Joe and Anthony Russo are currently overseeing back-to-back sequels to The Avengers that will consume most of 2017, with Infinity War, bowing first on May 4th, 2018. After they finish what amounts to their fourth Marvel superhero blockbuster—counting two Captain America installments that set up the Avengers films―the Cleveland-born siblings will go full speed on building a funded production company, where they will direct films and empower like-minded talent.
The venture doesn’t yet have a name, and its full-financing scheme is still in process. They’ve got seed money from China-based Huayi Brothers Media Corporation ($250 million to get up and running, and $100 million in production funding), and have made their first deal—the next film by unique Swiss Army Man writing/directing team Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, better known as the Daniels.
The Russos are inspired by the career-starting lifeline they received from Steven Soderbergh. Though their current films are squarely constructed to appeal to the widest global audience possible, the Russos’ origins are more avant-garde, having grown up in Cleveland’s art houses, revering Truffaut, and maxing out credit cards and hitting up every relative for their 1997 debut Pieces.
That project never played beyond festivals—the brothers set the film to specific music, whose rights they didn’t secure and couldn’t afford. Luckily, Soderbergh saw it at Slamdance and took them under his wing, backing their first released film, Welcome to Collinwood. Well, it wasn’t much of a release; the auteur put the picture through the Warner Bros. deal he and George Clooney’s now-defunct Section Eight had at the time. The $7 million movie played in 12 theaters and grossed $300,000, but it was a calling card to TV series work including Arrested Development, Community and Happy Endings, and paved the way for features.
All of these lessons are bundled into the new venture: just as Soderbergh once told them that Pieces reminded him of his experimental 1996 film Schizopolis, the Russos say the Daniels’ Swiss Army Man reminded them of their early work.
“Our goal in setting up the company was to expand our reach as filmmakers, with creative autonomy over the process,” says Anthony Russo. “While we are building a large company that will need to deliver major films to be successful. We’re also doing this because of creative inspiration. We saw Swiss Army Man and fell in love with the Daniels, who are adventurous filmmakers and radical storytellers, pushing the boundaries.
“We do feel we owe a karmic debt to the universe because of what Soderbergh did for us, and that true success lies in being excited about what you’re doing. The mission behind this company is to take ownership of what we do as directors moving forward, while leaving room to help get interesting voices out there.”
While the Russos shoot the Marvel movies in Atlanta, they are simultaneously building out space in downtown Los Angeles. Why take on such a major entrepreneurial move while they are at their peak commercial powers as directors, and could comfortably move from one big film to the next? The answer is Soderbergh’s influence, again.
“He took the opportunity at the peak of his career, and brought us and Chris Nolan [with 2002’s Insomnia] through it, and made a lot of careers and interesting projects because he and Clooney had the muscle,” Joe Russo says. “I know that Steven did it because it excited him. It’s the same thing with us. We want to get out of bed every day and be proud of fostering and honing the voices of young filmmakers.”
One big push for the Russos’ new venture will be virtual reality. Their commercials production company won two Golden Lions for VR work, and they believe there is a future for VR in narrative entertainment. “After 100 years, 2D structural storytelling is so ingrained in audiences that they can too often tell where the story is going in a two-hour film, an hour-long drama or a half-hour comedy,” explains Joe. “I sit and watch movies with my kids, and they will tell me exactly what they think is going to happen, who’s going to hit rock bottom and be redeemed, who’s going to die—and they are usually right, because of all the predictive precepts.
“The VR space is limitless, with the potential to break us out of the traditional structure. Already, you can be in VR for what seems like five minutes, and an hour has gone by. Without the preconceived mile-markers of 2D storytelling, the possibilities are endless. I’ve had immersive experiences and emotional reactions I just don’t get with most movies. I played a horror game on PlayStation two weeks ago; I don’t get scared in life or at the movies, but I had to take the headset off half an hour in, because it was so intense. It’s an experience you can’t elicit in a 2D projection in a theater. Tech is an area we need to explore, because a big advancement is coming in narrative. Who’s to say, 30 to 40 years down the line, what the predominant form of storytelling will be? It might well be interactive storytelling you participate in.”
The Russos hope their big directing projects, and the funding being raised, will allow them to explore multiple storytelling platforms.
“Anthony and I are putting together a company where we won’t lose our jobs based on quarterly earnings and can afford to play a longer game,” says Joe. “That short game is what creates a glut of mediocrity in the market, because people are desperate for hits, and it puts so much pressure on executives to deliver them. We will take that pressure off the artists. Our offices are built around what we call our ‘Storytellers’ Room’, and there we’ll have a meticulous process that starts with a three-page outline on plot and structure. We’ll spend weeks on that before moving on to a 10- to 20-page outline that incorporates characters and theme, and then move onto script after that.
“There won’t be target dates; things will get made when everyone feels they are ready. We are being humble, but we hope this can be a legacy for artists, on their terms and our terms, and not about a corporate agenda,” he says.
There’s a bright, disruptive future in front of them, once they get past those Avengers sequels, and the $500 million or more that Disney’s Marvel has invested in them.