The Avengers have taught us anything in their 11 years of cultural and box office dominance, it’s the importance of a superstar team. For Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, the success of his crew rises and falls on the contributions of top lieutenants Victoria Alonso and Louis D’Esposito.
As the respective heads of production and co-president of the juggernaut content engine, Alonso and D’Esposito complete a leadership triumvirate that has helped redefine the superhero genre and transform the movie business. But first, the chocolate.
“Every good moment starts with Mr. Goodbar,” says Alonso, unwrapping a bite-size candy in her crowded, colorful office at Marvel headquarters on Disney’s Burbank lot. An oversize Spider-Man, dangling from the door frame, threatens to hit guests in the head as you enter her lair. The suite is jam-packed with toys and memorabilia and bright red chairs as loud and inviting as the executive herself. There’s also a bust of Iron Man signed by Jon Favreau. Bolted to the walls are the director’s chair backs from the set of every Marvel film produced. Tucked in a box in a drawer is a golden pendant of Tony Stark’s helmet on a matching chain, his LED eye sockets replaced with rows of diamonds.
“I’ve never worn it,” deadpans Alonso. “I’d better find a reason.”
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There is plenty to celebrate as Marvel looks ahead to the April 26 opening of “Avengers: Endgame,” a culmination of a 23-film cinematic opus. The feverishly anticipated sequel is on pace to score the biggest opening weekend of all time, with tracking estimated at $200 million to $260 million. It’s a dizzying achievement for the Marvel team, which doesn’t have the bandwidth to process its embarrassment of riches. On the day of Variety’s visit, executive schedules were in the midst of a dramatic overhaul.
“What we’re going to do going forward is try to be tougher on our schedules,” says D’Esposito. “All of our mornings are going to be dedicated to development and pre-production, and the afternoons dedicated to post.”
There’s a reason for the frenzied activity. After “Endgame” hits theaters, Marvel will rev up a new five-year phase of films that will reach further into the nebula of characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. These projects include “The Eternals,” an epic about godlike aliens that will be directed by Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”) and will star Angelina Jolie. Marvel will also produce original streaming shows on Disney Plus, the platform of its corporate owner, and program filmed and live content for Marvel Land attractions at three of Disney’s theme parks around the world.
“The amount of work that we’re going to have going forward, you can get overwhelmed, because success is expected,” says D’Esposito, who’s office is next door to Alonso’s. “What are we going to do next?”
While he boasts the same amount of toys, including a massive plastic version of the Infinity Gauntlet — the deadly glove rocked by supervillain Thanos in the Avengers movies — the vibe is very different from the one in Alonso’s workspace.
A single desk lamp illuminates the room. The temperature is easily 10 degrees cooler than in Alonso’s office. D’Esposito’s space is a Zen palace of sorts, which is fitting given the New Age routine he has introduced into Marvel’s corporate culture — the très Hollywood practice of Transcendental Meditation.
D’Esposito and top Marvel brass like Feige and vice president of production and development Stephen Broussard have all been certified in the method, which relies on the repetition of a private mantra in silence. It is practiced by luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and David Lynch.
“What’s great about that is, I’m never going to sit down and clear my mind,” D’Esposito says. “You’re given your mantra and you can’t tell anyone. Part of me thinks we all have the same mantra. It helps relieve the pressure, because it can get to you. We take a lot of pride in what we do. We feel the same pressure on every film. We want it to be great, we want the fans to enjoy it and we want it to be critically acclaimed.”
Alonso, on the other hand, prefers heat and noise to the cool and quiet. “My Sunday on the tennis court is a religious experience for me,” she says. “I need to sweat.”
Both executives will tell you that as producers, they work in concert with Feige to project one clear and consistent voice to the many filmmakers who make movies for the studio. It’s a system of mutual respect and deference that was formed in 2008, when all three worked on the first “Iron Man” film. At the time, they were freelancers on the team. Now they’re top executives. But while they try to present a united front, they also play different roles. Alonso has a public presence, frequently speaking on panels and to the press. D’Esposito is more subdued, and happy to remain a behind-the-scenes operator.
