It’s been seven years since 2009’s Avatar took the industry by storm, becoming the most successful movie of all time. It scored nine Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Director for James Cameron, and went on to win three. Now, as Cameron announced at CinemaCon in April, there are four sequels in the pipeline scheduled for release starting in December 2018 with Avatar 2 and ending in 2023 when the fourth sequel is set to be released by 20th Century Fox. With nearly 10 years between the first and second films, how do you keep the Avatar fever alive in a business that loves moving on to the next big thing?
Cameron and his fellow Oscar-winning Titanic and Avatar producer Jon Landau had an answer to that and hooked up with Cirque du Soleil for the touring show Toruk: The First Flight, a multimedia live stage spectacle featuring 40 projectors alone, and set thousands of years before the events depicted in the original film. It is billed as being “inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar.” The show has been touring North America this year, building to its Southern California debut tonight, beginning in Ontario followed by L.A.’s Staples Center and later at the Forum in Inglewood. I recently ventured out to the Manhattan Beach studios where the new films are in various stages of production and talked to Landau not only about their progress but also the unique plan he and Cameron have for keeping the franchise on the front burner, from Cirque du Soleil to slot machines to worldwide traveling exhibitions, before the real deal hits theaters again in two years.
Landau said the Cirque idea came about because of their relationship with the Canada-based entertainment company that started when Cameron served as executive producer on the 2012 feature Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away. “In many ways, what Cirque does with their movement was an inspiration when we did Avatar,” he said, mentioning that their movement coach on the movie was a former Cirque performer. “It seemed like a great fit, to continue to grow the franchise of Avatar. We want to be in business with the best-in-brand type of people.”
Cameron, Landau and their Lightstorm team met with the Cirque brain trust to come up with ideas but were definite about what they didn’t want, especially when they got the first pitch on Toruk. Landau said: “We said to them that what we want to do is give them our world to play in. We don’t want to tell the stories of the movies, because that’s what we do. And we told them, ‘You can’t do anything that contradicts what we do in the movies or where we’re going with the sequels.’ So they said, ‘OK, then we’ve got to go back,’ and so they went back centuries to tell the story of Toruk Makto. … They’re telling this coming-of-age story, but they’re tying it back to one of the roots of Avatar and using their storytelling and their shows to be a metaphor for the world in which we live,” he said. Landau added that this project, written and directed by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon under the artistic guidance of Guy Laliberte and Jean-Francois Bouchard for Cirque du Soleil, becomes part of the lore, the canon of the Avatar franchise. Landau said everyone on both sides worked collaboratively for close to two years to bring it to fruition. “It’s their production, but we are the stewards of the world of the franchise. And we believe that we also just bring to the table a different perspective of creative insight, which we never impose, but we try to be provocative in what we bring up, in the issues we raise, and let the people who are the experts in their area make those decisions. They’ve done a phenomenal job in creating Pandora, visually,” he said.
Landau says this kind of branding was always part of the plan. “When we were making the first Avatar, I remember going into Fox and trying to say to them that, if we were successful — because there was a big if in front of it — you would have to think of Avatar not as a movie but as a brand. And Cirque has embraced that and allowed us to continue to develop and expand the brand of Avatar in this great live entertainment format,” he said. Landau added that they always saw — unlike in the case of Titanic, where the boat sinks — that this movie had the potential for sequels even if they never dreamed it would go on to become what it became. He says even though it has been away from theaters for years, people still have a yearning to go back to it.
Another way of growing the brand, Landau says, has been in their deal with IGT for slot machines. They put a couple out and were going to wait for the sequels to hit before proceeding, but the demand has been so great that Avatar: The 3D Slot Machine is being fast-tracked ahead of the original plan. “Avatar has really stayed,” Landau said. “And I go back to the reason it has stayed is because of the ethos. It reaches a much more diversified demographic than most franchise movies. That’s why we have the ability to go out and create diverse content, like the Toruk show. That’s why we have the ability to go out and create a dedicated mobile game that speaks to one quadrant of our fan base, and then do another game that speaks to another. Because we can’t do any one product that speaks to everybody. I always tell people that the first movie begins and ends with Jake opening his eyes. We hopefully can get someone to open their eyes and see the world differently, whether it’s through a novelization or whether it’s through a video game, a slot machine or the Toruk show. What they’ve done with Toruk is that it comes back to a quest to save a tree from dying. And why that tree is so important is because it connects everybody.”
As for those sequels set to start unspooling almost exactly two years from now, Landau says they are on schedule. The art department, he says, has been designing for three years. “We’re doing it all on Pandora, and we’re really developing out the diversity of the landscapes and the cultures on Pandora to again be that metaphor for the world here,” Landau says. “And we could explore Earth our whole lifetime and not see all the wonders. So we’re going to do the same thing on Pandora.” He added that for Cameron it is all about the story and why there is a need for four sequels, not just one. “I tell people Jim has made two sequels in his career (Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens). And I would argue that both times they lived up to, if not exceeded, the first movies. We got into a situation where, OK, we have too much story to tell. We need each movie to work as a stand-alone movie, but we need all that to come together and to tell one larger, overall story. And that’s what he’s doing.”
Toruk: The First Flight plays Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario from November 2-6, Staples Center in Los Angeles from November 11-13 and the Forum in Inglewood from January 12-15.