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
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
Gold Lounge, and
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
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
Cirque du Soleil is back on stride... or is it?