The Russo Brothers Assemble: Inside AGBO, Their $1 Billion Studio, and When They Might Return to Marvel
BY ADAM B. VARY | PHOTOGRAPHY BY ART STREIBER | NOVEMBER 2, 2022
Ever since Joe and Anthony Russo released “Avengers: Endgame,” in 2019, the sibling directors have been asked over and over if they would ever work again with Marvel Studios. Each time, they’ve tried to politely deflect — “We’re always talking; we’d need to see what would work” — even though, as Joe put it to Variety in early October, they’ve known the truth for years. “We won’t be ready to do anything with Marvel until the end of the decade,” he says.
Instead, the Russos have dedicated themselves to assembling their own creative cosmos with AGBO, the independent, artist-friendly studio they launched in 2017 with producing partner Mike Larocca. Their “Endgame”-sized ambition is no less than to help lead the industry into the future of entertainment, which is why the Russos have been selected as Variety’s Showmen of the Year.
They’ve sought out nontraditional partners, like the South Korean gaming giant Nexon, which purchased a minority stake in AGBO in January that valued the company at $1.1 billion. They’ve empowered upstart filmmakers to create ambitious and original projects that speak to a wide audience, like Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” A24’s highest-grossing film (at $101 million worldwide) and a favorite heading into awards season. And they’ve worked with streamers to create franchise-able storytelling universes on a global scale — like last summer’s Netflix secret-agent thriller “The Gray Man” (which has a sequel and a prequel already in development) and the upcoming $185 million Amazon Prime Video spy series “Citadel” (which has two spinoffs set for India and Italy and more on the way).
When Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke was first entertaining the unprecedented international concept behind “Citadel,” she says the only company she approached about it was AGBO. “Their ability to build a global franchise, and to put their arms around big, ambitious ideas that might be overwhelming to others, creatively or logistically, is really their sweet spot,” Salke says. “They were the perfect people to have that thought exercise with because they think in such a global way.”
Most critically, with their vision fixed on Hollywood’s future, Joe and Anth (as his younger brother calls him) have built AGBO to thrive within the turbulent, ongoing evolution of the industry, as audiences continue to upend how and where they consume storytelling. It’s how the Russos aim to persevere where so many other upstart mini-studios have not.
“Things are changing fast, which we’re very excited by,” says Anthony. “We’re futurists. We love new technology. We love the energy that it brings to our process, the possibilities that it creates for how we communicate with audiences. Then we meet the market where it is at that moment. That’s been our agenda from the beginning, and it’s served us very well.”
Over a wide-ranging conversation in Atlanta, where they’re shooting their next big sci-fi adventure film, Netflix’s “The Electric State,” with Chris Pratt and Millie Bobby Brown, the Russos — Anthony, 52, the more contemplative brother, and Joe, 51, the more voluble brother — are forthright about where they see the industry going, and where it isn’t.
Just one example: “Endgame” opened to a record-shattering $1.2 billion in worldwide box office in its first weekend. Could another movie equal, or even approach, that kind of explosive success?
“It will never happen again,” Joe says. “That was an apex of that era of theatrical filmmaking. When we started AGBO, we already felt the winds shifting.”
It’s difficult to imagine a wider gulf between “Endgame” and the Russos’ first feature, a cheeky, experimental meta-comedy called “Pieces” that the brothers financed with roughly $30,000 in credit card debt. After premiering at the 1997 Slamdance Film Festival to a tepid-at-best reception — Variety’s review called it “needlessly arty and obscure” — the movie never landed distribution. The master print has even gone missing.
The only person who seemed to enjoy “Pieces” was Steven Soderbergh, who saw a kindred anti-establishment spirit in the Russos and reached out to arrange a meeting. The brothers expected their cinema hero — the man who had all but invented overnight success in independent film — to give them sage words of advice on how best to continue following their own idiosyncratic muse. Instead, Soderbergh told them that if they continued to pursue films akin to “Pieces,” as Joe recalls, they’d “never make another movie.” (Soderbergh was unavailable for comment for this story.)
“It was a devastating thing to hear,” Joe says as Anthony nods before diving back into a plate of fusilli at one of their favorite Italian restaurants in Atlanta. (Joe, however, isn’t eating: “I do, like, intermittent fasting when we’re shooting. Otherwise, you know, it’s very easy to have two ice cream sandwiches a day.” He sighs. “My kids are making me do this.” He has four children, and Anthony has two.)
In time, however, the Russos came to understand that Soderbergh’s advice was the slap in the face they needed to realize that if they wanted to have viable filmmaking careers, they had to bring their sensibilities more into the mainstream. It wasn’t a simple prospect; as dyed-in-the-wool Cleveland natives, the brothers had grown up with a perpetual chip on their shoulders.
