Titanic and Avatar Producer Jon Landau on What All Great Movies Have in Common

Jon Landau
Jon Landau speaks at One Young World in Ottawa, Canada, on September 30, 2016. One Young World

Judging by box office figures, Jon Landau is the most successful producer in movie history. In 1997, he partnered with James Cameron to make one of the biggest movies of all time— Titanic— which won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture. Then in 2009, he and Cameron produced Avatar , which became the highest-grossing film of all time, surpassing Titanic .

But the New York-born filmmaker is keen to champion a vision of filmmaking that isn’t just about entertainment or making money. Speaking to the One Young World summit in Ottawa, Canada, on September 30, he told 1,300 young leaders from around the world: “The power of good storytelling is not to be taken lightly. They can move the world in the wrong direction just as easily.”

Newsweek spoke to Landau the next day about what it takes to make a great movie, how the industry can cope with new platforms like Netflix , and what he would do differently if he made Titanic today.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities that the industry is facing today?

The biggest challenge in the moviemaking industry is controlling costs. There’s no such thing as a sure thing in films. Every new movie is a new business—a start-up business—and that’s a tough challenge. And oftentimes, the movies that are sometimes the most important to make on a global basis are the biggest challenge to make, and I think we have to find a way to make that affordable so that we can reach the public with those kinds of stories.

The most exciting thing about the business is the true global reach of the industry. It’s truly a business that has markets around the world and we’re able to reach more people with our message.

What do you think about Netflix disrupting television and increasingly with film? Do you think we’ll reach a point where people stop going to the movies?

People will never stop going to the movies. It has been human nature to seek out the communal experience forever, since the days of Greek tragedy. It’s a unique experience to be shared. It’s just like how concerts will never go away—we listen to stuff on the radio, or on CDs or the internet, but we still go to live concerts. Movies are the equivalent of a live concert. There’s something very special when the theater goes dark and the image comes up on a big screen.

And a comedy plays funnier when there are 300 people laughing; a tragedy plays sadder. And then when you all come out of that theater and you’re all talking about it at the same time, that’s a different dynamic.

Do you think new technologies and new ways of storytelling make it easier for us to connect with audiences?

I think technology has made it easier to put content in people’s hands. Sometimes people confuse being able to create content with storytelling. Just because you can shoot a video doesn’t mean you’re telling a story. And it’s stepping back and understanding: what does it really mean to tell a story, what are the beats, what is the journey that you’re taking somebody on?

I think we’re going to have a greater abundance of great filmmakers because more people have access to technology, so that’s very exciting. But they have to hone it and weed out those who don’t know how to use it as a storytelling medium. Just because we all have pens and paper doesn’t mean everyone’s a great writer.

How do you define the difference between telling a story and just making a movie?

Without a narrative, there is no story. Then, for a story to work, there has to be a very strong point of view and resonant themes in that. A good story enlightens you without letting you know you’ve been enlightened. Oftentimes people come up with a story line , but without a point of view, without themes. We’ve all gone to see a movie and after we go: “Why did they make that movie?”

That’s usually because people have lost sight of why they were making the movie, or maybe they never defined those thematic reasons. What also happens when you set out to make a movie is that it’s a very long process. If someone comes in and says: “Make this movie funnier,” you might do that even though it was never meant to be a comedy.

Someone like James Cameron never loses sight of what that original target was at the beginning. Someone might say to him, make it funnier but he’ll say “No, it’s not a comedy, I’m not going to do that. This is my storyline and these are the themes I’m going for.” And he’ll never lose track of that.

When you look at the work you’ve produced, what would you do differently with the technologies we have now? If you were making Titanic now, how would you make that communal experience better for the audience?

We’ve subsequently made Titanic and converted it to 3D; I think we would make Titanic originally in 3D. It’s an interesting question though, because when we made Titanic , we built the ship, we built 800 feet of it. Today, the instinct would be to do it digitally. That might not help the movie though, because there was something tactile for the cast about going and walking on that ship and transporting them into that period.

So I like to think maybe we wouldn’t do anything differently; maybe we’d say: “No, let’s do it that same way because there’s a value to that.” However, when we go to Pandora for Avatar , we can’t build that, so we have to do it digitally.

Is it harder for actors if everything is done digitally?

I don’t think it’s harder, I think it’s different. If you’re doing something that’s real world, you should give them the opportunity to do that. But if you think about an actor that’s doing theater, they’re playing out to the audience. There’s nothing there for them, they’re not playing with their back to the audience and seeing the set that we’re all seeing. So, the idea that nothing is everything is something that an actor is very used to.

But on Avatar, what we actually did was we went to the rainforests of Hawaii and we rehearsed there, so that the actors could take back a kind of sense-memory experience for the world which we were creating. And I think they were very comfortable with that, it became like Black Box Theater for them.

At One Young World, you’re speaking about the power of storytelling. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

We have the opportunity to create empathy—through the characters and stories that we tell—and to allow people to see the world a little bit differently. Movies that work are movies that have themes, because they are bigger than their genre. The theme is what you leave the theater with, the emotional core, and the plot is what you leave inside the theater.  We live in a connected world today, and you can’t have themes that just work for North America or just for China.

Science fiction can be a great metaphor for the world in which we live. So that you’re not hitting someone over the head saying: Here is a refugee story taking place in some war-torn country here on earth today. But you transpose it into a science fiction metaphor and then people realize it and see things differently in our world. It does have an impact.

Avatar begins and ends with Jake opening his eyes. The movie is really a challenge to people to open their eyes, and I think that’s what all movies can do. They can make people open their eyes and realize that their actions have an impact, on people around them, and on the world around them. Don’t tell them what to do—but if people can understand that , then I believe they will make the right decisions.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.