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  2014

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WALKING A TIGHT ROPE (30 Years)

In 2009, even the sky wasn’t the limit for Guy Laliberté. He blasted into space on a Soyuz rocket after selling a fifth of the Cirque du Soleil to Dubai investors that promised him the world. But the Cirque’s midlife crisis has brought its co-founder back to earth with a critical mission: fix the iconic yellow and blue Big Top that he built over 30 years. And it’s not a task that Mr. Laliberté, the Roi Soleil as some employees knickname him, is taking lightly. “I am a warrior,” he says.

A year ago, Mr. Laliberté discreetly reclaimed half of the 20-per-cent stake in the Cirque du Soleil he had sold to Dubai investors in 2008 after the publicized partnership turned into a mirage. The Cirque du Soleil was to lend its shows and its creative design talent to the two Dubai firms. However, when the financial crisis crushed their global real estate ambitions, the indebted Emirati investors could no longer hold their end of the deal. Expecting accelerated growth, however, the Cirque had beefed up its organization at great expense, Mr. Laliberté explained. That expansion contributed to the Cirque’s financial difficulties, which culminated with 400 layoffs last year. The rising Canadian dollar, which swelled production costs, also hit the bottom line, shaving off “at least $50-million in profits per year,” he added. The Cirque co-founder concedes his company is to blame. “We should have been more watchful,” Mr. Laliberté said.

In 2008, Mr. Laliberté turned his attention to his five kids, his One Drop Foundation, and his widely publicized trip into space, leaving Cirque management in the hands of a team presided by Daniel Lamarre. “I thought I had put in place a solid team that could manage the circus gang without me being there,” he said. Laliberté returned in the summer of 2012 after a concerning look at the books. The Cirque wasn’t losing any money but profits were falling precipitously. “I realized that if we didn’t commit to a serious shift in direction, we would hit a wall,” Mr. Laliberté said. “We fell into the trap of thinking we could do all things entertainment-related. In the end, you realize that you don’t always have the internal expertise and that people can’t deliver on their promise.”

But what really hurt the Cirque, according to Mr. Laliberté, were its failed shows, a first in the circus’s 30-year history. Some, like the closing of ZED in Tokyo following the 2011 tsunami, were unforeseen. Others were entirely avoidable. The high-priced IRIS show failed to attract thrifty tourists that whisked through the Hollywood district only to take pictures of sidewalk stars. “That failure rests squarely on a poor market study,” Mr. Laliberté said. The acclaimed ZARKANA show is losing money because its production costs were underestimated. The Cirque should also be making a killing with Michael Jackson THE IMMORTAL, one of the top-grossing live shows of all times, Mr. Laliberté said, but the show is barely profitable because of its high production costs.

To protect its core circus business, Mr. Laliberté expects the live entertainment company to choose its projects more carefully even if that translates into lower revenues. “It has to make business sense,” he said. Growth, however, will come from new initiatives outside of its more traditional Big Top and permanent hotel shows. “There is a limit to the number of circus shows that we can produce and to the number of hotel partners that are rich enough to build theatres for us,” Mr. Laliberté said.

Despite its setbacks, the Cirque has big dreams in its latest five-year business plan – Mr. Laliberté has mapped the company’s growth that way ever since its creation in 1984. “There are people knocking at the door,” he said. And Laliberté's ready to sell between 20 and 30 per cent of his company. “A decision will be made before the end of the year,” he added. “I always said I won’t be here forever,” he said. But Mr. Laliberté won’t leave the Cirque’s yellow and blue Big Top until it is totally straightened up.

So, where does Cirque go from here? Anywhere it pleases, it seems, and without delay.

At the beginning of the year Cirque du Soleil announces the creation of - Cirque du Soleil Theatrical - with Scott Zeiger, co-founding partner of Base Entertainment - as President and Managing Director of the new division. Zieger's task is to develop unique theatrical opportunities for the Cirque - based on traditional theatrical practices - but created using the Cirque du Soleil signature style and aesthetic. The new division is to be based in New York City and will continue to promote Cirque's on-going strategy of diversifying its content and live-entertainment activities worldwide. Cirque du Soleil Theatrical joins other newly minted divisions within the Cirque, such as: The SANDBOX Hospitality Group, to develop and operate new concepts for clubs, restaurants and hotels (Revolution Lounge, Gold Lounge, and LIGHT); 45 DEGREES, to organize events, galas, and weddings; 4U2C, a partnership between the Cirque and Solotech to rival Montreal-based Moment Factory in the multimedia and video space; OUTBOX Enterprises, it's own ticket office; and, of course, Cirque du Soleil IMAGES, MEDIA, and MUSIQUE.

The company celebrates it's 30th anniversary by launching a new touring show in April - KURIOS-Cabinet de curiosités; releases a new book (BACKSTAGE); and holds, for the first time in its history, a unique exlusive event celebrating 30 years of music at Cirque du Soleil (LE GRAND CONCERT). In November, Cirque du Soleil and Grupo Vidanta (a leading developer of world-class resorts and tourism infrastructure in Mexico) introduces a new brand of cultural and culinary entertainment to Mexico and Latin America: a brand-new show - JOYÀ. Via 45 DEGREES, Cirque du Soleil commemorated "The Night That Changed America", when The Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; continued the SCALADA series with "Mater Natura"; put on the second-annual One Night for One Drop at the MJ One Theater, titled "One Thought, One World"; partnered with ETH Zurich and Verity studios to develop a short film featuring 10 quad- compters in a flying dance performance (SPARKED), parnered with Felix & Paul Studios for a Virtual Reality experience based on ZARKANA; and helped Glade demonstrate of how any of the 37 Glade fragrances can incite emotion, spark the imagination, and arouse the senses.

But it's two other announcements that really get fan's attention.

First, a partnership agreement with Academy Award-winning filmmaker James Cameron to develop an arena-touring show inspired by the world of AVATAR. This "live experience", announced during the international business C2MTL– Commerce + Creativity Conference in Montreal, is slated to debut sometime late 2015, featuring the creative signature drive of Cirque du Soleil in association with Cameron’s and Jon Landau’s Lightstorm Entertainment. Although nobody knows what we're in store for, the show is expected to debut before the first of three upcoming AVATAR sequels.

And then an announcement that plans are underway to construct and operate a first-of-its-kind immersive THEME PARK experience in Nuevo Vallarta. The entertainment experience, which is still in development, may include water park and nature park elements and will feature an outdoor evening show accommodating as many as 3,000 to 5,000 spectators. Each experience within the entertainment park will be animated by Cirque du Soleil artists and follow a common storyline. The entertainment park will create thousands of new jobs in the Mexican state of Nayarit and was imagined to encourage tourism visitation to the region. Construction is expected to be complete in 2018.

Cirque du Soleil is back on stride... or is it?


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