When The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was released on Netflix last week it became instantly available to the service’s 55 million subscribers in the United States. Not all of those people were going to interested in it and Netflix famously doesn’t release viewer numbers for individual content, except on rare occasions where it wants to tout some massive success.
That’s a much bigger potential audience immediately upon release than 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, also from the Coen Brothers, which opened in four theaters initially, slowly expanding to just over 700 only six weeks later and then falling from there.
15 years ago I worked for several months at a nearby Blockbuster Video. Shortly after starting there I commented to my manager that the store’s lack of a complete Coen Brothers filmography was emotionally disturbing to me. If you want to truly serve movie fans, I argued, you had to have the whole catalog. There were a few VHS tapes and DVDs of Blood Simple and a couple others, but not everything.
I was being a bit snooty and sarcastic, but only barely.
The argument as to why some movies only get limited release while others show up in thousands of theaters opening weekend is usually framed in some way that involves both customer preferences and economics. People vote with their wallets and they have voted for special effects-heavy blockbusters, at least en masse. Smaller groups, usually located in well-off urban enclaves, are the only ones signalling a preference for anything else. It’s why Chicago’s The Music Box Theater plays very different movies than either of the multiplexes within a 20 minute drive of my suburban home.
That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, a logic loop that reinforces behavior and then uses the resulting success as a sign of what people want instead of being simply the result of limited choices.
Blockbuster Video couldn’t do much to change that because it was limited by the realities of physical space. Stores, including the one I worked at, certainly stocked smaller movies alongside the bigger ones with mass appeal. But your odds of finding a copy of Old School on the shelf in 2003 were greater than if you were looking for Owning Mahoney.
Netflix changes that game because it’s free from those physical limits. Everyone can check it out when they want, either now when buzz is in full effect, or later, when it may pop up as a recommendation or come up in conversation with someone. It’s not dependent on whether that geographic location has shown a tendency to rent or see similar movies or what the demographics of that area are.
The conversations around Ballad, Roma and other recent and upcoming Netflix releases have largely been around what kind of theatrical run the company is giving them. There have been lots of opinions about how putting them in theaters makes the movies more “serious” or something similar, as if release constitutes quality.
Personally I will take widespread availability every time it’s an option. That doesn’t diminish the seriousness with which a movie should be received or comment on the quality of the film itself. It gives more people more options, the ability to choose something they otherwise might not have. That’s very much a good thing.