The Big Lebowski: A Cult Classic That Wouldn't Work in 2018
The history of The Big Lebowski embodies the cult classic status. Performing poorly at the box office, it garnered middling reviews only to find meteoric success and praise through word of mouth, midnight film festivals and the passing of time. In the year of its 20th anniversary, it's easy to espouse why the success is well deserved, even with a silly quasi religious doctrine dedicated to its cardigan wearing main character.
While I think it’s hard to find anyone who, at least, won’t begrudgingly give it respect as a well-crafted film, there are two questions that constantly come up when addressing the Coen brothers classic: Would it be financially viable in 2018? And more importantly, in the era of streaming services, would it find the same manic and saintly success that it has in the 20 years since its release?
Ironically, The Big Lebowski found success due to the isolation of home video. Considered a financial flop at the time, only recouping two million domestically on a budget of $15 million, Lebowski found life in home video sales. A festival dedicated solely to the film cropped up in 2002, because in 1998 and the following years, physically gathering in groups was one of the fews way to appreciate it. There was no Twitter, Facebook or god forbid Tumblr, where legions of fans could dissect every reference and dudeism at the touch of a button.
Passing around VHS and eventually DVD copies worked and helped spread the gospel, but Lebowski still lived in a bubble. Eventually it joined the ranks of Dazed and Confused and Fast Times at Ridgemont High - touchstones blurted out in casual conversation to let everyone know how unironically “with it,” you were in terms of film.
In the era of Netflix, Prime Video and Hulu, I think Lebowski would have released to the same scratching of heads, confused as to how to feel about such a meandering and darkly comedic film. History argues otherwise, when it comes to pretending such a film would have done better in the modern era. Social media would have helped the film capture attention faster but it would have been lost in the shuffle, our attention spans turning to other trivial things timelines deem important. Lebowski would hit Netflix, garner positive reviews and then sat on various platforms, lost in the weekly rotation of new content. Budget wise, Lebowski was below the ‘98 average of $53 million, but it seems reasonable to think Netflix would doled out the same or astronomically more considering what it cost to produce Bright.
Financially, Lebowski is also interesting to analyze. Looking at the Coen brothers’ filmography leading up to The Dude, it’s one classic after another: Blood Simple, in ‘84; Raising Arizona in ‘87; Miller’s Crossing in ‘90; Barton Fink in ‘91; The Hudsucker Proxy in ‘94; Fargo in ‘96, and The Big Lebowski in ‘98. Financially, their biggest success at the time was Raising Arizona grossing $22 million domestically. The word of mouth trend can be found here as well, since Raising Arizona only made $36,240 in its opening weekend on a budget of $600,000.
Although the options for funding have opened up considerably since 1998, with the arrival of crowdfunding and easier access to equipment and distribution, revenue expectation has also skyrocketed. If we were to place the Coen brothers and their run of films leading up to Lebowski into 2018, I don’t think it would work at all. Look at 2013s Inside Llewyn Davis, which on a budget of $11 million, only made $32 million worldwide. Respectable, but in the age of billion dollar box office, it’s tough to look at. Comparing auteur, more serious films against the summer superhero blockbuster isn’t easy, but the Coen brothers still make films within this landscape. With Hollywood demanding every ounce of blood from the proverbial stone, a two-hour zonked out dramedy about a middle aged pothead wouldn’t do big numbers.
The other thing that Lebowski has going against it in terms of getting the film made in 2018 is that nothing actually happens. In a Hollywood full of straightforward sequels, reboots and genre fodder, the Coen brothers have been the narrative exception to the rule. A large swath of their filmography has the plot taking a backseat to their character and sardonic antics. Burn After Reading, Fargo, Inside Llewyn Davis, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Are all films where what happens on screen is less important than the words spoken and the thematic consistency found throughout. I can only imagine the headache every Hollywood executive has when trying to crunch the numbers on how to make the next film from the Coen's work.
Thankfully 1998 gave us The Big Lebowski and we’ll never have to worry about whether or not it would work in 2018. On its 20th anniversary The Dude shall abide goddammit, and so should you. With a carton of milk in one hand and the other in a giant bowl of popcorn—or other preferred munchie of choice—throw on the best thing 1998 had to offer and marvel in the glory that is the Coen Brothers lethargic masterpiece.