‘Titanic,’ ‘Avatar’ Producer for James Cameron Was 63 5

Jon Landau, the Oscar-winning producer who made the dreams of James Cameron come to life by overcoming extreme logistical challenges to bring the filmmaker’s Titanic and Avatar blockbusters to the big screen, has died. He was 63.

Landau’s son Jamie Landau confirmed his death to The Hollywood Reporter. Details are forthcoming.

A son of producers — his father was an Oscar nominee — the passionate Landau produced films including Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Dick Tracy (1990) before spending some five years as an executive at Fox, where he oversaw production on Die Hard 2 (1990), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and Cameron’s True Lies (1994).

If Cameron had a problem on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s True Lies, he was told by then-Fox Filmed Entertainment head Peter Chernin, “Don’t call me, deal with Jon,” Landau recalled in a 2011 interview. He spent four months on location in the Florida Keys with the director.

When Landau decided to leave Fox to return to producing, he said he had offers from three directors to collaborate on their next projects. He decided to go with Cameron, who wanted to make a movie code-named “Planet Ice.” That, of course, would turn out to be Titanic (1997).

Landau supervised the 100-day construction of Fox Baja Studios, the 40-acre oceanfront facility in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, that housed huge movie sets, the largest shooting tank in the world and five soundstages, one about the size of a football field.

He had to rewrite the film’s entire production schedule when it was determined that the main exterior of their R.M.S. Titanic was going to take two months longer to build than planned. Meanwhile, the film’s original $120 million budget had ballooned beyond $200 million.

“There was a lot of pressure throughout the course of filming and throughout postproduction and prerelease,” Landau told the Los Angeles Times in 1998.

Fox, which was financing the film with Paramount, “was very tough but rightfully so. And I was the guy who I believe got the brunt of it. It was very difficult because I wanted to please all three masters: the studio, the director and the movie. And it was my job to balance that … to not lose sight of that.”

It all worked out when Titanic, which opened on Dec. 19, 1997, nabbed the top spot at the box office for a remarkable 15 consecutive weeks en route to grossing $1.84 billion worldwide in its initial run, easily sailing past previous record holder Jurassic Park (1993). Subsequent releases over the years raised its box office tally to $2.3 billion. (Read THR’s original review here.)

The epic love story/disaster epic also collected a record-tying 11 Academy Awards — Landau and Cameron shared the best picture prize — off another record-tying 14 nominations. At the podium at the Shrine Auditorium on Oscar night, Landau might have set another record, for the number of people thanked.

Jon Landau and James Cameron celebrated their Oscar best picture win for ‘Titanic’ backstage at the Shrine Auditorium in 1998.

Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

Avatar (2009) came with its own set of imposing obstacles.

Cameron had written a treatment of about 100 pages in 1994, but the visual effects technology to adequately bring the Na’vi denizens of Pandora to the screen (at least in Cameron’s mind) did not exist. It would take the filmmaker, New Zealand’s Weta Digital and others years to get to that, and principal photography would not begin until 2007.

With an official budget of $237 million — some estimates put it beyond $300 million — Fox’s Avatar, made in 3D, premiered in London on Dec. 10, 2009. With its initial run of $2.7 billion, it bested Titanic to become the highest-grossing film of all time (with rereleases, its gross now stands at $2.92 billion). (Here’s THR’s original review.)

Thirteen years later came Disney’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), with its extensive effects, underwater shoots, pandemic challenges and $2.3 billion gross. The two Avatar pictures collectively won four Oscars, with Landau and Cameron picking up two more best picture noms.

“If one of Cameron’s superpowers is the depth of his focus, that focus is partly made possible because Landau is somewhere nearby, with one Airpod sticking out of his ear, simultaneously having a phone conversation with Burbank about one deadline and an in-person conversation with a crewmember in Wellington [the New Zealand home of Weta] about another,” Rebecca Keegan wrote for a THR cover story in 2022.

“I’ve seen an evolution of him,” Landau told her about Cameron. “Jim learns from every one of his experiences. He looks back and goes, ‘This is what worked, this is what didn’t work, how do I make it better?’”

