Updated July 1, 2021 - 9:46 pm
When Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre met with MGM Resorts International CEO Bill Hornbuckle at the Bellagio on Tuesday, the two execs played to a small audience.
A camera crew.
The back-and-forth was banked for an upcoming MGM Studios documentary chronicling the return of “O.” Lamarre emphasizes this meeting was not staged and was a very real update on MGM Resorts’ hotel occupancy expectations over the next several months to gauge ticket-buying demand.
As Cirque says, intermission is over.
Cirque’s best-selling show and strongest brand relaunches on Thursday night. As reported in April, MGM Studios (which is not formally related to MGM Resorts) has partnered with Cirque du Soleil develop an under-the-carriage account of the company’s recovery from COVID.
Documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter (“Trapped,” “The Way I See It,” “John Lewis: Good Trouble”) heads up the creative team. The dramatic tension is clear, as Cirque du Soleil had performed 52,000 shows for more than 70 million on the Strip before COVID forced all 44 of its shows worldwide to close. “Zumanity” at New York-New York was shut down forever.
“O” has been Cirque’s most successful production ever in Las Vegas, selling about 748,000 tickets per year. The aquatic spectacular is the biggest box-office hit performing in a single venue anywhere in the world.
For Cirque, the benefits of allowing a documentary crew into its revival are multifold. Primarily, the company will generate revenue through the sale and distribution of the finished project. MGM Chairman of Worldwide Television Mark Burnett, a big Cirque fan who has visited the company’s Montreal headquarters, is in Las Vegas for the show’s relaunch.
Filming is to be completed after Thursday’s performance, and MGM Studios will shop the project for global distribution, aiming for a fall release. Several potential buyers will be at Thursday’s “O” premiere.
The project will also serve as an effective marketing tool. Cirque has become the international leader in the return of theater-scale entertainment worldwide, a process MGM Studios is sure to capture.
“We thought this would happen, and now I am living it,” Lamarre said during a chat at Bellagio on Wednesday morning. “Las Vegas, and Cirque du Soleil, are becoming the symbol of the resurrection of live entertainment. The opening of ‘Mystere’ and ‘O’ shows everyone around the world that, yes, the industry is coming back.”
Lamarre estimates it will take a year, maybe a year and a half, for Cirque to return full revenue to its 2019 numbers.
“All of the other markets, including Broadway, are opening later than Las Vegas,” Lamarre said. “I hope I am not exaggerating, but Las Vegas is the first market in the world that is really opening to entertainment.”
Lamarre says the upcoming documentary is also pulling the company’s human element to the fore. A common quibble about the circus troupe is its frequently flawless precision can override human artists who make it all possible. This is a chance to evoke some backstage, real-life, personal accounts of Cirque performers.
“Absolutely, 100 percent, we want to show the emotion of our artists, how much they have overcome,” Lamarre said. “Everything is linked to human performance.”
This project might lead to an ongoing series of Cirque reality based shows.
“This could open up the door for more TV content” Lamarre said. “With Mark being a big, big fan of Cirque, he convinced MGM To do the documentary. We can move forward from there.”
Lamarre informed the “Mystere” cast after Monday’s relaunch that the company and Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin had extended the show’s contract by 10 years. Specifically, a five-year extension with another five-year option.
This negotiation from June 2020 lasted like 10 seconds.
“In the middle of the crisis, I talked to Phil Ruffin, he called in the middle of that, and said, ‘How can I help?’” Lamarre said. “I said, ‘It would be great to expand our contract.’
“How many years do you want?” Ruffin said.
“Ten?” Lamarre said.
“Done,” Ruffin said.
“This is what it’s like to do business with Phil Ruffin,” Lamarre said. “When he first bought the hotel, the first thing he said to me was, ‘I love ‘Mystere’ and I want it to run forever.’”
Too bad the MGM Studios crew wasn’t around for that chat.
Lamarre also said that MGM Resorts has signed on for a five-year extension of “O,” and two years apiece for “Michael Jackson One” at Mandalay Bay and “Love” at the Mirage. Nine years, total, in contracted commitment coming out of COVID.
And “Ka” at MGM Grand is already signed through 2024. That show is targeted for an October reopening.
Lamarre has been on an emotional Tilt-A-Whirl for the past 16 months, first shutting down the company, navigating through its sale and helping assemble the pieces for reopening.
In November, when the sale of Cirque to a group led by Capital Catalyst Group was announced, Lamarre spent 14 straight hours on the phone for interviews with international media.
“I had two PR people with me, fielding the calls and giving me sandwiches,” Lamarre said. “But I had to be accessible, and speak about what was our company’s survival.”
The result was 5 billion impressions worldwide about Cirque’s return.
“I thought maybe 1 billion, or even 700 million, impressions about Cirque,” Lamarre said. “This shows me the Cirque brand is as strong as ever.”
But it’s not just a business. Cirque’s leading executive is still wowed by the acrobatics, the comedy and artistry emanating from his company’s stages.
“It’s not only numbers. I want to see the artists, the magic, what will impress you at the show tonight,” Lamarre said. “I get so emotional, still. I was emotional watching ‘O’ in rehearsals Saturday night. After the opening of ‘Mystere,’ I so happy, I wanted to hug everybody.
“The day I’m not impressed by our artists, is the day I stay home.”
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.