Even before Netflix releases opening weekend audience numbers later today that will likely point to record audience engagement in 92 countries, the streamer has put in motion a sequel to The Gray Man, with Gosling returning to the title role and Joe & Anthony Russo again directing. They’ll produce with AGBO’s Mike Larocca and Roth Kirschenbaum Films’ Joe Roth and Jeffrey Kirschenbaum. Stephen McFeeley, who co-wrote the original from the Mark Greaney novel with his Avengers scripting partner Christopher Markus, is writing this one solo.
Following the release of The Gray Man this weekend where it debuted as the #1 movie in 92 countries and got a 91% Rotten Tomatoes audience score, Netflix might have the 007-style spy franchise it was looking for and paid over $200 million to blow up Prague in Gosling’s mano a mano match against Chris Evans.
Netflix and AGBO are also developing a Gray Man spin-off film from The Gray Man, which is based on the book series by Mark Greaney. They are keeping the specifics under wraps but they’ve got Deadpool and Zombieland scribes Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese aboard as the screenwriters.
Here, Joe and Anthony Russo describe the future plans, and also pivoting from directing the biggest grossing film of all time in Avengers: Endgame to making a movie just as ambitious, for an entirely different model.
DEADLINE: This quickly is evolving into a universe, after so many tried to turn The Gray Man into an event film before you guys made it happen. Describe what you’ll do going forward.
JOE RUSSO: The sequel will be inspired by the Mark Greaney novel. Translating from one medium to another often requires interpretation but we have an incredible amount of source material from an amazing offer. We’ll draw on that for the sequel.
DEADLINE: What can you say about the spinoff?
JOE RUSSO: Wernick and Reese will write the spinoff and we’re going to do something a little more edgy and experimental with that.
DEADLINE: What does that mean?
JOE RUSSO: It means that one will be a hard R. Can’t say more at this point.
DEADLINE: You’ve done this big movie on Netflix. Compare the reaction to the one you got for the global theatrical release on Avengers: Endgame?
JOE RUSSO: Everybody loves the movie. The audience score is fantastic, the response has been overwhelming, number one in 93 countries. Evans and Gosling are very happy with the film, Ryan has told me his mother said it’s her favorite movie he’s ever made. We’ll take that as certification that we need a sequel, that feedback from Ryan’s mother. Everyone’s happy, loved working together. We just got back from traveling the globe and the response was tremendous. We’re excited to expand the story.
DEADLINE: When I watched the movie, you could see the big budget on the screen in terrific action set pieces. Had Netflix veered from its model and put some P&A in for a longer theatrical release, I think the movie could have made hundreds of millions of dollars globally before landing on the streaming platform. Netflix is evolving its model. Is it possible that the second installment could be grander with a different distribution plan? Is that something you’d like?
JOE RUSSO: There are two different business models. That would require Netflix to commit to an additional business model. To go up against the major players with original IP required a lot of money to compete in that space. You have to spend like a drunken sailor and have a massive P&A spend, and repair relationships with certain theatrical distributors. They’d have to commit to windows that those exhibitors will accept and there has to be a formula, some regression formula, to let you know how long that window has to be before it interferes with the model.
DEADLINE: The advantage of the P&A spend is that it creates a cultural awareness that actually makes the property more valuable when it lands on the streaming service.
JOE RUSSO: There’s no question theatrical creates more pop culture saturation, but they did pretty good with Stranger Things and Squid Game. They’ve seen their model perform for them in ways that are equivalent to theatrical. If you look at the numbers, the amount of eyeballs they pull in a weekend worldwide is beyond significant. The equivalent to theatrical dollars is astronomical. When I do a Netflix film, this coming after Extraction, I get a response, my phone blows up as much as it did when we did the Avengers movie. There are that many people watching around the world. I’m trying to be scientific about it. Selfishly, I’d like to see it. But there are a lot of things that would have to happen to support it properly. It’s easier to platform an arthouse film than an original tent pole. Any studio that’s going to spend on an original tent pole, there’s going to be a multiple on the usual spend, because it’s original. Are they willing to commit that level of cash? I do think there’s a model that would work. Do they have the apparatus for it? Do you want an apparatus that crushes it at streaming and then has to crush it at theatrical, or do you have to get another apparatus that caters to theatrical. There are a lot of questions.
