Russo Bros.’ AGBO Sells 38% Stake To Video Game Firm Nexon For $400M In Embrace Of Virtual Worlds
Dade Hayes | January 5, 2022
Nexon, an Asia-based company whose nascent LA-based film and TV division is run by Disney alum Nick van Dyk, has also committed to invest another $100 million in the first half of 2022 if asked by AGBO. The transaction gives Nexon a 38% position, making it the largest shareholder in AGBO, which is now valued at $1.1 billion. Nexon will also gain two board seats, for van Dyk and Tim Connors, a former Marvel exec who arrived at the gaming company last month in a senior studio role.
The Russos are responsible for several of the highest-grossing movies ever released, an elite roster topped by Avengers: Endgame in 2019. The Ohio-born duo have explored a wide range of stories as producers, writers and directors since reaching the pinnacle of studio blockbuster-dom. They set up AGBO, teaming up with several of their Marvel collaborators, as a home for a more diverse range of work. Their projects have taken root outside the studio system, with action movie Extraction at Netflix and Iraq War drama Cherry for Apple TV+. They have also teamed with NBCUniversal, Disney, A24 and Roku. Two of their upcoming projects have a spy bent — Citadel, a series for Amazon Prime Video, and The Gray Man for Netflix, the latter of which they are co-directing. At a budget of more than $200 million, The Gray Man was the streaming giant’s most expensive film when it got the green light in 2020.
Chinese film studio Huayi Brothers, which initially backed AGBO in its earliest phase, will remain invested, but at a single-digit percentage of shares and without a seat on the board, according to insiders.
Van Dyk launched Nexon’s LA-based division earlier this year, as Deadline was first to report. Founded in 1994 in South Korea, Nexon is now based in Tokyo and lists its shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The company has a market value of nearly $18 billion.
The arrangement is positioned as a win-win revolving on a hot sector: the metaverse and virtual worlds. Joe Russo described the setup as a “swinging door that can go either way,” meaning AGBO could develop films or series from Nexon’s trove of game titles, and Nexon likewise can build out game and virtual world extensions based on AGBO titles. Van Dyk said the company is in “pole position” for gaming opportunities in a virtual first-look situation, which he called a “huge win” for both companies. The announcement of the relationship did not stipulate any specific titles or a slate, and the parties emphasized the flexibility and comprehensive nature of the investment.
“For Joe and I, every project, every idea, wants to have a very unique life,” Anthony Russo said in an interview. “When you’re in a landscape of evolving technology, we want to have the freedom to take and shape any idea any way that it wants to be taken and shaped. That independence is really critical to that process and we were up front with Nexon and they recognized that about us right away and they realized that it’s central to our value.”
Given the current go-go dealmaking environment and hunger for content, AGBO had been in discussions with multiple parties about its financial and strategic options last year. Over the past year, a string of private-equity-backed transactions have brought an influx of funds to companies like LeBron James’ SpringHill, Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith’s Westbrook Inc. Once Van Dyk arrived at Nexon last summer, he reconnected with Jason Bergsman, CEO of AGBO. The two had been colleagues at Disney in the mid-2000s, when van Dyk was in the corporate strategy and business development group, helping engineer a number of key deals. An initial conversation about Nexon potentially developing a one-off game title deepened into a more substantial strategic exchange and the deal was sealed in principle later in the fall.
The Russos, in a joint statement in the official announcement, said the new partnership is “based on our shared vision of the future of storytelling and utilizes the unique talents of both companies.”
While it is seen as an emerging company from the U.S. perspective, Nexon is one of the world’s largest and most successful game companies. Its major franchises include Dungeon & Fighter at over $18 billion in life-to-date gross revenue; MapleStory, played by almost half the population of South Korea; and KartRider, with more than 380 million registered players on PC alone. In 2021, Nexon acquired Stockholm-based Embark Studios, whose new game ARC Raiders is expected to launch later this year.
Van Dyk noted the accomplishments of the Russo Bros. and their collaborators at AGBO, including Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who are AGBO’s co-presidents of story. They teamed to direct and write four Marvel films generating a cumulative $7 billion in box office. As the company charts a course into the 2020s and beyond, van Dyk said, “they want to change the way stories are told.” The Russos, he added, “are really thinking about the way content is going to look 10 years from now and how we’re going to tap into those complementary and overlapping human needs to communicate, be entertained, be engaged, and compete.”
Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney said the companies are both in the world-building business. “The ability to create and sustain blockbuster entertainment franchises across multiple markets for decades is deep in Nexon’s DNA,” he said. “AGBO and Nexon share a fundamental vision for thrilling global audiences with content that spans multiple platforms and markets.”
In an interview, Mahoney acknowledged that previous team-ups between gaming companies and traditional film and TV production entities have been not yielded great creative results. But the emerging realm of virtual worlds is at a very early stage, he said, and “can be really benefited by deep, creative collaboration around intellectual property that’s broad and that’s designed to last. These guys are the best at it.”
Bergsman said the new funding “will provide AGBO with new resources to innovate and pursue growth as a uniquely creator-led, independent entertainment company. As we look to extend the reach of our storytelling, Nexon’s best-in-class games capabilities, pioneering work in creating online virtual worlds, and global footprint make them an ideal strategic partner.”
Larocca added that the investment “provides a significant accelerant to our founding mission at AGBO—to delight audiences worldwide with ambitious stories told across all forms of media.”
PJT Partners was AGBO’s financial advisor and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom provided legal counsel. Loeb & Loeb provided legal counsel to Nexon.