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Hollywood’s Latest Power Brothers Hunt for the Next China-Backed Blockbuster

Hollywood’s Latest Power Brothers Hunt for the Next China-Backed Blockbuster

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Hollywood’s Latest Power Brothers Hunt for the Next China-Backed Blockbuster

(WSJ) The Russo brothers made their name in Hollywood directing “Captain America.” Their next effort, like many in Hollywood, will be captained by China.

Joe and Anthony Russo, who are putting the finishing touches on next month’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” also are in the early days of running Agbo, a production company backed by China’s largest private film company, Huayi Brothers Media Corp.

In a sign of China’s film industry expanding beyond its borders, the Beijing-based Huayi Brothers has given the Russo brothers an initial $250 million in development funds and an additional $100 million to spend on production costs.

Their venture with Huayi has survived a Chinese crackdown on similar investments, but larger questions loom: The kind of Chinese-owned blockbuster Agbo aims to release has yet to conquer the world’s movie screens, despite the country’s persistent efforts. Hollywood in recent years has turned into a graveyard for ventures similar to Agbo.

With the Russo brothers, Huayi has tapped a duo best known for directing four superhero epics for Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel Studios. Following “Infinity War,” a second “Avengers” movie by the brothers is slated to debut in 2019.

After the success of their “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in China, the Russos were approached by would-be Chinese partners eager to produce a global blockbuster of their own.

Chinese companies have tried just about every avenue for a world-wide hit, including co-productions with a Hollywood studio that divvy up cast and crew, or the outright purchase of production houses like Legendary Entertainment.

“There has not yet been a Chinese-owned movie that has worked globally,” said Mike Larocca, Agbo’s president of production. “That is the prize of all these companies.”

The Russo brothers have begun spending the Huayi money in recent months, picking up several projects now in development or production.

In December, Agbo won a bidding war to adapt “The Electric State,” a science-fiction graphic novel the brothers see as having franchise potential, directed by Andy Muschietti, best known for last year’s “It.” Several buzzy properties have been optioned, including a crime drama at FX with “Fargo” showrunner Noah Hawley and last year’s acclaimed novel “Exit West.” Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the screenwriters on “Infinity War” and five other Marvel Studios movies, joined Agbo as co-presidents of story, and they will be writing one or two scripts a year themselves.

Agbo doesn’t have a mandate to find a catchall project for both markets, or to plug in Chinese stars, executives at the company said. Huayi will weigh in on greenlighting productions, but Agbo itself has final say on such decisions.

Agbo—named for a surname the Russo brothers say they found randomly in an Ohio phone book years ago—is entering a landscape that has buried similar previous efforts. Newer studios like Relativity Media expanded rapidly and quickly foundered, and Huayi-backed STX Entertainment has struggled to find its footing since its founding in 2014.

The Russo brothers say they are limiting their risk by staying out of the distribution business and by co-financing their big-budget productions with major Hollywood studios. They’ve also narrowed their focus to film and television, rather than the myriad divisions that doomed firms like the now-defunct Relativity, which dabbled in fashion, sports and even education.

In the past 25 years, Huayi Brothers has expanded beyond production within China to a sprawling entertainment conglomerate that includes movie theaters and talent representation. But Agbo is the most significant step yet for the company toward building a U.S. presence.

“You hit the domestic ceiling in China, and then what do you do?” said Anthony Russo. He and his brother first emerged in 2002 as directors of the film-festival feature “Welcome to Collinwood” and were early directors on the television show “Arrested Development” before launching into the Marvel stratosphere.

Agbo is in development on big-budget features akin to today’s superhero sagas, as well as smaller prestige projects. It and the new independent distributor Neon dropped $10 million to buy distribution rights to “Assassination Nation,” a teen-girl revenge thriller that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Despite making their name in Marvel’s multicharacter cinematic universe, the Russo brothers said they are preparing for a day when audiences want big spectacles but aren’t as interested in following story lines across multiple installments.

“There are people who don’t follow film universe. What are the options for them?” said Joe Russo. 

Source: Wall Street Journal by Erich Schwartzel
Source: CEN
Hollywood’s Latest Power Brothers Hunt for the Next China-Backed Blockbuster