As Landau was in the middle of this sentence, Keegan wrote, “there was a hard knock on his office door and Cameron pops in, Kramer-style. ‘Did he tell you we’re like an old married couple?’ I don’t want to say nice things in front of him — it’ll go to his head — but I feel like there’s no problem we can’t solve.”

Landau was born in New York on July 23, 1960. His parents, Ely A. Landau and Edie Landau, owned Manhattan movie houses, founded the American Film Theater and produced more than a dozen films, including Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), The Pawnbroker (1965), The Iceman Cometh (1973) and The Chosen (1981).

(In 1971, Ely received an Oscar nom for the documentary King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis. After his death in 1993, Edie had a long relationship with actor Martin E. Brooks.)

Landau played football at his Bronx high school before he and his family moved to L.A.’s Brentwood neighborhood in his junior year. He helped out on The Chosen while attending the USC School of Cinematic Arts and after graduation in 1983 returned to New York to work as a set production assistant, mostly directing traffic, on a TV movie of the week.

When that was done, he was offered a chance to do some filing work in accounting. “I had no interest in accounting and certainly had no interest in filing, but I said yes,” he noted. “I read everything I filed. I don’t know that I was supposed to, but I did. I learned [a lot] in those two weeks.”

He then served as a production supervisor on Beat Street (1984), a break-dance movie, and Key Exchange (1985), a romantic comedy, and as a production manager on F/X (1986), Manhunter (1986) and Making Mr. Right (1987).

Landau received his first producer credit on Paramount’s Campus Man (1987), then co-produced two Disney films, Joe Johnston’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy.

At just 28, he was hired in 1989 to oversee physical production at Fox. “I really looked at this as a great opportunity to see how the industry works from the inside out,” he said.

Landau rose to executive vp at the studio as he also supervised Home Alone (1990), Aliens 3 (1992), Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995) and the Cameron-produced Strange Days (1995).

When Cameron shared an early draft of Titanic with him, Landau said he “fell in love with it. It was not just the script but the idea that this could be the last time that an epic, old-fashioned movie is made, with hundreds and hundreds of extras — who aren’t digital.”

Jon Landau and James Cameron at a handprints/footprints ceremony honoring ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ in Hollywood in January 2023.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Titanic was meant to be a one-off job, but Landau would soon join Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment.

“It was going through that experience with Jim, where we built up a greater mutual respect and a mutual bond with each other, [when he said], ‘Wait, rather than you going off and doing your own thing, why don’t you come into the Lightstorm fold?’ Be a part of it and we’ll do things together. … What better filmmaker could I have who not just makes great movies, he challenges you every day?”

A great salesman, the gregarious Landau traveled around the world to pitch the potential of Avatar in 3D to exhibitors. “When we started out, we would have been happy if worldwide there were 1,000 theaters that could play a movie in 3D,” he said. “I think we ended up with nearly 5,000 screens.”

Later, The Way of Water would bring moviegoers back into theaters in the wake of the pandemic. In THR‘s review, David Rooney wrote “the expanded, bio-diverse world-building pulls you in, the visual spectacle keeps you mesmerized, the passion for environmental awareness is stirring, and the warfare is as visceral and exciting as any multiplex audience could desire.”

“What I, as a lover of film and a lover of going to the movies, am most proud of, is that our film has illustrated that in this post-pandemic or pandemic era — whichever you want to call it — there still is that potential to draw people out of their homes to go to this incredible experience that is called movies,” he told THR’s Mia Galuppo.

“And I don’t believe there’s anything else like it in the world. As producers, as directors, as studios, as exhibitors, we have a responsibility to continue to preserve that experience for generations to come.”

At Lightstorm, he and Cameron also produced Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), the war documentary Beyond Glory (2015) and Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel (2019). They also were constantly pushing on the Avatar franchise, with the next sequels planned for 2025, 2029 and 2031.

In addition to Jamie, survivors include his wife, Julie, who once worked as a film accountant; another son, Jodie, a vocalist, composer and percussionist; his sisters, Tina Landau, a theater director, and Kathy Landau, executive director of the Manhattan arts organization Symphony Space; and half-brother Les Landau, a director on Star Trek series.

One has to wonder how Cameron will go on without his right-hand man. After all, “James comes up with the great dreams,” Landau told The Jewish Journal in 2010, “and it’s my job to make those dreams come true.”

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