Netflix, still in shock, bets big on “The Gray Man”

Anthony and Joe Russo like to think big.

In 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” the director brothers shocked fans when they wiped out half the world’s population and let their Marvel superheroes fail. The following year, they upped the ante with the three-hour “Avengers: Endgame,” a film that grossed $2.79 billion at the worldwide box office, the second-highest figure ever at that time. day.

And now there’s “The Gray Man,” a Netflix movie they wrote, directed, and produced. The streaming service gave them nearly $200 million to travel the world and get Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans to portray ghost CIA employees trying to kill each other.

“It almost killed us,” Joe Russo said of the shoot.

An action sequence took a month to produce. It involved big guns, a tram running through Prague’s Old Town district and Mr Gosling battling an army of assassins while handcuffed to a stone bench. It’s one of those showstoppers that get the audience to applaud. The moment cost around $40 million to make.

“It’s a movie within a movie,” said Anthony Russo.

‘The Gray Man,’ which opened in select theaters this weekend and hits Netflix on Friday, is the streaming service’s most expensive film and perhaps its biggest bet as it tries to build a franchise. of espionage in the mold of James Bond or “Mission impossible.” If that works out, the Russos plan to expand the “Gray Man” universe with additional movies and TV series, like Disney has done with its Marvel and Star Wars franchises.

But these franchises, while turbocharged by streaming and integral to Disney+’s ambitions, are first and foremost theatrical ventures. “The Gray Man” is released in 450 theaters. That’s a far cry from the 2,000 or more that a typical big-budget release would appear in its opening weekend. And the film’s almost simultaneous availability on Netflix ensures that most viewers will watch it on the service. Movies that Netflix releases in theaters usually leave them much faster than movies from traditional studios.

“If you’re trying to start a franchise, why would you want to start it on a streaming service?” asked Anthony Palomba, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business who studies media and entertainment trends, particularly changing consumer habits.

The film comes at a critical time for Netflix, which will announce its second-quarter results on Tuesday. Many in the industry expect the results to be even grimmer than the company’s expected loss of two million subscribers in April. The company’s first-quarter earnings sent its stock price plummeting. It has since fired hundreds of employees, announced it would create a cheaper subscription tier with ads, and announced plans to crack down on sharing passwords among friends. and the family.

Despite the current difficult times, Netflix’s deep pockets and hands-off approach to creative decisions have made it the only studio capable of delivering on the Russos’ ambitions and quest for autonomy.

“It would have been a radically different movie,” Joe Russo said, referring to the possibility of making “The Gray Man” at another studio, like Sony, where it was originally slated to be produced. The brothers said going elsewhere would have required them to cut their budget by a third and downgrade the film’s action.

A person familiar with the deal with Sony said the studio was willing to pay $70 million to make the film. Instead, the Russos sold it to Netflix in a deal that saw Sony recoup its development costs and receive compensation for its time in production. Sony declined to comment.

The film features nine major action sequences, including a mid-air fight involving emergency flares, fire extinguishers and Mr Gosling’s struggle with a parachuted enemy as the two fall from a bombed plane, Anthony said Russian.

“Ambition is expensive,” said Joe Russo. “And it’s risky.”

Netflix, even in this humble moment, can pay more upfront when it’s not struggling with the costs that come with much larger theatrical releases. And for Scott Stuber, Netflix’s head of global film, who greenlit the ‘Bourne Identity’ franchise when he was at Universal Pictures, movies like ‘The Gray Man’ are what he strives for. doing since he joined the company five years ago.

“We haven’t really been into that genre yet,” Mr. Stuber said in an interview. “If you want to do that, you want to deal with filmmakers who, over the last decade, have created some of the biggest franchises and the biggest action films in our industry.”

The Russos are also producing the sequel to “Extraction” with Chris Hemsworth for Netflix and have just announced that Netflix will finance and release their next directing venture, a $200 million sci-fi action flick, “The Electric State. “, with Millie Bobby Brown and Chris Pratt.

Mr Stuber pointed to the ‘Extraction’ sequel and a spy film starring Gal Gadot, ‘Heart of Stone’, both slated for release next year, as proof that the company continues to take big fluctuations despite its difficulties. He acknowledged, however, that recent business realities have forced the company to think more about the projects it selects.

“We’re not cutting spending madly, but we’re cutting volume,” he said. “We try to be more thoughtful.”

He added, “We were a company that was a volume company for a long time. And now we’re very specific about targeting.

Niija Kuykendall was hired from Warner Bros. late last year to oversee a new division that will focus on making mid-budget films, in the $40-50 million range, that traditional studios have all but abandoned because of their box- office is less certain. . And Mr. Stuber pointed to two upcoming movies — “Pain Hustlers,” a $50 million thriller starring Emily Blunt, and an untitled romantic comedy starring Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron — as examples of the company’s commitment to movies of this size.

In recent months, Netflix has also come under fire from some industry players for how much — or how little — it spends marketing individual movies. Its marketing budget has remained essentially the same for three years, despite a significant increase in competition from services like Disney+ and HBO Max. Creators often wonder if they’re going to get all the marketing muscle from Netflix or just a few billboards on Sunset Boulevard.

For “The Gray Man,” Netflix sent the Russos and their cast to Berlin, London, and Mumbai, India. Other promotional efforts have included national television commercials during National Basketball Association games and Indianapolis 500 and 3-D billboards in disparate locations like Las Vegas and Krakow, Poland.

“It’s on a massive scale,” Joe Russo said of Netflix’s promotion of “The Gray Man.” “We are doing a world tour to promote it. The actors accompany us. It’s a lot like the work we’ve done to promote Marvel movies.

For the smaller-scale theatrical release, Netflix will put “The Gray Man” in some of the few theaters it owns — like the Paris Theater in New York and the Bay Theater in Los Angeles — and with chains like Cinemark and Marcus. Theatres. And even though Joe Russo calls “The Gray Man” “a kind of movie that forgets to eat its popcorn,” Netflix won’t divulge its box office numbers.

The theatrical side of the film industry is an enigma for Netflix. The studio’s appetite for risk is often greater than that of traditional studios because it spends less money getting movies to theaters and doesn’t have to worry about box office numbers. On the other hand, the lack of large-scale theatrical releases has long been a sticking point with filmmakers seeking to display their creativity on as big a screen as possible and hoping to create buzz with audiences.

And box office strength in recent months for films as diverse as ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, ‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’ and ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ (which the Russos produced) has prompted many to rethinking the influence of movie theaters, which the pandemic has severely hampered.

Mr. Stuber acknowledged that greater theatrical presence is a goal, but one that requires a constant supply of films that can reach global audiences.

“That’s what we’re trying to achieve: Do we have enough of these films at all levels where we can be in this market?” he said.

It would also force Netflix to reckon with how long to let its films play exclusively in theaters before appearing on its service. While “The Gray Man”‘s theatrical window is very short, the Russos hope the movie will show that Netflix can be a home for the kind of big-budget fun the brothers are known for.

“Knowing that you have, ultimately, a distribution platform that can pull in 100 million viewers like she did on ‘Extraction,’ but also the potential for a big theatrical window with a commensurate promotional campaign behind it,” Joe Russo said, “you have a very powerful studio.

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