“This is the biggest, most significant thing we’ve ever done in eight and a half years.”
Efe Cakarel can’t disguise an excitement that’s bordering on hyperbole. Here’s why: Multiple Academy Award nominee and eternal critics’ darling Paul Thomas Anderson is exclusively streaming his new film Junun on Cakarel’s platform MUBI. “The films that he does–that’s the reason we exist,” says Cakarel, founder and CEO of MUBI. (The enthusiasm is reflected in a clock the company put on its homepage: “Countdown to Global Premiere.”)
Launched in 2007 under the name The Auteurs, streaming service MUBI bills itself as “the ultimate destination for watching the world’s best films”–and it’s banking on the idea that “less is more” to break out of the crowded stream dominated by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and HBO. Instead of unleashing a firehose of content to viewers, MUBI curates 30 films at a time on its site with a new film replacing another every day.
“They are trying to be everything for everyone,” Cakarel says of the competition. “As a result, they are not satisfying everyone. Because of our curation, we can really become the trusted service you go to to watch a quality film. We want to be the staff pick at your favorite video store.”
But is being an online film club enough to loosen Netflix’s grip on streaming? MUBI’s strongest asset, in conjunction with snagging exclusives with directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, is its foothold on a global scale, which, Cakarel says, was the impetus behind MUBI in the first place.
During a trip to Tokyo in 2007, Cakarel wanted to watch the Chinese drama In the Mood for Love but hit an all-too familiar snag in streaming abroad.
“There was not a single platform where I could watch a movie–it was unbelievable,” he says. “An idea was born right at that moment, and I started writing a business plan on the flight back to San Francisco.”
Two months later, MUBI was born and christened, at first, with a very different name.
“The name change happened because The Auteurs was a very challenging brand to scale. I found myself at a dinner party with people asking me, ‘What do you do?’ And I’m like, ‘The Auteurs.’ And they’re like, ‘What?’ You can’t even spell it!” Cakarel says. “So I wanted to create a brand that has no association with film that we could build to become a global brand. MUBI doesn’t have any meaning–it’s four letters: consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel. Scientifically those are the easiest names that can be pronounced across very different cultures.”
Although Netflix has been around since 1997, it introduced streaming in 2007, which put MUBI in a tough spot in the battle for content. Netflix was well out of the gate in terms of its online library, leveraging existing deals with studios to build its stock of VHS and DVD copies. In the U.S., Cakarel agrees that Netflix is “unstoppable.” However, expanding abroad is where the streaming giant has had its biggest roadblock that it’s aggressively trying to barrel past.
About 35% of Netflix’s 65 million subscribers are international and the plan announced in September to expand into Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong will no doubt bump up that number–but with what kind of content? MUBI has offices in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Turkey, and Mexico to deliver tailored curations to its 7 million users across 200 countries–the 30 films presented in Istanbul, for example, won’t be the same as in Paris. Realizing how diverse MUBI’s user base was from the start, Cakarel was able to focus early on securing deals for international films, acquiring and licensing more than 4,500 titles globally, such as Zhu Rikun’s The Dossier, Klaus Härö’s Mother of Mine, and Júlia Murat’s Found Memories.
“Once you get out of the U.S., content is a very difficult, expensive, and fragmented business–it takes many, many years to aggregate quality content from all the independent distributors all over the world,” Cakarel says. “As a result Netflix could not move as fast outside the U.S.–[they] still can’t. In the U.S., Netflix won that game five years ago but we saw a much bigger opportunity outside of the U.S. And that’s the opportunity: that we could create an amazing service that can co-exist with Netflix–that can complement the Netflix experience.”
Logging into Netflix can illicit a touch of the hysterical sublime–you’re inundated with rows and rows of TV shows and film and columns of genres. The painful process of selecting something on Netflix has officially become ripe for parody.
Meanwhile, MUBI thinks it has a solution for this condition. “We’re taking the entire paradox of choice out of the equation,” Cakarel says.
It’s not that choice is bad, it’s that Cakarel wants to position his company as valuing quality over quantity and as sort of a side kick to Netflix, which is part of the reason MUBI’s subscription rate starts at only $4.99 per month. How MUBI curates its content is a mix of data and manual input: Analyzing what kinds of films people in different countries are watching generates a bulk of titles, and from there, MUBI’s editorial team whittles down the list. Cakarel explains that the curation process can become hyper-localized and is always fluid–MUBI’s editorial team is expected to keep in mind and contextualize current or historical events that can translate into films.
“The team plans months ahead what they want to program–themes, retrospectives–but can also react to events instantly,” he says. An example of this is how the company acquired Nicola Costantino: The Artefacta and Lucifer, two films currently screening at the London Film Festival and, now, on MUBI.
It’s a unique experience given the current landscape of streaming–unique enough to catch the eye of Paul Thomas Anderson. “PTA was one of those 7 million people on the platform watching movies and really liking the experience. One day I got an email from him and we began a wonderful conversation [about Junun],” says Cakarel. “This was a very personal project for him and he wanted to show it to a discerning audience.”
Junun documents Anderson’s trip to Rajasthan, India, with Radiohead lead guitarist and frequent collaborator Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood has composed the score for the three Anderson films before Junun. For Anderson’s new movie, Greenwood and a group of musicians worked on Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur’s new album. Junun played at the New York Film Festival and beginning tonight it will stream only on MUBI–a deal that could be a significant turning point for the company.
Cakarel declined to discuss specifics of the terms MUBI has made with Anderson and film studios but said that “deals are typically done based on either revenue share, straight license fee, or cost per subscriber with a minimum guarantee.”
“Five years from today I want people from Buenos Aires to Tokyo to New York, to automatically think, ‘What’s on MUBI tonight?’ when they want to watch a movie. That’s the vision. And it’s a big vision, delighting millions of people every day with the best films,” Cakarel says. “It’s going to take us many years but the team is more energized than ever–look at what we’re doing this week!”
Junun premieres on MUBI at midnight on October 8.