Jon Landau, producer who won an Oscar for Titanic and was nominated for the Avatar films – obituary (2024)

Jon Landau, who has died of cancer aged 63, was the film producer who enabled James Cameron to see through three of the most logistically complex and financially successful films of all time. With Titanic (1997), Avatar (2009) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), the bearded duo defied conventional Hollywood wisdom and mounting media scepticism to fashion three widescreen epics that, at their best, harked back to the glory days of Cecil B DeMille.

The pair met when Landau, then a senior Fox executive, attended a marketing meeting for Cameron’s True Lies (1994), a putative summer blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. As Landau recalled, Cameron walked “right around to me, and he goes: ‘So I understand we’re going to get to be pretty good friends or bitter enemies.’ And I said, ‘Pretty good friends, I hope.’”

Jon Landau, producer who won an Oscar for Titanic and was nominated for the Avatar films – obituary (1)

There was cause for wariness. True Lies had seen its budget soar, becoming the first film to cost $100 million, before topping out at $120 million: “This was one of the two or three most complicated movies I’ve ever been involved with,” Landau tersely remarked at the time. Yet with the money channelled towards action as exhilarating as it was expensive, the film proved a box-office smash, taking $378 million worldwide as the third biggest hit of 1994.

At once lavish period drama and old-school disaster movie, Titanic was a colossal scale-up. Born of Cameron’s lifelong fascination with the deep – and the doomed ship’s place in it – it necessitated an engineering project almost as vast as that undertaken by the ship’s makers Harland and Wolff (the $200 million costs proved so great that Fox eventually entered into partnership with another studio, Paramount, to bring the film into cinemas).

Yet despite a torturous shoot, a stand-off with the Fox suits over the three-hour running time and initial critical harrumphing, Titanic recouped $1.84 billion upon first release, overtaking Jurassic Park (1993) as the highest-grossing film of all time, on its way to a lifetime total of $2.25 billion (including subsequent re-releases). It won 11 Oscars from a record-equalling 14 nominations, including Best Director for Cameron and Best Picture for Landau.

Jon Landau, producer who won an Oscar for Titanic and was nominated for the Avatar films – obituary (2)

An idea Cameron had been touting long before Titanic, waiting for technology to catch up with his own imagination, Avatar represented an even riskier gamble: an original fantasy, employing state-of-the-art motion-capture technology and the much-derided 3D format to generate an immersive environment that was, as critics noted, greatly more sophisticated than anything in the screenplay.

A $237 million budget offered some sign of the trust Landau had earned: “We asked Fox to support us for a year while we learnt to walk. Most movies, you have to run right away. They sit there and say OK, we’re ready to greenlight the movie, here’s the release date, and try and make that date. And that’s where things go off-kilter. We said to Fox, let us learn to walk for a year, it’s not going to be a small sum of money… but we’re going to figure things out. Because we didn’t know, we didn’t have any of the answers.”

Jon Landau, producer who won an Oscar for Titanic and was nominated for the Avatar films – obituary (3)

They soon had them. Opening over Christmas 2009, Avatar spent months in cinemas, racing towards a new box-office landmark of $2.7 billion and a Best Picture nomination. Another followed for The Way of Water, which defied the theatrical sector’s Covid-era downturn, scooping $2.3 billion, the third highest total of all time, behind its predecessor and Avengers: Endgame (2019).

“It’s phenomenal,” Landau told The Hollywood Reporter. “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. And I don’t believe there’s anything else like it... As producers, as directors, as studios, as exhibitors, we have a responsibility to continue to preserve that experience for generations to come.”

Jon Landau was born in New York on July 23 1960 to Ely and Edie Landau (née Randolph), themselves impresarios of some note. In 1972, the pair founded the American Film Theatre, which beamed filmed plays into cinemas; their feature credits included John Schlesinger’s TV version of Separate Tables (1983) and the Michael Caine thriller The Holcroft Covenant (1985).

Jon Landau, producer who won an Oscar for Titanic and was nominated for the Avatar films – obituary (4)

A graduate of the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Jon Landau began his production career with the nondescript teen caper Campus Man (1987). He was headhunted by Disney, overseeing the effects-dependent family hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Warren Beatty’s troubled comic-book throwback Dick Tracy (1990), before ascending through the Fox ranks.

Though Cameron projects dominated his headspace, Landau occasionally branched out, producing Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), Cirque du Soleil’s Avatar-inspired Toruk and Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel (2019), shot alongside The Way of Water: “People said to me, ‘Jon, how are you splitting your time?’ I said, ‘I’m doing 70 per cent of my time on Avatar, I just have to. And then I said, I’m doing my other 70 per cent on Alita.’ But that’s just the way it is. I can’t do anything unless I’m all in.”

Jon Landau, producer who won an Oscar for Titanic and was nominated for the Avatar films – obituary (5)

By then, the Avatar universe had expanded, with plans announced for three further films, currently set for release in 2025, 2029 and 2031: “We are setting out to make standalone cinematic experiences so that people feel the movies fulfil expectations or exceed expectations no matter how long the gap was. People get into a trap when they say that just because this movie was successful we should make a sequel, without asking, ‘Is there a story here to tell? Is there a sequel worth making?’”

He is survived by his wife Julie Lamm, whom he married in 1987, and two sons.

Jon Landau, born July 23 1960, died July 5 2024

Jon Landau, producer who won an Oscar for Titanic and was nominated for the Avatar films – obituary (2024)

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