Our stars align for Hollywood award

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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 18: Anthony Russo, Jon Favreau, Louis D’Esposito, Angela Russo-Otstot, Donald Mustard, and Joe Russo attend AGBO Russo Brothers’ Italian American Filmmaker Forum: 2024 Renaissance Celebration Honoring Louis D’Esposito on January 18, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for AGBO)

Italian-American leaders and Hollywood luminaries converged on downtown Los Angeles recently for a groundbreaking award ceremony.

The event took place on Jan. 18 at AGBO, the studio run by industry powerhouses Joseph and Anthony Russo. The dynamic duo presented fellow Hollywood heavyweight Louis D’Esposito with their inaugural Renaissance Award.

The annual ceremony was launched to honor Italian Americans who have had a positive impact on the entertainment industry and to raise funds for the Russo Brothers Italian American Filmmaker Forum.

The purpose of the forum is “to champion emerging filmmakers who are trying to explore the Italian-American experience and share those unique experiences not just with our own community but with the entire world,” Anthony Russo explained to the assemblage.

And what an assemblage it was.  The presidents of Italian-American organizations from across the country rubbed elbows throughout the day with paesani from every corner of the entertainment industry.

On hand were Marvel Universe mainstays Jon Favreau, Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista; comedian Joe Piscopo; actor Michael Badalucco; and singers Frankie Valli and Lena Prima. Marvel alums Robert Downey Jr., Paul Rudd, Josh Brolin, Tom Holland and Anthony Mackie sang D’Esposito’s praises via video during the award ceremony.

The Russo brothers spoke glowingly of their heritage at the top of the ceremony, noting that many Italian Americans have fond memories of gathering around tables with relatives and friends to share stories about the immigrant experience.

“When you hear these stories from the people you love, they stay with you and they become a part of your own story and eventually a cornerstone of your identity,” Anthony Russo explained. “This is why Italian Americans have come to play such an integral role not only in America, but Hollywood. We understand the power of storytelling and the profound impact it can have on our lives and in our community. Tonight, we will celebrate that connection between the Italian-American experience and cinema, specifically as it is realized in the life and work of our honoree.”

The brothers couldn’t have picked a more suitable first recipient for their Renaissance Award. Raised in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, D’Esposito skyrocketed through the Hollywood ranks from assistant director to the pinnacle of his profession on the strength of his profound affection for moviemaking, infectious enthusiasm and keen understanding of the industry.

As co-president of Marvel Studios, D’Esposito has shepherded 33 films through production that have collectively grossed nearly $30 billion worldwide, including 10 that have achieved the billion-dollar milestone.

A cavalcade of stars and behind-the-scenes talent touted his remarkable savvy during the video presentation, but above all they praised him as a “steadying presence,” a “regular guy” and someone who always reminds you that “making movies is fun.”

D’Esposito accepts his award. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for AGBO)

“Being immersed in the Italian culture, it forms you as a person, your values, your personality, your goals in life,” D’Esposito explained when accepting the award. “Family is so important, and I think I treat our colleagues here at work like family.”

D’Esposito and Italian Consul General Raffaella Valentini (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for AGBO)

D’Esposito proudly noted that he was granted Italian citizenship just a couple of weeks before the event after an arduous five-year application process. The ceremony was capped with an appearance by Raffaella Valentini, Italy’s consul general in Los Angeles, who presented D’Esposito with a framed certificate of citizenship.

The Russo brothers are near and dear members of D’Esposito’s extended Hollywood family, having directed four of Marvel Studios’ biggest films.

In the last decade, the pair have emerged as the most financially successful film directors in the world, with $7 billion in box-office sales. As co-founders and partners in AGBO, which they formed in 2016, they helm one of the nation’s most successful privately owned film and television production company, with a value of $1.1 billion. In 2022, Variety magazine declared them Showmen of the Year.

The combined star power of the Russos and D’Esposito helped attract support for, and attention to, the event’s beneficiary, the Russo Brothers Italian American Filmmaker Forum. Founded in 2016 and run by sibling Angela Russo-Otstot, who also serves as AGBO’s chief creative officer, the program has fueled the creation of 47 films with more than $400,000 in grants. The winner of each year’s competition takes part in the AGBO Storytellers Collective, which brings young directors together to network with each other and learn the trade from the professionals at the studio.

Inspiration for the forum came from the siblings’ father, Basil Russo, who serves as president of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA) and the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations.

“I went to them and said, ‘The biggest problem we have is the way we’re portrayed in movie after movie, TV show after TV show, as having an ongoing relationship with organized crime. We need to turn that around,’” Basil Russo recounts. “I told them, ‘Let’s give out grants to aspiring filmmakers who are going to explore the Italian-American experience in a positive way.’ They loved it!”

Funding comes from ISDA and the AGBO Foundation, with grant recipients selected by the Russo family and a panel of AGBO professionals. Moving forward, the program will present five $10,000 grants, with an additional $10,000 awarded given to the winner. Starting next year, the Russos will host an annual film festival in Hollywood that will provide the winning film with significant industry exposure.

Grant-winning films are already coming to the attention of the general public. A previous winner, “Potentially Dangerous,” about the mistreatment of Italian nationals living in America during World War II, has been aired on PBS stations across the country.

According to Basil Russo, AGBO’s first Renaissance Award ceremony garnered positive press and several calls from non-Italian Americans in the industry who praised the event and wanted to know more. “This was novel,” he explains. “Nothing like this has ever been done before in Hollywood.”

As the years pass and the awards pile up and word continues to spread, Basil Russo hopes to send a clear message to Tinseltown.

“We want to let Hollywood know that we’re a strong, viable, proud ethnic group who’s very concerned about the way our heritage is portrayed in film and television,” he says, “and that we expect to be treated with the same degree of respect that the industry affords to every other ethnicity.”

For more on the potential impact of the event, click here.

The above appears in the April 2024 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.


About Paul Basile

Paul Basile has been the editor of Fra Noi for a quarter of a century. Over that period, he and his dedicated family of staff members and correspondents have transformed a quaint little community newspaper into a gorgeous glossy magazine that is read and admired across the nation. They also maintain a cluster of national and local websites and are helping other major metropolitan areas launch their own versions of Fra Noi.

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