“We were, by our nature, not just outsiders but, like, irredeemable outsiders,” Anthony says. “There’s no saving Cleveland, and we felt very Cleveland.” (That fuck-you attitude is even embedded in their company’s name: In college, they hit upon the moniker Gozie Agbo in the phone book and slapped it on a scathing fake review of their sketch comedy troupe that they submitted to the school paper to drum up attention.)
Slowly, the Russos worked their way up in Hollywood, writing and directing the 2002 indie heist comedy “Welcome to Collinwood,” produced by Soderbergh and George Clooney (who played a small supporting role), then segueing into television, where they landed their first major break directing the pilot for “Arrested Development.” To give the comedy its sense of anything-can-happen absurdity, they fought with 20th Century Television to let them shoot on digital cameras, which, in the early 2000s, had barely reached the point of broadcast quality.
The show’s immediate acclaim vindicated the Russos’ creative instinct to harness new technology to push the envelope of what was possible. But even as the pair thrived in TV — including directing 34 episodes of NBC’s “Community,” the gig that ultimately caught the attention of Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige — the trappings of success, namely cushy first-look and development deals, began to feel more like a trap. “We had done deals with studios for years, but we were constantly calling our agents a year later and saying, ‘Get us out of this deal and do another,’” Joe says. “Because what happens is you’re stuck with whatever material that studio collected.”
“And you’re also subject to their whims,” Anthony adds.
Years before Scott Stuber recruited the Russos to make movies for Netflix with AGBO, the streamer’s film chief worked with the brothers when he produced their first studio movie, the 2006 Owen Wilson comedy “You, Me and Dupree.” While the Russos struggled making the film — “The composer had more power on the movie than we did,” Joe says — Stuber still perceived the scope of their aspirations. “You could see their run-before-they-walk ambition early,” he says. “They’re always optimistically looking around the corner. They’re always like, ‘What can we do differently tomorrow?’”
Between their scrappy Cleveland roots and their proud Italian heritage — “Our father’s side is Sicilian; our mother’s side is from Abruzzo,” Anthony says — the Russos say they were always temperamentally driven to chart their own destiny, come what may. Even answering a simple question about what led them to form AGBO results in Anthony wading into unexpected rhetorical territory.
“I hate to give this example, but it’s relevant,” Anthony says, causing his brother to start squirming. “It’s basically what the Mafia does, right?”
“I’m going to stop you,” Joe says, shooting me a nervous smile. “You can’t talk about this!”
Anthony waves him off. “No! I mean, look, this is a real thing,” he says. “The Mafia developed in Sicily because Sicily had been invaded and controlled by 11 different powers over the course of its modern history. And so they had to develop an internal system that would exist independent of these outside rulers, who didn’t give a shit about the place, to protect themselves. Now, of course, it got corrupted into something indefensible. I’m not talking about that version of the Mafia.”
“You’re talking about the noble version?” Joe says before giving up with a shrug.
“There’s tons of books about this,” Anthony continues. “You have to create an independent ecosystem, because the power that you’re subjugated to is not out for your best interest.”
Everyone who’s worked with the Russos quickly picks up on how different they can be. “Joe’s a 500-miles-a-minute kind of person, juggling post on one movie and prep on the other movie while shooting another movie, while finding the best spots for the best food,” says Priyanka Chopra Jonas, one of the stars of Amazon’s “Citadel.” “Anthony’s more introverted, but he has immense clarity of thought. When you’re talking to him, he knows tremendously about what’s happening behind the scenes and what the big-picture plan is.”
And yet, watching the brothers actually work as directors feels at times like watching a single consciousness that happens to inhabit two bodies. Two weeks into shooting “The Electric State” in October, they’re hunched inside a small tent next to the set, intently scanning the monitors as Chris Pratt performs a scene involving a confrontation between his character, a smuggler named Keats, and a menacing robotic drone called the Marshall (played on set by a performance-capture actor; the part will be voiced by Giancarlo Esposito).
After one take, Joe pulls out his phone and begins texting, while Anthony wordlessly studies the monitor. After another take, Anthony mumbles, “Recoil,” and Joe jumps up from his seat and walks to set to deliver direction to Pratt about miming the kickback on his gun as he fires it at the drone. After a third take, this time Anthony steps out of the tent — no words are exchanged with Joe — and checks in with Pratt, who’s been coughing from the dust covering the soundstage floor.
“It really doesn’t feel like two different directors,” Pratt says during a break in filming. “It feels like a two-pronged directing force.”
When asked later about their practically wordless mind-meld on set, Anthony just laughs. “We always joke that whoever is less tired will get up,” he says. “We can communicate without communicating, because we’ve been doing it so long together.”
