A year ago today Avengers: Endgame bowed in China, kicking off an unprecedented theatrical run that ended when it surpassed James Cameron’s Avatar as the all-time top-grossing film. With movie theaters shut for the foreseeable future, Endgame directors and AGBO partners Joe and Anthony Russo today launch on Netflix Extraction, a $65 million theatrical-quality action film. Endgame‘s Chris Hemsworth stars, and that film’s stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave is making his directorial debut. Here, the Russos discuss the extreme platform juxtaposition, and when movie theaters might again be full.
DEADLINE: Seems such an extreme change between this time last year when Endgame set box office records to today, when Extraction can succeed even with movie theaters shuttered for a good long time.
ANTHONY RUSSO: It’s a testament to all the different ways we experience media now, a life online that’s getting richer and bigger. Theaters will remain important and vital and it will be a wholly unique experience for us, but this crisis has shown us how the film business continues to dimension-alize. All our lives online have changed just in the last few weeks, and it is reflective of the growing importance of the that growing dimension of human life and experience.
JOE RUSSO: We’ve never been prejudicial about platforms and our careers are reflective of that. We go where the most exciting story to be told is, and we work with people we love who are creatively and financially supportive of our ideas. This has been one of the best experiences of our careers. Netflix has an incredible global reach, at the drop of a hat. I don’t think we should be afraid of technology, we should embrace it because we can see, based on where we all are now, there is incredible value to having a dimensional-ized approach to content.
DEADLINE: At what point did you make the decision to do Extraction at Netflix instead of the traditional theatrical release?
JOE RUSSO: We grew up loving action films. We didn’t predict our path, we followed storytelling and the best indie directors of the ’90s worked in TV. So we were doing Community on TV, and wanted to transition to features with this and thought the smartest thing to do was take this idea we had around an extraction, with this damaged central character, and turn it into a graphic novel. That gave us a visual document that was easy for a studio executive to pick up during their lunch hour and understand what we were trying to accomplish. A long journey writing and rewriting later, we had conversations while shooting Infinity War and Endgame with Hemsworth and Sam Hargrave, and when we put the movie together, that’s when Netflix came into the conversation. Anthony and I had been targeting Netflix as a home for a lot of our AGBO content because we love the reach and that they support certain segments of the market that used to be theatrical, but now we don’t think people will go to the theater for. They prefer to enjoy certain films at home. We’ve been preaching it for awhile, but the pandemic is going to supercharge this. [Moviegoing] is going to become so specifically event-oriented communal experiences, that’s what is going to get people out of the house and into the theater. Everything else can have an incredible life in digital distribution. We should be grateful and thankful that exists, because we are seeing more dimension in our storytelling than we have in a decade. That is a great thing for artists and a great thing for audiences.
DEADLINE: The action scenes in this movie are well done and it was an ambitious shoot in India. What made this in your minds a good Netflix film instead of a theatrical release?
ANTHONY RUSSO: There are layers to that question. One is, we wanted to be very ambitious with the action. Part of what is special about that movie is the intensity of the action, the way it’s structured, diagrammed and executed. That’s why Sam Hargrave directed the movie and Chris Hemsworth is the lead. That kind of action is expensive and hard to do. You have to have a lot of resources to achieve something impressive. Part of the reason Netflix was right is they were really willing to spend on the film and that was an important piece of the puzzle. They’re in a unique position to spend, right now and that is part of their value.
JOE RUSSO: It is largely an economic question right now. Because theatrical is shifting, it can’t be supported by traditional models of financing at a level that like Ant said is commensurate with the ambitions of the creative team. The greatest thing that Netflix has done is take away box office from defining the success or quality of a film. Movies are having trouble being funded in the old way and models don’t support it anymore. Netflix is supporting those films, in a way and at a financial level we’ve not seen before. When we look at a film, we decide what it’s going to take to make it right, and whether we feel we can get that with a theatrical distribution partner or a digital distributor. Frankly, I’m hoping the prejudice between digital and theatrical distribution disappears because I don’t find it helpful and I don’t think the audience, especially the young audience, cares. It’s a bad habit we adopted from years of film folks thumbing their noses at TV and vice versa. Some of the best quality storytelling we’ve ever had is on television right now through digital distribution.
ANTHONY RUSSO: The most simple answer to your question. Netflix is really trying to woo films to their platform and they were very aggressive. The phrase go where you’re wanted most, because that’s going to be your best partner. That was a strong dynamic here.
