Jean David’s Quel Cirque, Part 9 of 12: “A Little Farther West”

A fascinating nation with a rich culture, Japan was eager to have us. In the autumn of 1987, Japanese producers were flocking to the big top in Los Angeles. But it took a few years for us to cut a deal. Fuji Television, the country’s biggest private TV network, became our privileged partner. The media giant had vast experience in producing shows of all sorts: variety, opera, and theater. The Japanese can’t get enough of big American-style shows. And Fuji television capitalizes on their viewers’ interest. Ever innovative, Fuji saw Cirque du Soleil as a golden opportunity.

It was the beginning of a long-term partnership. During the early negotiations, I must admit we were a little apprehensive. You can’t help being impressed by the Japanese. Their culture is so different from ours that at first it can throw you for a loop. We teamed up with Fuji on a number of productions and co-productions in the 1990s. And they were mega-projects: astronomical costs, multiple shows and gargantuan operations.

During that time, we had numerous dealings involving untold hours of meetings where decorum resembled protocol more than anything else. These marathon negotiations played out like a big game in which the ground rules are supposedly set. Everything is established, the major themes are agreed upon, the roles are clearly defined, the order of discussions is pre-synchronized, and if you’re patient and determined, you’ll probably manage to have a say about the next meeting’s agenda.

Sometimes, the negotiations reached a dead end. Many a time, our Japanese colleagues would give a firm “no” to our requests. Then in the evening, leaving the bar, they’d freely concede that we were absolutely right and that they’d ok our conditions. The next morning, it was scene one, take two, and their answer was a categorical “no.” It was pointless to remind them that only a few hours before, they’d told us we were right: It would have been impolite! But the Japanese are absolutely delightful. They have a great sense of humor when you get used to it… Often, they give the impression that things are more complicated than they really are. Maybe, it’s because they prefer settling things among themselves in their own way. They take great care to make sure that no one loses face.

I find different cultures fascinating. To me, a foreign language represents a different perspective on life, another way of seeing the world. In The Hidden Dimension, author Edward T. Hall explains that “people from different cultures, not only speak different languages but, more importantly, inhabit different sensory worlds.” I agree completely.

Over the years, I have participated in meetings and negotiations in a wide variety of countries. I have had two fascinating linguistic experiences that were really rather similar. Both cases involved intense business negotiations: once with Japanese partners and another time with German colleagues. The conditions were the same: marathon negotiations that had been going on for 48 hours. The stakes were high. Everything had to be crystal clear; each dot and comma would count.

In the first case, my Japanese counterparts started talking things over among themselves. I could sense that there was a misunderstanding; I felt they were misinterpreting what I had said. So I interrupted them and explained that there was a problem of interpretation: what they were discussing was not exactly what I had said. Then I rephrased my remarks. They were stunned. Some of them were convinced I understood Japanese.

The same situation occurred one day in Nuremburg with a group of German businessmen. Of course, I don’t speak Japanese or German. What I picked up was the body language. I used my intuition. It was a question of attention and interest.

Place Your Bets!

Playing in Las Vegas wasn’t just a pipedream. The resounding success our show registered in California in 1987, made some people consider the possibility of setting up our big top in Las Vegas. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s, that serious negotiations got underway with Caesar’s Palace. It was a very complex process indeed. There were many difficulties to iron out: the idea of a permanent show in the city was a fascinating and innovative concept, but there were many unknowns.

Vegas casinos were old hands at producing all kinds of shows. Typically, they presented superstars who cost them a small fortune. Nevertheless, their investment in entertainment permitted them to draw hordes of customers who were tempted to try their luck at the gambling tables, and that’s where the casinos make their money. So entertainment had always had a privileged place in Las Vegas. Now there was a real need in the city for something new.

Las Vegas wanted to reposition itself to attract a family clientele. Baby-boomers had contributed to Vegas’ development. They’d settled down, married, and had children, but they hadn’t lost their taste for gambling. Casinos had to offer them a new, modern product, fresh entertainment and something that would excite every member of the family. Cirque du Soleil, with its innovative shows, was just what the market needed. And Caesar’s management was intrigued.

In fact, if Cirque du Soleil’s was a permanent fixture, total production costs could be amortized over a few years, making the investment extremely appealing. With 60% occupancy rates, it was even possible to foresee realizing a profit, a rather uncommon phenomenon in the Las Vegas entertainment scene. But the long months of negotiations between Caesar’s and Cirque ended abruptly. A few hours before the deal was sealed, Caesar’s management walked away. They probably thought the project too risky. For one of the world’s most famous gambling establishments, it was hardly a case of leading by example.

Yet, the negotiations had been the talk of the town. The entire community was aware that the deal had fallen through. So Steve Wynn, who headed the Mirage Group, called to say that he wanted to see us. The meeting was held in Toronto where the Cirque had a show at the time. In a matter of hours we mapped out a very simple arrangement.

The Mirage Group would build a hotel, the Treasure Island Hotel, scheduled to open in 1993. It would set up a magnificent performance space that met our technical requirements. In return, we undertook to produce a show exclusively for that venue. Cirque du Soleil and Mirage agreed on an investment recovery mechanism for each party, royalty payments and profit sharing. The contract was finalized in the weeks that followed.

It was the start of an enduring and profitable partnership. The premiere of our new production Mystère left the spectators enchanted. Steve Wynn, a man of courage and foresight, received a standing ovation for making the whole thing possible. Scarcely three months after the show debuted, all ten performances a week sold out.

The residents of the city were very proud. “Finally, a true show with true emotions.” And they weren’t afraid to express their feelings to anyone who’d listen. Guy Laliberté liked to say we’d planted a flower in the desert. Mystère embodied to perfection the transformation of Las Vegas. The show gave definite meaning to the town’s desire for renewal, which had started out as nothing but a gigantic marketing operation.

From the outset, the Mirage and Cirque teams underwent many adjustments. The companies had very different corporate cultures, which were not incompatible but extremely different. Many times I had to iron things out with my opposite numbers Allen Feldman and John Schadler. The success and good will displayed by both parties was an excellent recipe for building a trusting relationship.

At a press conference announcing the partnership, Steve Wynn detailed the remarkable things he intended to accomplish with us and spoke at length about the many millions of dollars in profit that he expected to make in this relationship. Mirage was listed on the stock exchange, and he loved to impress his shareholders. His firm stood in stark contrast to us, a private enterprise, which had received tens of millions of dollars in government grants.

Cirque du Soleil was somewhat reticent about publicly revealing this kind of information. With the announcement of the project, many people feared we would lose our soul at the gambling tables. But I knew that Las Vegas would receive us with open arms. We weren’t changing the way we did shows; we were just furthering our development.

After we’d played before full houses for a few years, Las Vegas knew entertainment could be a moneymaking enterprise. This was a mini-revolution. And Steve Wynn had other plans. He intended to build Le Bellagio, a hotel with a performance space tailored to Cirque du Soleil. We were encouraged to be even more creative, to imagine the unimaginable. The hotel project included a water theme, which was incorporated into the new show. On stage, there was a volume of water equivalent to three Olympic-sized swimming pools. So, for the most expensive hotel in the world, we created O, the most magnificent show in the world.

Cirque du Soleil transformed the face of Las Vegas. It helped change the way things were done. It set new standards in business partnerships and raised the bar as to the kind and quality of shows presented. Now MGM, Caesar’s and Wynn Resorts rival one another in staging shows of superior class. All the mega-projects by the three groups have been created by Cirque du Soleil or the team headed by former Cirque du Soleil director Franco Dragone. Apparently Americans love winning formulas.