute to that and there are certain thresholds where we just think that’s not worth getting that push-back from audiences. We need to reinvigorate the audience. When we screened Avatar in 3D and in whatever format it was — from Imax to 3D, Real D, and this and that — nobody was pushing back that it was a bad 3D experience. Over the years, people have been having a bad experience with some 3D. We want to overcome that by what we’re doing, how we’re creating our material, and how the exhibition community is showing that.

Question: What about immersive audio formats? Are you doing any 4DX?

Landau: We figured that Alita was a great opportunity for us to learn what’s out there, so we’ve embraced 4DX, but in a way that’s a little bit different from the way I think a lot of other films have approached it where they’ve just sort of turned over their baby and let the companies run with it, and create the format. We stay involved. We want to see it, we give approval on it, we want to understand how it’s utilized so that as we get into the Avatar movies, we understand that, we understand what works. Anything we do in a theater is to enhance the narrative of the movies. Movies are made in the close up, they’re not made by flashing stuff on the side screen, not made because your seat moves. All those things enhance the experience but if they take away from the narrative storytelling, then they’re a negative for the film. And we want to understand that as fully as we can.

Bowling: I think we’re out of time. I sincerely want to thank you again.

Landau: Thank you and thank all of you for continuing to push the technologies in each of your fields because I think that’s what we all need to do.

Roe: Thank you very much Stuart and thank you to Jon Landau. It’s great to see the passion behind the use of our technology. I think at times with technical challenges, we can get a bit beat down – and so, to see the great happiness and passion and opportunity that Jon reminds us that our work creates, I think it helps us remember why we do it.

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