The Russo Brothers: Even We Have a Hard Time Getting Small Films Made

After making four Marvel movies, including the record-setting “Avengers: Endgame,” the directors Joe and Anthony Russo couldn’t be better served by the current model of the movie industry. Still, when I talked to them for my project on the future of movies, I was struck by how much they are bracing for imminent change. “Studios are in a cocoon right now, and they’re going to come out as butterflies on the other side” as streaming platforms, Joe Russo told me. “And those may be as valuable or more valuable than their theatrical entities.” Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Some people in this industry think we’re heading for a future where the only films that get theatrical distribution are huge-budget films and low-cost genre films. But the next movie you’re making with Tom Holland, “Cherry,” isn’t either one of those things. It’s a star-driven drama without a big blockbuster budget.

JOE RUSSO Look, there’s no question that we are heading toward a future where event films are only going to become more event-sized. You’ve got so many options in your home for viewing content that there has to be a need for you to leave your home, and what is going to drive you to do that? When you talk about making character movies like “Cherry,” even we are finding that is becoming increasingly difficult as the months pass — not as the years pass, as the months pass. It is a tough market, even for us coming off of “Endgame,” to make a darker, character-driven movie like “Cherry.” It’s not what the market was even two years ago.

If studios become more narrow in the sorts of films they’re distributing theatrically, doesn’t that make a streaming service even more attractive, since they’ll likely make movies that can fill that void?

JOE RUSSO This is something my brother and I have talked about a lot. I think there’s an evolution of narrative happening, and part of what is attractive about getting content in your home is that you get more of it. A season of “Killing Eve” is eight hours of narrative with characters I love to watch, and compared to a two-hour movie, I’m getting real value for my money there.

Also, I think this new generation craves long-form storytelling because they like that emotional investment they get from spending time with these characters, which is also what the Marvel Universe is, right? It’s a 10-year investment of your time that hopefully pays off.

There are people who can binge-watch an entire season of a TV show but have a harder time committing to a two-hour film. Do you think it’s because the latter doesn’t scratch that itch for long-form storytelling?

JOE RUSSO We’re speaking as guys who make two-hour movies, but you have to understand those movies we made were part of a collective over the last decade that had narrative momentum and emotional commitment behind them — they were not isolated movies. Marvel is part of that experiment of long-form storytelling that leads to greater investment and greater payoff, and if you see videos of people reacting to “Endgame” in theaters, they’re having a very emotional response to the material that you can’t get from a traditional two-hour film.

So with this audience, when they binge-watch a season of “Stranger Things,” that is training them to expect a greater payoff from their commitment than they might get from something that’s two hours. That’s what we mean when we say that we’re not sure the two-hour, closed-ended film is going to be the dominant narrative moving forward for this next generation. They are craving a different kind of thing.

What else do you find different about younger moviegoers?

JOE RUSSO They have a much more complex absorption rate, where they can handle a lot more volume. I’ve got four kids, and I watch the way they consume content: They can be watching a movie and holding a conversation on an app while doing their homework, and processing all of it. I think they get it much quicker at a younger age than we did when it comes to narrative sophistication.

So how do you get them to show up to a theater? Obviously, everyone showed up for “Avengers: Endgame,” but you guys also produced “Assassination Nation,” which was aimed at a young audience that didn’t come.

JOE RUSSO It’s tricky, in this market, to get attention for something they feel they could consume when it shows up on Apple TV in two months. There has to be a feeling that they gain through that communal theatrical experience that they cannot get at the home. That’s why, when Marvel is going for a payoff of 10 years of storytelling, you want to be there in the theater to have that experience with everyone else who’s clapping and cheering.

I also think FOMO is a huge part of it. It’s no accident that “spoiler culture” is becoming a thing. We’re trying to drive the audience to the theater that opening weekend so they can have that experience before it’s ruined for them.

How will the international market drive the movie industry over the next decade?

ANTHONY RUSSO The growth in the film industry is all going to come from the international marketplace. There’s still places in Asia and the Middle East where the theatrical markets are underdeveloped and will continue to grow over the next decade. We’ve seen what kinds of movies are getting made and shown in theaters are being driven by what is accessible to various cultures on a large scale.

In the past, those foreign markets have been dominated by big Hollywood films, and then there are local films that spoke very specifically to their own culture in a way that the Hollywood films didn’t. I think what’s going to become the norm in the United States is what’s basically been the norm everywhere else for decades: You’ll have big films that dominate internationally, and the only other films that break through will be those that speak to the local experience in a unique and powerful way.

Do you think 10 years from now, the theatrical window, the length of time a movie stays in theaters, will exist in the same way?

JOE RUSSO No, not at all. People are going to want the option of viewing a movie day-and-date in home [that is, the same time it’s in theaters]. That’s coming, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do to stop it. If the viewer wants to pay a higher premium to do that, then they can do that.

How will the idea of a movie star change over the next decade?

JOE RUSSO I think there’s less room for people to be anointed stars, and the public attention span is much shorter. If you haven’t done something within a three- or four-year window, they don’t perceive you to be of the same stature as someone who’s done something very recently. I don’t think that was true 10 years ago, where once you were a movie star, you were a movie star. Now, I think if you’re not in front of this audience in some way — either visibly on social media with a high follower count, or in something that’s culturally important to them — then you can’t qualify as a star in this environment.

ANTHONY RUSSO What we saw very close-up, especially over the last couple Marvel movies, is that there’s a very high level of attachment with those actors who are playing those characters. There’s still a very high level of passion there.

But is that passion for the star, or for the character? We know the audience loves Tom Holland as Spider-Man, but the current movie climate offers him fewer chances to make films like “Cherry” that would demonstrate his stardom outside a signature role.

Joe Russo: It’s a very good point. Look, our gamble here with “Cherry” is that it’s difficult material — it’s about the opioid epidemic, not necessarily something that makes you race out of your house to rush to the theater. What we’re hoping for is that the energy generated through the appreciation of Tom as Spider-Man and the appreciation of “Endgame” allows a moment where we can grab some attention.

I think “Cherry” only works because it’s Tom. A movie-star personality could drive viewership a decade ago, and that’s no longer the case. A character or a concept drives viewership now, and if a trailer isn’t great, then the movie star can’t save it.

Anthony Russo: One other dynamic that’s kind of feeding into this is to look at the sheer number of movies being made these days. There were 350 more movies released theatrically in the United States last year than there were when “Avatar” came out in 2009. That’s a lot of movies, and the same thing’s happening on television. There just used to be fewer of everything — fewer movie stars, too — and when the numbers start to get up this high, you start to lose the trees for the forest.

Kyle Buchanan, a Los Angeles-based pop culture reporter, writes the Carpetbagger column. He was previously a senior editor at Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment website, where he covered the movie industry. @kylebuchanan

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