When it became clear we would be able to add Montreal to our CirqueCon 2010 weekend in New York, our journalistic minds went into high gear. Who in the Cirque organization, we wondered, might be interested in talking with us for Fascination?
Thanks to the kindness of our friends inside Cirque IHQ, my wife and I were able to spend the afternoon talking with those we have known from afar but had yet to meet face-to-face. And we were very fortunate to arrange a short bit of time talking with the highest profile person ever to grace these pages in interview form, Mr. Daniel Lamarre (Dan-yell Luh-maarh), President and Chief Operating Officer of Cirque du Soleil.
After a wonderful lunchtime spent chatting up several of our Montreal IHQ friends we were escorted to a large elevator in the middle of the building and taken to the third floor. As we ascended floors in the IHQ the atmosphere got quieter, with less of the hustle and bustle found on the ground floor. The third floor is a quiet respite.
After being escorted into his office we ended up sitting comfortably around a brown conference table in his smart but modestly-appointed offices on the south side of the building. Mr. Lamarre was very gracious with us, calmly and knowledgably answering our questions in his light French-Canadian accent. We started by asking about his responsibilities and how he came to be in his current position.
“[My responsibility is] the overall management of the organization. To use less corporate terms and use Cirque terminology my job is to put in place the right conditions for the creators of Cirque to be able to create the best shows there are. Therefore, I have to make sure that everything we do within this building, within this studio, supports the creative and production process. The other thing I have to do is ensure the sustainability of Cirque du Soleil. Bringing new projects, bringing new shows, and protecting all those jobs of people that are very very passionate about what they do. That’s how I see my mandate.”
His first encounter with Cirque founder Guy Laliberte, though, occurred many years earlier. “It’s a funny story. I was a partner in a public relations firm (National Public Relations) in Canada, and in 1986 I was doing a mandate for Guy Laliberte but he couldn’t pay me. He came into my office and said, “Daniel, I’m sorry. We have no money, we’re brand new. I don’t know what to do with this.” And I [tore up] the invoice and said, “Forget about it, because what you’re trying to do is so amazing. I wish you the best of luck.”
“Years later [Cirque] had become successful. I sold my firm because I was becoming the president of a television network (TVA, Quebec’s largest private TV broadcaster). I called Guy and said, “I would love to have the TV rights for Cirque du Soleil.” They were hugely successful by then and he said, “Daniel, it would be impossible. This international firm is looking after those rights.” And I said, “No problem. I just wanted you to know that if ever they are available I am interested.”
“The following day I received a copy of a note to the guy who was in charge of the TV rights at Cirque saying, “This guy helped me out years ago. He wants the TV rights, do what you have to do.” And I was really touched by that, first that he remembered and second that he was moving on it. So we started to see each other a little more regularly because of the TV shows that we were working on for Cirque.”
“Five years later he called me out of the blue. He was in London and he said, “Daniel, I had this amazing flash last night.” And I said, “Yeah, what was it?” And he said, “You’re going to join the circus!” (Laughs) And I said, “Whoa, Guy, I have a job. I’m happy. I’m not sure about that.” And the rest is history. Three weeks later I was joining Cirque and I’ve been here for nine years, starting my tenth year. It’s been an interesting story, Guy and I, because we knew each other without really knowing each other. And now we’ve been working together more than nine years.”
With the company carefully tended by Mr. Lamarre, “Guy wants to stay away from the day-to-day [operations] of the business, to make sure that his creative juices are there. So my job is to make sure that he works as little as possible, that he continues to travel the world to find new treasures for our organization. Because that’s one gift he has that very few people in the world have.”
Mr. Lamarre has presided over a vast expansion of the Cirque du Soleil brand around the world in the form of not only new shows but new show models. These include re-purposing older shows so they can play in arenas (Cirque calls them “venus”) in smaller cities that Cirque hasn’t previously played. They have discovered a new style of show with the dance-centered “Love” and “Viva Elvis.” And with “Banana Shpeel” they are developing a show that will play in heritage (older) proscenium theaters (ground that competitor Cirque Productions has covered for many years). This expansion has brought with it some hard-learned lessons.
“I think what we’ve learned is that people understand our brand, which is positive but which brings limits. For instance when we opened “Zumanity” people were expecting to see a “Mystere” type of show and were very disappointed. So now we have to be careful how we manage expectations, that people understand that our creators like to try something new. We have to educate people about that, and in some cases we downplay the brand or use a different brand. That is a conversation we are having internally. We have been through that with “Zumanity” and we are going through it with “Banana Shpeel” because it’s a different type of show. But, mind you, I was at the show last night (opening night in New York City) and I thought that the reaction of the public was quite encouraging.”
Referring to the challenge of expanding into new parts of the world, such as with ZAIA in Macao he commented, “The toughest parts of the world for us are places like France, Italy and China where there is a huge tradition of traditional circus. When they see the name “Cirque” they think of a traditional cirque, and it takes us a while to educate people about how different we are from their circus. That’s the biggest challenge. After they have discovered that we’re not a circus but we are theatrical and we are different, I think we will be very very successful.”
