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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Jon Landau, producer of ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar,’ dies at 63

Film producer Jon Landau in 2019 (Wikipedia)

By Yan Zhuang and Amanda Holpuch

Jon Landau, an Oscar-winning producer who collaborated with James Cameron in making three of the highest-grossing films of all time, “Titanic” and the two “Avatar” movies, died Friday in Los Angeles. He was 63.

His death was announced by his family in a statement released by Disney Entertainment. It did not give a cause.

Landau and Cameron’s decades-long collaboration made box office history. The first film they made together, “Titanic,” became the first movie to gross more than $1 billion globally after its 1997 release. Its record for total earnings, $1.84 billion, was broken by their next film, the science-fiction epic “Avatar” (2009).

“Titanic” was nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11, including for best picture, an award Cameron and Landau shared.

“I can’t act and I can’t compose and I can’t do visual effects, so I guess that’s why I’m producing,” Landau said in his acceptance speech.

Jon Landau was born July 23, 1960, in New York City. His first exposure to filmmaking was through his parents, Ely and Edie Landau, who together produced ambitious independent films for a mass audience, including adaptations of stage plays by Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee and Bertolt Brecht.

Many of these adaptations were released through a subscription service that the Landaus created called the American Film Theater, which gave audiences access to regular screenings of movie versions of plays.

Landau studied at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles and later worked as a production manager on films including “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989) and “Dick Tracy” (1990).

He became executive vice president of feature productions at 20th Century Fox, where he oversaw “Home Alone” (1990), “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993) and “Speed” (1994), among other movies.

It was during this time that he met Cameron, who was directing “True Lies” (1994), an action comedy distributed by 20th Century Fox. When Landau decided to leave the company, Cameron asked if he wanted to read the script for a project code-named “Planet Ice.” That project would become “Titanic” and kick off their long partnership.

“Titanic” was not expected to be a box office hit. The film lasts more than three hours, and before its release there was extensive critical news coverage detailing delays with the production, which cost $200 million, far exceeding the film’s $110 million budget.

During the movie’s production, Landau said, he felt like “a mayor of a city.”

“I had all these constituents including heads of various departments such as special effects, props, wardrobe that needed help and support — sometimes moral support, sometimes financial support,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1998.

And when it came to the stress of going tens of millions of dollars over budget, he said, it was “easy to fight for the things we were asking because we believed they were necessary for creating the initial vision of the movie.”

Cameron told the L.A. Times that “most producers produce a budget, not a movie,” but not Landau.

“The hardest thing to do is weigh additional expenses against the aesthetic gains to the film — you have to tap into a director’s brain a bit,” Cameron said. “Landau understood what a filmmaker needs.”

Their second film, “Avatar,” grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide and was nominated for nine Oscars. It won for best art direction, best cinematography and best visual effects. A sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” was released in 2022.

Landau worked as chief operating officer of Cameron’s production studio, Lightstorm Entertainment, and was the driving force behind a Walt Disney World attraction based on the “Avatar” movies.

The family statement said he is survived by his wife, Julie Landau; their two sons, Jamie and Jodie; his sisters, Tina and Kathy Landau; and his brother, Les.

Just before the release of “Avatar,” in December 2009, Jon Landau told the digital magazine Salon how he justified making such expensive movies, saying that it gives investors a return on their capital, creates jobs and gives the audience “something they can’t get anywhere else.”

“When they go to see our movie, and we’ve maybe spent more money than the next guy, you know what? The audience is getting more bang for their buck,” Landau said. “They don’t pay any more money to see our movie than they pay to see ‘Paranormal Activity.’”

He also said that he made movies for the audience, not critics or award show voters.

“We want to entertain people, and that’s first and foremost,” Landau said. “If anything else comes along, that’s great. But we want people to enjoy the movies, not just viscerally but also emotionally.”

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