Netflix Put a Movie in Theaters. Good Luck Finding It.

Posted November 14, 2018 4:40 p.m. EST

Breaking with its long-held position, Netflix announced in late October that it would begin releasing select movies in theaters before making them available on its streaming platform, rather than on the same day. But for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the new film from the Coen brothers and the first title Netflix is distributing this way, the exclusive theatrical release was something of a mirage.

In the United States, the movie played in just three cities — New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — at a Landmark Theater in each, and for just four days, Nov. 8-11, rather than a standard week.

Announced a little more than a week in advance, the Thursday theatrical release — moved up from a simultaneous streaming-and-theaters opening on Nov. 16 — was not well-advertised. On Twitter, moviegoers complained that the film was showing only in small auditoriums.

After the opening weekend, anyone looking to see the film between Monday and Thursday this week would have been out of luck. (On Friday, the Coens’ film will reopen in a handful of theaters on the same day it begins streaming on Netflix. As for how many tickets were sold last week, Netflix, in keeping with its past practice, has not released information on box office grosses.)

Adding to the confusion, the film opened on a Thursday, not a Friday, when most films are released domestically. Jared Gores, a podcaster and a documentary producer in the San Francisco Bay Area, had read the news of the sudden theatrical release but still thought the Coens’ film was opening on Friday. At the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco to buy a ticket for a different movie that Wednesday, he happened to see that “Buster Scruggs” was listed as opening the next day.

“It was kind of a coincidence that I happened to be looking at the right time to catch it,” Gores said.

He added, though, that he doesn’t have an issue with Netflix. “They’ve put money behind stuff that probably wouldn’t get made in the first place,” he said.

To some — like The New York Times’ awards columnist, Kyle Buchanan — Netflix’s newfound attention to theatrical distribution is a smoke screen: a case of creating the appearance of an interest in theaters in order to keep a coming release, Alfonso Cuarón’s much-anticipated “Roma,” in the Oscar race. Academy voters have so far been skeptical of rewarding Netflix titles. In three years of competing, the company has had only one feature-length movie, the documentary “Icarus,” take home a statue.

“Roma,” scheduled to open Nov. 21, will pose the next test of the sincerity of Netflix’s interest in theaters, and also of the limitations of its release plan. Major chains, including AMC and Regal, have said they will not screen Netflix movies as long as the company makes them available for streaming within 90 days of their theatrical release. Netflix has said it will release “Roma” theatrically in more than 20 countries, though the number of theaters is still unknown. Netflix did not respond to questions for this article.

The company has also said it plans presentations of “Roma” in the rarely used 70-mm format, a lavish and unusual treatment for a movie that was shot digitally. But the number of theaters available for such presentations is limited. In New York, for instance, 70-mm showings of “Dunkirk” and “Phantom Thread” played at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square — but AMC theaters are out in this case.

The Alamo Drafthouse chain, which does not have a Netflix ban, will not screen “Roma” at its 70-mm-capable Downtown Brooklyn theater. The chain’s founder, Tim League, said in a statement that it would not be showing the movie because of “a variety of circumstances that include prior commitments to other studio partners.” He added that he was hoping to offer select screenings of the film at other locations after Thanksgiving.

Two December openings, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” a new movie version of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” stories with a cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett; and “Bird Box,” a thriller starring Sandra Bullock, will also test Netflix’s commitment to theaters. Traditionally, they would open in thousands of theaters — not three.

The comedian Dan Telfer, who also saw “Buster Scruggs” last week and recommended to others on Twitter that they do the same, found his exhortation was met with bafflement: People hadn’t realized the movie had opened.

“My take was that they had no plan and threw this together at the last minute,” he said of the screening he attended in Los Angeles. “It felt like it should have been an event, and wasn’t.” Telfer had a heads-up on the release that most moviegoers did not: A friend of his, the actress Thea Lux, had a bit part in the movie and didn’t know if she had made the final cut. He accompanied her and her husband to the screening.

Seeing his friend — who is indeed in the film — “freaking out” during the screening was not an experience that would have felt as meaningful in front of a television.

“The cool part for me was, well, even if it turns out she’s not in this scene, I’m getting a rare glimpse into something that I feel like was meant to be seen in a theater,” he said.