If there’s a Platonic ideal for an AGBO production, it might be “The Electric State.” It’s adapted from a book of illustrations by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely — who wrote all four of the Russos’ Marvel films and serve as the co-presidents of story at AGBO — discovered in its infancy on Kickstarter. Stålenhag’s book, published in 2018, is a series of evocative and unsettling images of a girl and a robot crossing an American countryside, circa mid-1990s, that’s littered with the detritus of a civil war between the U.S. and the robots that once served it. That’s as far as the book’s narrative goes, but the Russos were nonetheless drawn to the possibility of making a big-canvas movie about this one girl, played in the film by Millie Bobby Brown, and the suggestion of far greater storytelling prospects.
“It seemed to us that the world of this story was so big that you could easily find other narratives in it,” Joe says. “How do we build a much larger context for what’s going on here? That feeds our ability to tell multiple stories.”
Spending close to a decade at Marvel provided the Russos with a competitive advantage they see as central to their approach at AGBO: They know not only how to make a hit movie but how to do it within a larger creative landscape that could spawn an ecosystem of sequels and spinoffs. (The creative department — run by the youngest Russo sibling, chief creative officer Angela Russo-Otstot — employs a “mythology coordinator” whose only job is to track all the narrative threads for every franchise developed at the studio.)
The expertise the brothers earned building out the MCU is especially helpful in a marketplace dominated by media companies — Netflix, Amazon, Apple — without the expansive library of beloved properties owned by the legacy studios.
“I can only make original movies,” says Netflix’s Stuber. “But can I make original movies that have worlds that can be repeated organically and characters that you want to come back to? They’re thinking in those terms. They’ve learned that muscle of ‘OK, are there ways we can expand this universe?’ Always knowing that the first one has to be great.”
Stuber is far from the only friend and former colleague of the Russos’ connected to AGBO.
When Zoe Saldaña was looking for a home for “The Bluff ” — a period pirate thriller from writer-director Frank E. Flowers (“Haven”) that she’s producing with her sisters, Mariel and Cisely, for their company Cinestar — she remembered that when making “Infinity War” and “Endgame,” the brothers took her aside. “They looked me in the eye,” she says, “and were like, ‘If you ever have a project, you need to count on us, because we’re going to have your back.’” She adds, “They really are building solid, strong relationships with actors that want to expand their craft. Not just from acting, but as producers and writers and directors.”
The Russos have adopted all kinds of Marvel alumni into their productions: “The Electric State” editor Jeffrey Ford and lead camera operator Geoffrey Haley are also executive producers on the movie; first assistant director Chris Castaldi is a producer. One of AGBO’s first productions, the spy thriller “Extraction,” starred Chris Hemsworth and was helmed by Chris Evans’ stunt performer, Sam Hargrave, in his directorial debut; both are returning for a sequel in 2023. And Evans played memorably against type as the amoral villain in “The Gray Man.”
“I think part of the reason we gravitated to Marvel is they were another family unit made up of lovely people and lovely creatives, who also like being in a cooperative,” Joe says. “We always built communities around us of other artists and creatives that we would invite into a circle with us.”
For Pratt, that sense of family that surrounds the Russos was what convinced him to make “The Electric State” in the first place. “I was going to take the rest of the year off,” he says. “If you took all of the qualities they have — their effectiveness, their discernment, their artistic vision, their desire to empower the people around them to build great projects, surround themselves by great people — that’s all very enticing. In fact, it’d be enticing enough to work with them even if they were kind of jackasses. But, it turns out, they’re good people. That’s kind of rare, you know? There’s a lot of people who are continuing to work, and the experience of working with them is miserable; the juice is sometimes not even worth the squeeze. You might have a really great product in the end, but the process of making it has been a troubling journey. These guys make it really fun.”
Should “The Electric State” resonate with audiences when it premieres in 2024, AGBO is well underway with developing other avenues into its wider storyline. How AGBO will know whether the movie is successful is, of course, one of the abiding mysteries of the streaming age.
Take “The Gray Man.” Netflix reports that it’s the fourth-most-watched English-language film in the company’s history, and the Russos say they’ve been told that more than 100 million accounts watched it in its first 28 days, which they see as a genuine milestone for success.
“It’s very difficult to get 100 million people to watch anything,” Joe says.
It remains impossible, however, for anyone outside Netflix to know exactly how much money “The Gray Man” — with a reported $200 million budget — made for the streamer, if such a direct cost-to-revenue metric is possible or even relevant (and many insiders say it isn’t). Stuber waves off questions about why Netflix didn’t give the movie a more robust theatrical release, noting that the company’s business model is about “acquisition or retention” of subscribers. “We’ve seen that there’s a ton of enthusiasm in both those areas when we deliver these big movies,” he says. (This is before his boss, co-CEO Ted Sarandos, later doubles down on keeping Netflix’s movies on the service rather than screening them in theaters.)