DEADLINE: Much as the Michael Jordan 10-part documentary The Last Dance provided a respite for sports junkies, Extraction does the same for movie lovers who can’t see a film like this at a theater and we have no idea when they will reopen.
ANTHONY RUSSO: That layer is random. Nobody foresaw this.
JOE RUSSO: But our instincts about digital distribution and its value to the world is what led us here in the first place. This is why it is healthy for the business to be dimensional-ized and offer different options to artists. That’s the primary message we are trying to say.
DEADLINE: Had you done this as a theatrical film, what would have been different?
JOE RUSSO: It would have been a much lower budget, with Sam a first-time filmmaker. I would argue we got double the budget from Netflix that we would have gotten theatrically. There are outdated models being used as metrics in the theatrical space that don’t benefit films at this level. This is not a $100 million movie, or above. That’s the market that is getting squeezed right now, the one under that level.
DEADLINE: You’ve completed your production and office spaces for AGBO in the artists district in downtown LA, and finished shooting the first movie you’ve directed in Cherry with Tom Holland. What has been the biggest challenge of this pandemic and self-quarantining for a relatively new company?
ANTHONY RUSSO: In some ways, we’ve been okay in the way that Joe and I work. We’re in the editing phase on Cherry and we’ve been able to proceed pretty well with our editor. We have been able to keep that thing movie and maybe not the same way it would have otherwise, but pretty well. We spend a large chunk of our day with [Christopher] Markus & [Stephen] McFeely working on something new with them in online sessions. A lot of our work is flowing. The things changing the most are the thing we want to go into production on, just trying to figure out when and how film production will be possible in the future. That’s the biggest question for us. We also have another release coming, City of a Mllion Soldiers…
DEADLINE: The Matthew Michael Carnahan movie shot in Arabic language and set in Iraq that premiered at Venice and Toronto and landed at 101 Studios…
ANTHONY RUSSO: That was going to be released theatrically in June and now we’re trying to figure out how and when that will be release.
DEADLINE: So either you hold the film back or choose a digital platform like you’ve done with Extraction. What’s the pressure on indie financiers who have to carry interest on loans needed to make these films if they postpone release indefinitely?
JOE RUSSO: Our mission as storytellers is get people to see the stories. Carrying the interest is just a burden like it is for every other business in the country and around the world. It’s hard to predict because we don’t have enough information and testing needed to heal the economy sooner than later. It’s an unprecedented time for people to figure out how to recoup their investments on films.
ANTHONY RUSSO: We can’t answer until we figure out the road forward for City of a Million Soldiers, and then further down when we do the same for Cherry. There’s a burden on setting up new projects, making deals and it’s not clear if that process has been slowed down because of what’s happening.
DEADLINE: Exactly one year ago it was all about the box office on Endgame, in 4,600 theaters playing 24 hours a day at first. What’s the treasured memory for each of you?
JOE RUSSO: My most treasured memory is when Ant and I, Kevin Feige, Markus & McFeely and Lou D’Esposito snuck into the Westwood Theater on opening night to watch it with an audience. I’ve never had an experience like that in a movie theater, where an audience was that viscerally and emotionally connected to what was going on, vocalizing and emoting the way they were. We had chills all around and were brought to tears once or twice, realizing you told a story that had such binding communal impact. It was something we’ll never forget.
ANTHONY RUSSO: It’s related to what you’re exploring here. We grew up in Cleveland and rock music and going to concerts was everything. To be in a movie theater that feels like a rock arena, I never imagined it and to be part of that energy and see the crowds experience the movie in that way with that fervor, sharing it together and feeding one another. That was something I never anticipated and to see it happen on that movie…it keeps you humbled because you don’t know where art is going to take you or where movies take us. It was nice to be part of that moment.
DEADLINE: So while you’re today opening what might well be a game-changing feature film for Netflix, it sure sounds like there is a part of the communal moviegoing experience that is impossible to replicate.
JOE RUSSO: Theatrical is going to be complicated over the next year or two, but we don’t think it’s going anywhere. We will always want that communal experience. It’s just what the economics can support for that experience, as the quality and films in digital get higher and higher and the quality of the equipment gets better around the world. This next generation isn’t afraid to watch content on their phones and computers. Most special about Endgame was trying to replicate the feeling we had as kids and teens in movie theaters, the emotions we felt after slipping into a dark theater with a bunch of people we didn’t know and being inspired, moved, and made to laugh and cry and leaving with a feeling that stayed with us for days. And then we’d go back and see the same movie five times to try and recapture it. To draw a direct line to our experience on Endgame, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.