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Why the Coen Brothers’ Netflix Series Could Be Good News for the Film Industry

“We are streaming motherfuckers!” That was the full text of Ethan and Joel Coen’s statement on the news that Netflix would be distributing the brothers’ anthology miniseries “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” There was an exclamation point, but no comma. They’re not streaming, motherfuckers. They are streaming motherfuckers. They’re not doing something, they’re becoming something. In this context, “streaming” isn’t a verb, it’s a noun.

This point did not go unnoticed. Maybe it was the result of a careless intern in the PR department; more likely, it was just the kind of thing that happens when revered artists are forced to participate in a press release (especially when said revered artists’ have spent much of their careers chortling at the absurdity of capitalism and its systems). To that point, the Coen brothers don’t really do typos — they’ve been making period movies for more than 30 years, and not a single one of them has felt out of place.

So: “We are streaming motherfuckers!” It kind of reads like a confession. An enthusiastic confession, but a confession nonetheless — like a secret shame they’ve been waiting to share with the world. After all, the Coen brothers probably aren’t supposed to like streaming, and they’re certainly not supposed to encourage it.

The Coen brothers, for whatever reason, are synonymous with capital F “Film.” Maybe that’s because their screwball sensibilities cleave closer to Preston Sturges than they do to Spider-Man, or maybe that’s just because they’re enduringly beloved directors whose creative personas were forged long before Netflix (and many of the people who use it) came into existence, but these guys are undeniably seen as part of the old guard. In the forever war between cinema and television, a conflict that was exhausting long before streaming content started to redraw the battle lines on a daily basis, the Coen brothers seemed like the latest in a recent line of key defectors. It’s one thing when rising young directors forfeits their indies to Netflix for financial reasons, or when a newly minted iconoclast squeezes in an Amazon series after winning Best Picture, but it’s quite another when major auteurs like Woody Allen, David Lynch, and Jane Campion give the small screen a shot, or when Martin Scorsese decides that his next $100 million gangster epic will open in living rooms instead of movie theaters. At this point, it’s pretty much just Christopher Nolan against the world (that might be a fair fight, to be honest).

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese

Lauren/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong; it’s hard to make sense of a war while it’s still being fought. “We are streaming motherfuckers!” What if the key part of that sentence isn’t the lack of a comma, but the lack of an apostrophe? It’s “‘we are’ streaming motherfuckers, not “‘we’re streaming motherfuckers.” Again, the emphasis isn’t on action, but rather on actuality. A case could be made that the Coen brothers aren’t admitting a change of heart so much as they’re celebrating an epiphany about this moment in the media landscape: When it comes to the grand seduction of the streaming world, the industry currently has a lot more to offer the filmmakers we already love than it does the ones we haven’t gotten the chance to know yet.

Much has been written about how Netflix can be a double-edged sword for emerging directors, about how the monolithic streaming giant likes to inflate its library by overspending on small movies and then burying them beneath banner ads for “Stranger Things” (curtains on the Titanic for a company that’s $20 billion in debt). But a project like “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a wake-up call that the tail doesn’t always have to wag the dog; the role that distribution plays in content doesn’t always have to overshadow the role that content plays in distribution.

People tend to think of Netflix as an unparalleled platform for fresh and/or previously muted voices, and that’s because Netflix should be an unparalleled platform for fresh and/or previously muted voices. But the fact of the matter is that, when it comes to movies, Netflix still has absolutely no idea what to do with unknown quantities. The company may get there one day, and upcoming releases like Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” suggest that it’s trying to push the pace, but — for the time being — Netflix has made it easier to sell movies and harder for them to get seen.

It’s hardly alone in that regard. Amazon Studios, whose model takes an infinitely more practical and conciliatory approach to the theatrical/streaming divide, has also relied on name-brand filmmakers in order to wedge its way into the distribution business. It did a truly phenomenal job of releasing “The Big Sick” this summer, but that indie — even with an experienced comic guru like Michael Showalter at the helm — was something of an outlier in a roster dominated by heavy-hitting auteurs like Kenneth Lonergan, Jim Jarmusch, and Todd Haynes.

Millicent Simonds Wonderstruck

“Wonderstruck”

It’s much the same on the cable TV side of things. Showtime isn’t exactly handing out Sunday night slots to anyone who comes knocking, but David Lynch was given 18 hours of primetime real estate for “Twin Peaks: The Return.” And when the show-runner isn’t an indie legend, the property often has to be; “Fargo” became a limited edition series long before the brothers who created its source material decided to explore that space, and EPIX’s “Get Shorty” wouldn’t exist if Elmore Leonard’s novel hadn’t made so much money when it was adapted for the big screen. There are exceptions, of course (HBO provided a great example with Issa Rae’s “Insecure”), but the fact remains that Hollywood is relying on familiar names to pioneer unfamiliar territory. The streaming giants are great at helping upcoming filmmakers get into the system, and they’re great at helping established filmmakers break out of it. That’s not the way it’s going to be forever, but that’s the way it is for now.

In that light, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” starts to look a little bit different — it looks like less of a loss for film than it does a win for filmmakers. Given the overstated instability of the entertainment industry right now (and our resultant tendency to see the forest for the trees), we tend to score every streaming acquisition based on the extent to which it supposedly “disrupts” the status quo. But major filmmakers, the ones big enough to have their head above the clouds, have proven themselves immune to such malarkey.

Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae in HBO's "Insecure"

“Insecure”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

It must have been a very empowering moment when the Coen brothers first decided to work on some kind of TV show. For several decades, they thought about telling stories in discrete, two-hour chunks because that was the only shape in which they could ever be financed and brought to fruition. They’re too smart for a network TV pilot, and too particular (and restless) for a multi-season HBO effort; their hands were tied even without factoring the “theatrical experience” into the equation.

But then, one fine day a year or two back, they must have looked up and realized that there were a few new options on the table. Suddenly, the Coen brothers were free to chase the idea of a six-hour anthology with a stupid title because they knew it wouldn’t necessarily lead to a dead end. For the first time in their working lives, they could let a story lead them by the leash. If it took them towards a movie, great; if not, that would also be fine. A lot of great films were made by trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, but then again so was “The Dark Tower.”

It’s not going to feel like this every time a major auteur (or a pair of them) decide to spend some time riding the streaming wave, but “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a healthy reminder that we’re only shooting ourselves in the foot when we decide that one distribution model can only succeed at expense of another. In truth, they can complement each other, and Buster Scruggs can help make sure they do. We shouldn’t see one Netflix series as a death knell for the movies, and when the Coen brothers inevitably go back to the movies, we shouldn’t interpret that to mean their Netflix experiment was a failure. They aren’t traitors, they’re just the latest cinema legends to realize that Netflix and its ilk can be a vehicle for storytelling, and not just an avenue for it.

We are all going to be streaming motherfuckers sooner or later, but the waters will be a lot less choppy if filmmakers get to keep some control over the current.

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