Avatar on DVD and Titanic in 3-D: An Interview With Producer Jon Landau

It's Earth Day, and while a large percentage of Americans will be thinking about saving the planet, an equally large percentage will be thinking about leaving it. Those are the ones who will be rushing out to buy the blockbuster sci-fi epic Avatar on Blu-ray or DVD, which releases today instead of on a traditional Tuesday. Living up to the film's ecological themes, the film's studio has promised to plant a million trees around the world, but they've pruned the DVD a bit, as it won't have any special features or bonuses. We talked to the movie's producer, Jon Landau, to find out the thinking behind the release, what we can expect in terms of Avatar DVDs down the road, and what's next for director James Cameron's Titanic.

Why come out with a bare-bones DVD first, rather than wait and do a special edition?
Jon Landau: There's such a demand worldwide from people who want to return to Pandora that we felt that with the added content we want to do -- you have to create original content to support the added-value material. The Internet has made behind-the-scenes footage available prior to a DVD release, so you can't just put that on there, because people have seen that already. So we need time to create the appropriate added-value content, including scenes that weren't in the movie that WETA Digital is now taking four to five months to finish. We just couldn't wait for a DVD release until November, and we couldn't get that content ready before that, so we chose to say, "Let's get rid of all the frills, let's get rid of trailers, let's get rid of commercials, let's get rid of director's commentary and utilize every available bit of disc space for the presentation of the film itself."

Avatar is still in theaters. Are you pretty much writing off this theatrical run?
Landau: I don't think the two experiences are mutually exclusive. I think that there are gonna be people who are gonna say, "I wanna go see Avatar on an IMAX screen and get the DVD." People make a big deal when people go back and see a movie again for a second time, but they don't make a big deal when we listen to a piece of music over and over. When the concert's available for your favorite band, you still go and see it.

Was it always the plan to tie it in to Earth Day?
Landau: Avatar starts with and ends with the same image -- eyes opening -- and by tying this to Earth Day, we're asking the public at large to open their eyes and just take a moment to appreciate the world around us. But Fox has also made a commitment to plant a million trees before the end of the year. And I asked them, "What does that mean, 'plant'?" They said, "No, we're gonna plant and guarantee them to maturity." They're not just gonna leave them and let them blow over in a storm.

How key is the ecological theme to Avatar's success, do you think?
Landau: I believe that movies that are successful are movies that have themes that are bigger than their genre. And when I was out there pitching the movie to people in 2005, I would talk about Jake, and the journey that he went on. And that he always wanted to fight for something, and never found anything worth fighting for. And when he came to Pandora, he learned to appreciate the world around him, which is something he never had before. Now, I will tell you, there were skeptics at the studio who thought we needed to downplay that; that the movie couldn't be FernGully. Seriously. They didn't think it could be blue people. They didn't think they could have tails.

Since you'll be re-releasing the film with an additional six minutes of footage this summer, will there be a Director's Cut version in the future?
Landau: Well, this is the director's cut. It was important for Jim [Cameron] that the movie goes out the first time as "The Director's Cut." This is his version of the movie. Jim put his best foot forward to create the best version of the whole as a way to introduce the world to Avatar. Anything we do down the road, it's going to be fan-based. Now that people are a little bit more familiar with the world, do you have another couple minutes to tell a little bit more of the backstory of the school that Sigourney taught at? Do you have time to see a little more action, maybe of Jake training? Those are the type of things that we might have more room to do now.

What else can we expect to see in a special edition?
Landau: It's gonna be a four-disc collection when we come out with it, dedicating one disc to a two-hour-plus documentary about the journey of making the movie. We have some really great, innovative ideas about exposing the process. We wanna get into other behind-the-scenes branching availability, so you're able to see the movie at the different stages. You can watch the template version, which is what we turned over to WETA digital; you'll be able to watch animation passes, and have picture-in-picture so you can see how the performances really track to what the actors did.

Will we eventually see a DVD release in 3-D?
Landau: Ultimately, I think there definitely will be. Right now, it's too premature. We'd be the egg coming before the chicken. We've worked with a lot of the manufacturers to ensure that there's going to be a high quality of 3-D [television] out there on the marketplace. Because the last thing you want to do is go out on some of these screens you've seen in the past where the quality just isn't there. I would love for it to be December. It might be December, it might be next June. It's gonna be when there's enough of a penetration in the marketplace that warrants the time and effort to do it, and make sure we do it right.

Have you looked into other directors to handle projects on Jim's plate?
Landau: We've looked into directors on a movie called Fantastic Voyage that we're talking about; we've been in conversations with Paul Greengrass to do that. So we're certainly open to that. There are a small number of movies that Jim wants to do himself, but he doesn't want to say he wants to do something he doesn't have time for, and we know that whatever movie he does isn't gonna be done in six months. [Laughs.]

A lot of movies are filming in 2-D and converting to 3-D, and audiences are noticing the difference in quality. What do you think that practice?
Landau: Conversion is an artistic process, and not a technical process. You have to involve the creative team and the filmmakers. To try to do something in seven weeks, while the filmmaker is still finishing the movie and shots are still being delivered by the special effects company, it can be nothing but a technical process. To filmmakers out there who are considering it, I say why not just shoot your movie in black and white and convert it to color at the end? It's the same thing.

When will we see Titanic on Blu-ray?
Landau: Our next plan for Titanic is to take the time and do a conversion right to 3-D.

When would we see that in theaters? The 100th anniversary is in 2012...
Landau: There you go! It's coincidentally the 15th anniversary of the film. So you have the ship sinking's 100th anniversary, it might even be Paramount's 75th anniversary... It's interesting, people can never pre-judge a film and what the journey is for any movie, be it Titanic or Avatar or How to Train Your Dragon. You have to go see them, and it's about the characters, it's not about the backdrop. When we did our first preview of Titanic, we did it in Minneapolis, the heartland of America. And we knew that the movie was too long, and our goal was to take the "too" out of that statement, because we always knew it was gonna be long. The best news we got coming out of that screening was that where people thought it was too long was in the sinking. It wasn't like "Get me to the sinking faster, and lose that character stuff." It was "Give me the character stuff, but I don't need the stuff that's not characters."

Read more about what James Cameron has been doing since Avatar came out, then see our list of ideas for Avatar sequels!

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