“I’ll be fielding more of the phone calls from agents concerning deals on actors, writers, directors, etc.,” says D’Esposito. “Victoria will lean toward delivery and post-production. Kevin is obviously everything creative.”
When Marvel decided to cap its 10-year run with the two-part “Infinity War” storyline, leadership knew that the majority of both films would need to be shot at the same time. Even with the blessing of Disney CEO Bob Iger and Walt Disney Studios chief Alan Horn, the Marvel team still had to sell crucial departments like accounting, business affairs and legal on the enormous undertaking, says D’Esposito. To do that, he created a PowerPoint slide with headshots of every cast member, from Robert Downey Jr. to Chadwick Boseman, Groot to Gwyneth Paltrow.
D’Esposito recalls a specific presentation to Disney’s legal team. “They all gasped,” he says, on seeing the more than 30 megastars on the same slide. “But they instantly got it. That kind of excitement permeates the building.”
While hiring and scheduling talent requires a certain kind of lion tamer, Alonso carries the responsibility of visual effects across the board — whenever and wherever you see a Marvel hero, she’s touched it. She estimates each Marvel film consists of 2,000 to 3,000 shots: Only about 50 of those in the theater version are not enhanced by VFX.
“You’re given your mantra and you can’t tell anyone. Part of me thinks we all have the same mantra.”
“The thing about our work is, post-production is day one,” she says. “It’s at least three months before you hire the director. We start our traditional post before we start shooting, because we take our stories and we put them in previsualization.”
In layman’s terms, when Alonso and her team make a costume like a flashy new Spider-Man suit, they do it a single time, rather than following the more traditional process where a director completes principal photography, then ships the print out to a VFX warehouse for a lengthy upgrade.
“We have to integrate VFX, so we make the movie once, as opposed to every department fighting to make their own moment out of it,” she says. “When we make a costume and we create it in CG, you can use it for everything. You can use it for the marketing; you can use it for the parks; you can use it for the toys and games.”
Their jobs may be different, but Alonso and D’Esposito have a common foe. “Time is the enemy,” she says. “Time takes it away. We stay to our release dates; there are only a few times we had to change [dates over] things beyond our control. It’s not for lack of trying. But time is here, and we gotta go.”
Adding to the expanded platforms for Marvel content is the small matter of Disney’s Fox acquisition — which welcomes properties such as “The Fantastic Four” and “X-Men” back to the mothership. Time works against the team in a different capacity here, as Marvel is still unsure when it might be able to integrate characters that were previously licensed to Fox, including Wolverine and Deadpool.
D’Esposito says Marvel was not yet permitted to engage in conversations about Fox’s slice of Lee and Kirby’s characters, “but the prospect is certainly exciting.” Sources say Marvel will proceed with its next phase of films and introduce the Fox characters only when it feels organic.
“Post-production is day one. We start our traditional post before we start shooting.”
Alonso says she was excited to have the comic cousins return home. “We’re happy for the family get-together,” she says, but adds, “Who knows when it will be? Is it Thanksgiving? Is it Christmas? … The dream is to have everyone together. Now it’s a matter of the folks over there telling us when we can do what we need to do.”
Both Alonso and D’Esposito insist that any integration of Fox property will have to gel with the current phase of development, a new five-year cycle that has titles mapped out. The executives declined to name specific projects, of course: Protecting information is a virtue as prized as vibranium on the Marvel campus.
D’Esposito has long-lost relatives calling up asking for plotlines. Staff members at his downtown Los Angeles building grill him for trailer release dates. Alonso faces daily inquisitions from her 8-year-old daughter, who has nicknamed her mom Cookie.
“Cookie,” Alonso says, finger raised and pointed in an imitation of her child, “I strongly encourage you to tell me who dies in ‘Endgame.’ You don’t have to, but I strongly encourage you to.”
Alonso declined. The secrecy exists to create moments for Marvel fans, she says.
“You don’t bring a gift to someone’s house unwrapped. You don’t make a chair with two legs. When it’s ready, it’s ready.”