Still, in August, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav all but called out “The Gray Man” by name in his declaration that expensive tentpole movies do not make financial sense as exclusive streaming prospects, an argument he made to justify his infamous decision to cancel the nearly completed HBO Max superhero film “Batgirl” and take a tax write-off instead.
“It’s rare that I can think of something that high profile, that expensive, that was murdered in such a way,” Joe says of the untimely demise of “Batgirl” amid a recessionary economy that has Hollywood worried. “It’s sad, but we’re at a time in the business where corporate sociopathy is going to rear its head because people are scared.”
That fear is exactly why the brothers are unbothered by “The Gray Man” not playing in theaters for longer than a week. “I’ve got four kids, so I can identify Gen Z’s habits pretty accurately,” Joe says. “They don’t have the same emotional connection to watching things in a theater.”
With the ongoing erosion of moviegoing and the precarious decline of the theatrical business, the Russos made no secret, during their press tour for “The Gray Man,” of the fact that they see movie theaters as antiquated and increasingly irrelevant — which drew passionate rebukes from film lovers who believe cinema is tied inexorably to the theatrical experience. The Russos found the backlash both unsurprising and unpersuasive.
“This is a shoot-the-messenger situation,” Joe says. “I’m just telling you what I see, as a guy who has been in this business for 25 years. I don’t know that the market is going to be able to support art-house films the way that it did in the past.”
Joe notes early and often during our interview that he and Anthony do not want to pick a fight with film lovers: “I hope theatrical companies thrive — I don’t wish ill will.” But the brothers are also unabashed about expressing their belief that moviemaking itself is in retreat as audiences continue to gravitate to more personalized expressions of storytelling.
“I’ve had conversations with the folks at Disney recently — they have the same philosophy, that we’re headed towards the digital future that allows them to access their audiences anywhere at any time with any of their assets,” Joe says. “Whether we like it or not, the advent of AI, the advent of three-dimensional projectors that don’t require glasses, the advent of deepfakes — everything that’s coming is going to transition the face of media as we know it. And we’re interested in turning the car towards that.”
AGBO’s partnership with Nexon — which has a large international footprint but is lesser known in the U.S. — is a major piece of that strategy. When Nexon film and TV president Nick van Dyk first met with the Russos in 2021 to discuss the possibility of the deal, he was struck by just how willing the brothers were to push past old business models. “It’s a special combination of ambition and humility,” he says. “One of the things they said in our first meeting was ‘Our kids don’t watch movies the way we did, and we were kind of late to the game with this last generation of storytelling.’”
The partnership will allow AGBO to adapt Nexon’s games and Nexon to gamify AGBO’s content, but what’s perhaps most intriguing is how it offers the possibility of exploring new avenues for storytelling altogether.
“Filmmaking is going to transform into some other medium,” Joe says, growing more animated the longer we dwell on this topic. “I don’t know what that media is going to be. My guess is that when you can sit in your house, turn to one of the actors that is standing in front of you and say, ‘Hey, Tom Cruise, hold on a second. Tell me about how you filmed this scene,’ and the AI-fueled Tom Cruise can turn to you and start explaining, it’s over at that point, right? That’s when technology will dominate whatever new form of storytelling is coming.”
Whether or not a Tom Cruise bot is on the horizon, the point for the Russos is less about predicting the future than preparing for it. They say they have no plans to sell AGBO or merge with another entity; remaining independent is, they believe, how their company can best remain relevant as the industry continues its breakneck evolution. “We could be developing something for two years, and then the market shifts or some new medium shows up that’s better suited for this story,” Joe says. “Let’s spend another six months converting it to that model. Let’s take this feature and turn it into an event series. Or let’s take this idea and sell it to a gaming company. It allows us to survive as creatives no matter what happens in the world.”
Anthony nods intently. “AGBO is designed to allow every project we work on to have its own unique life,” he says. “That was the fundamental cornerstone of the company. All possibilities are always available to us. There’s nothing that’s off the table.”
They see these pronouncements not as barbs or provocations but as the same kind of wake-up call that Soderbergh gave them at the start of their careers — alerting up-and-coming storytellers to focus on meeting audiences where they’re going, instead of believing they’ll stay where they’ve been.
“As the market continues to shift, it’s important that artists be agnostic in order to continue to tell stories,” Joe says. “Don’t let a very vocal minority tell you what kind of stories you can tell. Because you can have success telling any stories that you want.”