Filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo believe they will soon be orchestrating an even bigger flock of A-list talent on screen as the Disney-Fox merger introduces the X-Men and Deadpool to the Marvel Universe.
“I’m sure of it,” Joe Russo said. “The acquisition of Fox is showing us where the future of the business is going to go.” Disney CEO Bob Iger has had a “historic” run over the past dozen years, he added. “We haven’t talked to him about when he is going to do it,” but enlarging the Marvel tent and cross-pollinating characters is a key aspect of the $71.3 billion deal.
The brothers made the comments during a rare public appearance during Business Insider Ignition. Moderator Janice Min, a former magazine editor and now a content executive at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile video startup Quibi, invited them to “break the Internet” and reveal the title of the just-wrapped fourth Avengers installment. They politely declined. “We’d like to, but we won’t,” Joe Russo smiled.
They did hold forth amply on many other topics, including the state of their new production boutique AGBO, the viability of the two-hour feature film, and how they smuggle political ideas into the biggest of big-canvas productions.
Although the brothers have never been Michael Moore-like in terms of expressing their politics on screen, they do try to incorporate their point of view on social and political themes, even in vast, hyper-commercial Marvel franchises. “We try not to be dogmatic about it,” Anthony Russo said, “but we try to run at those ideas of whatever is giving us nightmares.”
In a fantasy context, audiences are “one step removed” from the anxious times unfolding in the U.S. and other parts of the world in the era of President Donald Trump. That makes it “easier for the audience to process these things.” Because of the Marvel movies’ global reach, showing things like Captain America questioning institutions of government and the choices they make is “cathartic” for audiences in “places that don’t have the freedom that we do,” Russo said.
Min asked the brothers if they got any notes of concern from Disney (“a happy endings company”) about the bleak ending of The Avengers: Infinity War, in which a large number of prominent characters appear to meet their end. “We did not,” Joe Russo said. “They were incredibly encouraging of the choices we made.”
Anthony Russo expanded on the point. “The only way to drive a conversation is to surprise people,” he said. “If you’re constantly adhering to convention, you’re not going to surprise people.” Plot twists properly done create “pop culture talking points for an audience,” he said, “but they’re also just good narrative.”
AGBO, as Joe Russo put it, “is I guess what [Frances Ford] Coppola was trying to achieve” with The Directors Company, a short-lived outfit he formed in the 1970s with Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin. Russo described AGBO as “an artists collective to create content that excites us” and “a company built around material that my brother and I are interested in.”
Budgets of initial AGBO projects are around $10 million, a far cry from the top end of the tentpole market. The slate includes Cherry, which is based on an acclaimed memoir written by an Iraq War veteran while he was in prison for crimes linked to his heroin addiction; and Mosul, a fact-based, Arabic-language action movie directed by Matthew Carnahan.
Beyond championing new voices and unusual stories, the new shingle is trying to address larger changes, including the vulnerability of the feature format itself.
“The two-hour film has had a great run over 100 years,” Joe Russo said. “But it’s become very difficult to work in. … I’m not sure that the generation that’s coming up will see the two-hour film as the dominant form of storytelling.” The issue, he said, is the lack of surprise — even young kids can often guess the ending of a movie within its opening five minutes. Studios’ dogged allegiance to the feature, Russo joked, is akin to their executives saying, “Hey, we all love sonnets. Let’s just write sonnets for 100 years.”
Anthony Russo said AGBO would encourage experimentation with formats. As “upheaval” reshapes Hollywood, the hope is that it can “help guide the process at a time when the traditional models are less reliable.”
Symbolically, the company’s Los Angeles campus is not in Hollywood or on the Westside but in the arts district just southeast of downtown. “When people come to our office,” Anthony Russo said, “they go, ‘This is really different.’”