Moving to questions we as fans have been wondering about, we asked about changing the running time of ZED. We had been told that a 90-minute show was the original artistic vision but that Oriental Land Company (who manages the theater, concessions, and food and beverage) had requested an intermission in order to help meet their income projections. This was accommodated by Cirque, though its’ critical success in its 2-act form made fans wonder why other resident shows are based on the 90-minute model. It was even more surprising when ZED was changed to a 90-minute show. We wondered why and where the original 90-minute model came from.
“At the beginning [it was] a casino issue, because after an hour and a half they wanted people to go to the gambling floor. But through ZED we have experienced that it makes a lot of sense, because we have so much technology involved and the experience is so sensorial, that having an intermission for theater shows was a bit of a downer.”
“As in the casino business, where after 90 minutes people want to go back to the gaming floor, at Disney after 90 minute shows people want to go back to the theme park or to other attractions. So it made more sense in this environment to have a 90-minute show.”
The change also makes it easier to sell ZED as part of travel packages offered to busy Japanese tourists, for whom the Tokyo Disney Resort is quite a jaunt out from the city and something to be carefully planned.
With Cirque’s interest in expanding internationally we were keen to ask about whether fans around the world should expect the Cirque video catalog to be issued into their DVD region? “As we expand geographically, [DVD product is] also a way [we present ourselves]. We’re expanding geographically more and more now which will force us, in a positive way, to make sure that our shows are available.”
The success of “La Nouba” on DVD has been, in Mr. Lamarre’s words, “Very very positive” and has improved ticket sales. With that and the filming and broadcast of “KA” on German television fans curiosity was piqued about the possibility of resident shows being issued on DVD. It was our understanding Cirque’s contract with MGM/Mirage forbids issuing videos of shows, but not according to Mr. Lamarre. “It’s not by contract, it’s more the philosophical approach of the casino. They’re afraid we will lose clientele, which as a matter of fact, is totally contrary [to what we’ve found]. Because when we put our shows on video it entices people to come to the show.”
In the biggest piece of news to come out of our short time together, we were happy to learn there are plans to bring “ZAIA” and “ZED” to DVD for the American market! “Yes definitely. That’s something we’re exploring right now. ZAIA will come first, but yes.”
But it doesn’t mean every Cirque production will see the light of day on video. For example, a finished video for “Delirium” was booked into cinemas as a special event. Why not put it out on DVD since it’s already done? “There’s no plan for that now. The problem is that we are creating and producing so many shows at such a rapid pace that we don’t want to have too many DVD’s in a market where DVD’s are getting tougher and tougher to sell. The DVD market is decreasing at a very rapid pace, so it’s a business decision to not bring out too many DVD’s. And if I’m bringing [out a] DVD, I want the DVD [to be] of an actual [current] show, to help promote the show. And since Delirium is no longer in presentation it isn’t a priority of ours.” (I think we can safely assume that will also apply to “Wintuk,” seeing as how it’s in its final year at Madison Square Garden.)
What direction, then, will future DVD releases take? “The one thing right now that might change our lives is 3-D. You know, Cirque du Soleil has not been a great product for television. But people who have seen Avatar, for instance, are saying, “Wow! These are the textures of Cirque du Soleil characters that are in shows.” And now all of the sudden all of the major studios are talking to us, saying they want to do something with Cirque du Soleil in 3-D. So that should accelerate the number of new shows that we produce, not only on DVD, but in 3-D. That’s something we’re exploring right now.”
How does Cirque measure success? Is one show more popular than another? “For touring shows it has nothing to do with the quality or the popularity of the show, it has to do with markets. And obviously when you open more and more markets the latest show is the most popular one, because our brand is at maturity and we’ll sell more tickets of any new show we produce.”
“There are shows that seem to be better received in [particular] countries. For instance there were a lot of questions about Dralion when we opened in Montreal. But it broke all ticket sales records in the United States, for reasons that were unclear. It was very very popular and had a broad appeal in America.”
“OVO was a great surprise to us because when we decided to do OVO we never thought that the show would be so appealing to kids. But when you think about it it makes a lot of sense, because with the insect theme of the show it has a huge appeal to kids. So in touring shows I would say that they all have been big successes for different reasons.”
“For permanent shows, obviously the amazing success of “O” is alone in its league. There has never been a show that has been clearly sold out for so many years. That’s a first in the history of entertainment. But now we have “LOVE” that is at about the same level of success, and “KA” and others, but “O” remains in a very specific and exclusive situation.”
All too soon, our time was drawing to a close. But we wanted to make sure we asked the President of Cirque du Soleil what he thought was the best BUSINESS decision Cirque has ever made. “Definitely Vegas. People don’t realize it, but at the time there was a lot of controversy within the organization. I wasn’t here but I’ve heard so many stories. People and artists were asking Guy, “What are we going to do in Vegas? Vegas has nothing to do with the artistic values of Cirque.” And Guy had this famous answer, “I’m going to plant a flower in the desert.” And I think that sums it up, because today we have more than a flower, we have seven flowers, soon eight. So I think that was the real breakthrough of the organization.”
My sincere thanks go to: Mr. Daniel Lamarre, for so graciously spending time with us, Chantal Côte, Corporate PR Manager, And my wife LouAnna for sitting in on the interview, and putting up with my sometimes obsessive hobby.