DEADLINE: True, but as the budgets on these tent pole films escalate, are eyeballs enough to justify the investment?
JOE RUSSO: The question, which only Ted [Sarandos] and Reed [Hastings] know, is what is the endgame of a digital platform. If you reach maximum subscriber volume, where do you go? What’s the growth ceiling? I don’t know. I didn’t expect a company that used to rent DVDs out of vending machines to get to this place in a decade, either. I’m not going to second guess them. But we all know if they committed a lot of money, got the right films and slate, and repaired the relationship with certain theater chains and committed to the right window, length and built the apparatus, they could have a thriving theatrical business. The theatrical conversation is a hot topic because everyone want to speculate on what Netflix might do, moving forward. There are more questions to consider than people attribute to the issue.
DEADLINE: Kevin Feige made quite a splash at last weekend’s Comic-Con, and talked about how you guys would not direct Secret Wars, something that was widely speculated on. Looking at your dance card with The Gray Man news today and The Electric Slate your next film, I can’t imagine when you’d have time to create another cinematic universe.
JOE RUSSO: We have a lot of movies lined up for most of the decade. They’re amazing and they follow a storytelling pattern and that movie will work very well for their multiverse arc. If it was happening later in the decade it might have made sense for us, but it’s just a timing issue.
DEADLINE: Maybe those monthly subscription checks around the world, without the cost of a big P&A spend, can generate enough money.
JOE RUSSO: They make a lot of money. It’s always a question of how to make more money, and the risk reward ratio they have to figure out on the theatrical side. Everyone wants to see more movies go into theaters and a company with that muscle putting movies in theaters, but it has to make sense. As a filmmaker, what you don’t want is someone saying, I’ll give you a theatrical release. But it’s not supported properly. That’s the worst thing in the world. There’s a commitment that would need to happen at a scale that is significant. And I think they are very aware of that.
DEADLINE: Ryan Gosling is quite good in this, with his laid back reluctant hero style. What made him the guy to carry this franchise?
JOE RUSSO: He does a couple things amazingly well that I don’t think anyone else can do. He has great physicality. He’s very believable on screen as this kind of character. He has great body control. An action movie requires an entirely different skillset than a dramatic role does, but this movie is, at its heart, a comedy, you know? I would put this in the category of Midnight Run or Lethal Weapon or Die Hard where action meets comedy. But in a lot of ways comedy is the primary driver of the movie, and Ryan has a very dry, quirky sense of humor that appeals to the absurdists in us. Anthony and I are highly entertained by writing ridiculous lines that we have people say in very earnest situations that we snicker at and are entertained by, and they either can function as a line that works in a genre sense. Or if you have a twisted sense of humor like we do, you may find the comedy in it. It’s picturesque in that regard. We’re students of theater growing up as well, and Mamet, and we like language, and we like ridiculous language.
DEADLINE: So you go right back to work for Netflix on The Electric Slate with the streamer’s Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown…
ANTHONY RUSSO: When we started AGBO with Markus and McFeely, the company was going to be a lot of things, but the heart and the reason we wanted to continue forward with those guys, is because of like we love the universe building work that we did together with them so much. We love massive commercial storytelling, and the long form storytelling ideal of multiple access points to a narrative. We wanted to continue that, keep working in this unique form that we all have enjoyed so much and that has done so well. When we were finishing our work at Marvel we moved right into Cherry, a smaller personal film that we could access very quickly and easily, but we also started developing more complex ideas in the spirit of Marvel. Fantasy films, sci-fi films that are creating universes from the ground up. That takes many, many years to do well. We’ve been working on a few special projects like that. The Gray Man is something that has been in our lives for a long time. Also, it’s set in the real world, not world you’re creating every element of.
We’ve got the other stuff coming. The Electric State is the first of that kind of material that we’ve been developing for the past several years that took a long, long time to gestate. It took a long, long time to develop and experiment with until we were ready to go and make it. The Gray Man is a more mature film. It’s not going to appeal to the kids that liked the Marvel movies, right? The Electric State is more in the zone of the Marvel movies. It’s going to get the 6-year-olds to the adults. It’s that kind of a tonal film, and that’s the first…and it’s a completely original world, built from the ground up that you’ve never seen anything like it in cinema before, so, and it took just took us that long to get to it, and the stuff that’s in line after that is in the same vein. We start shooting in October.
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