Netflix Pans for Awards Gold With Reworked 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'

The Coen Brother's former TV project will now premiere at the Venice Film Festival as a feature film.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

The Coen Brother’s former TV project will now premiere at the Venice Film Festival as a feature film.

One of the more surprising announcements to come out of the release of the Venice Film Festival’s 2018 lineup is the news that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would be screening in the competition. As a feature film.

When we last heard about Scruggs, it was a television project, the first ever directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and was due to be released on Netflix. The show was intended to be a six-part anthology series set in the American West.

However, it appears the Coens have made major revisions to their original project because the series is currently listed as a 132-minute feature film in the Venice Film Festival’s program. Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular Scruggs. James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, and Tom Waits are also among the ensemble cast.

A tongue-in-cheek statement from the Coens, as reported on by Variety, confirms that Scruggs the film remains an anthology and that the filmmakers retain sole directing credit.

This seemingly last-minute format switch came as a surprise to many, but it makes more sense when considered in tandem with Netflix’s continued push to be more competitive during awards season.

Although they are currently one of the most successful disrupters in the film and TV industries, Netflix hasn’t won as many major awards as it wants to, particularly when it comes to the Oscars. This is due in large part to the streaming giant’s practice of releasing its films online concurrently with their theatrical runs, a practice that has provoked criticism from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan and led Netflix to quit submitting their movies to the programmers of the Cannes Film Festival following a rule change explicitly prohibiting same-day streaming.

Netflix has recently taken major steps to reverse their bad luck accumulated from prior awards races. First, they hired an in-house awards consultant to oversee the campaigns for all of their film and TV programming. Second, they have devoted more of their considerable budget to acquiring and funding largescale film projects by big-name directors, most notably Martin Scorsese‘s upcoming gangster drama The Irishman.

Now that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has been recut from an anthology series (a niche format) into a more conventional feature film, the project fits right in with Netflix’s existing slate of upcoming features by award-winning directors. In fact, Scruggs fits right in with the other Netflix awards hopefuls also premiering at Venice, including Alfonso Cuaron‘s Roma and Paul Greengrass‘ 22 July.

In the particular case of the Oscars, Netflix not only has to tiptoe around the controversy of same-day streaming but also the controversy of which formats constitute a feature film. After the seven-hour, episodic documentary OJ: Made in America snagged an Oscar in 2017, the Academy changed the eligibility rules for their documentary category specifically to exclude episodic series.

If Netflix wants The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to win a major film award, particularly an Oscar, it makes sense for them to release it in the format that will be the most awards-friendly. They can’t count on the Academy to do for Scruggs what Sight & Sound’ did for Twin Peaks the Return.

We can’t say for certain precisely what motivated the Coen Brothers and Netflix to make such a radical change to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But it is apparent that by converting Scruggs into a feature, the Coens have handed Netflix a strong new contender for the Oscars race, a race that they really really want to win.