The theatrical hopes and mainstream distribution of short films may depend on the success of anthology features like the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Scruggs is essentially six distinct short films woven together with little more than a Wes Anderson-esque book flipping motif, an old west setting and themes of the absurd mortality of man and the futility of human existence. Nothing new for the Coens, theme-wise, but the structure is something fresh. Each of the individual “chapters” works well as short stories, but ultimately as a collection, the dire perspective will likely become tiresome for many viewers. The film lacks the charm and humor that many of their darker comedies rely on (think Fargo) as well as the high-stakes energy of their thrillers (think No Country For Old Men). The end message may say more about your current view of the world and human existence than anything the filmmakers themselves are trying to convey. Are you a misanthrope like Buster Scruggs himself (though he denies this descriptor) or a wide-eyed optimist like Alice (played by Zoe Kazan)? Either way, you’re doomed. How well you deal with the doom is entirely up to you. But what purpose does this bleak portrait serve if it doesn’t come with the same popcorn satisfaction of their features?
Still, for the collective voice of the Internet and the film criticism world at large, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appears to be a resounding success, though quantifying that success is still somewhat of a mystery. It’s hard to know the actual streaming numbers, as Netflix keeps these close to their chest, but it is assumed by the popular conversation emerging around the film that it is being viewed as far and wide as any Coen theatrical release, likely far more. It’s to be determined whether the emerging awards season will offer any more insight into the success of the film as streaming releases that also offer limited theatrical release are still relatively untested in the awards waters (unlike their counterparts in television which receive record Emmy and Globe nominations every year). Though, Roma, the latest film from writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, Gravity), appears poised to break these trends as the critical favorite and perhaps indie-Oscar bracket buster as well (watch out A Star Is Born).
Without a true barometer to measure the success of streaming films (theatrical movies have the box office and television has Nielsen ratings), it’s hard to quantify the influence of a film like Buster Scruggs. So, we rely on cultural conversation, awards and whether Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and perhaps the Hollywood studios themselves will roll out more anthology style films in the near future. This prognosticator’s best guess, after carefully monitoring the collective pulse of the above-mentioned indicators, is that they will.
Unless I’m wrong (and I’m never wrong ;), this could be great news for the art of short film storytelling. Short films already have a short life in front of a theatrical audience (confined primarily to film festivals) and have not quite found consistent viewing online (though Vimeo, Short of the Week and Film Shortage, among others, are giving more and more opportunity for shorts to find a larger audience online). However, mainstream success for short films remains allusive. The major streaming platforms need to have categories for short films and should better plug them into their algorithms so they show up under genre searches and preferences designed for the individual viewer. You can find a few Oscar winning shorts on Netflix, but there is no category to search for them. Kanopy, a new streaming service that allows you to watch films for free with your library card, has a short film category that is mostly recent Oscar nominees—a drop in the bucket as far as the catalog of worthwhile shorts go, but a nice, small selection none-the-less. Hulu and Amazon have thus far stayed out of the shorts game.
Whether these streaming companies create and boost their shorts collections and indeed treat them like feature films may depend on the success of future films like Buster Scruggs because these films will prove that audiences have a hunger for short story cinema. Currently, it seems like notable anthology films only come along every decade or so. Think, New York Stories (1989), Four Rooms (1995), and Paris Je t’aime (2006), and that’s about it for anthology films that have breached the mainstream consciousness. And those that do usually require huge names attached, such as Coppola, Scorsese and Allen with New York Stories and Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez with Four Rooms (not to mention the star power of these movie’s casts). Will short films from unknown filmmakers be able to break into this mold, even if they don’t include big-name actors? Can a ten-minute short do this on its own? Or is there room for thematically programmed short film blocks to emerge in mainstream streaming, and dare I say, even theatrical distribution? They would effectively work the same as a film like Buster Scruggs but would allow a wide array of thematic and visual exploration from a variety of artists. Paris Je t’aime and the other installments in the Cities of Love franchise serve this structure well and prove it can be successful.
At the moment, the films exist. And I believe the audience appetite exists. Just think of the countless hours you and those you know spend watching viral Internet videos and other short content. But there are little to no middlepersons advocating for short films on behalf of the filmmakers. Who is putting together short film programs and selling them to Netflix or trying to distribute them to theaters? There are a lot of roadblocks in the path to making this a reality, but those blocks will start coming down once it is proven financially worthwhile.
Independent film and art film have driven the innovation and expansion of the mainstream cinema experience for decades, both via the artists that create them as well as the art house theaters that support them. You’ll be hard pressed to find even the most corporate of chain theaters today that does not include what would have been considered art house foil just two or three decades ago. And of course, Netflix and other streaming companies have embraced the art film at an even greater scale. I believe, as anthology films become more successful and more streaming platforms support and market short films, the market will begin to look at shorts and perhaps even thematic short film programs as an untapped gold vein (a “Mr. Pocket” if you will) of cinema. And they should. These filmmakers deserve to be seen. These audiences deserve the same access to these films as any feature.
So, please watch Buster Scruggs and films like it as they emerge. Post about them and share them on social media. Write your streaming services and ask why they don’t have a short film category or more short films available. And support the platforms that are already supporting great shorts such as Vimeo, Film Shortage and Short of the Week. Let’s bring the art of the short into the mainstream.