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How a small streaming site became the Netflix for indie film

How a small streaming site became the Netflix for indie film


More than eight years after it launched, MUBI continues to put quality before quantity

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© Shin Katan

In February 2007, about a month after Netflix began streaming movies online, Efe Cakarel quietly launched what would become MUBI — a video-on-demand service focused on international and independent cinema. Where Netflix sought to amass a large library for wide audiences, Cakarel, a Turkish entrepreneur, took a decidedly different tack, focusing on a limited selection of old classics and art house releases. Since then, Netflix has gone on to become a streaming behemoth, and many of its smaller rivals have folded. But MUBI isn't one of them.

Cakarel likens MUBI to "the 'staff picks' section at your favorite video store. You go in there and you don't care how many thousands of titles they have, you only go for the staff picks — the 30 titles that they chose — and there's always something there that you like. That's what MUBI is; we are a trusted advisor."

Last month, the London-based company announced that it had secured exclusive streaming rights to Junun, the new film from celebrated director Paul Thomas Anderson. The documentary, which follows Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood through a musical tour across India, premieres this Thursday at the New York Film Festival. Hours later, it will be available exclusively on MUBI, which charges $4.99 a month (or $39.99 a year) for access to a library of hand-selected films.

"Think about your own Netflix experience and how frustrating it is."

Securing the rights to Anderson's film is a major coup for MUBI, and it's one that almost fell into the company's lap. According to Cakarel, the company's CEO, Anderson has long been a MUBI subscriber, and reached out to the company earlier this year, when Junun was still in its nascent phases.

"We didn't even know [he was a member] because he was using an email that was not descriptive, and he was not using his real name," Cakarel says. Eventually, the company learned that Anderson was working on a new film, and the two parties agreed to premiere it on its site. "He wanted to show his film to a discerning, global audience," Cakarel adds. "And everything came together."

MUBI has spent years cultivating that audience with a selection of artsy, obscure films that don't usually appear on Netflix or Hulu. (It originally launched under the name "The Auteurs," before rebranding in 2010 as MUBI — a play on accented pronunciations of "movie," and after a city in Nigeria.) On Monday, the titles available on the company's US site included Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 classic The Conformist, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, by Chan-wook Park. Occasionally, it features more mainstream movies like Sin City, currently available on the French site, though the majority are far more obscure. A new title is added every day as another drops out, meaning that only 30 films are available for streaming at any given time.

"Human curation works when it's for a niche segment."

MUBI's curatorial approach stands in sharp contrast to major streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, which have amassed large libraries and deliver personalized recommendations based on algorithms. MUBI's human-curated selection takes a lot of that choice away, and Cakarel thinks viewers are better off for it.

"Think about your own Netflix experience and how frustrating it is — how long it takes you to find a film that you want to watch," says Cakarel. "It doesn't work. It categorically doesn't work."

He says the strategy makes business sense, as well. MUBI needs to obtain streaming rights for only 365 films a year, compared to the thousands on Netflix and Amazon, and limits their availability to 30 days, which brings down licensing costs. The site launched with a more traditional approach in 2007, with titles that would circle in and out of rotation, but shifted to its one-film-a-day model three years ago as a way to "keep it fresh," Cakarel says.

mubi screengrab

Only 30 films are available at any given time on MUBI, with a new one added every day.

Some music streaming services, like Apple's, have recently turned to human curation. It's even become common on social networks like Snapchat and Twitter. But aside from Vyer Films, a $20-per-month service, few video-on-demand platforms have fully committed to human curation the way MUBI has.

"Human curation works when it's for a niche segment," says Fernando Elizalde, an analyst the research and advisory firm Gartner. "The big thing about [subscription streaming services] is that unless they're specific and niche, like MUBI, they need large amounts of content to be appealing. And the cost of human curation for so much content is very high."

"I know that they're not for everyone."

That's not to say that MUBI runs an entirely data-free operation. The company uses country-specific information to determine which types of films are most popular in any of the 200 territories where it has launched. (Turkey prefers Middle Eastern dramas, Scandinavian countries like anime.) But the final programming for every country is determined by a team of around 50 employees.

So far, the strategy appears to have paid off. In January, MUBI announced a new funding round of $15 million, a few months after raising $5.1 million in its fourth round. The company has also struck recent licensing deals with Paramount and Sony Pictures Television, and has begun acquiring films for distribution. In July, it acquired its first film, a six-hour Portuguese drama called Arabian Nights that premiered to critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, and Cakarel says the company will pursue more acquisitions on the festival circuit going forward.

He adds that MUBI would consider producing original content, à la Netflix and Amazon, though it still lacks the resources and expertise. The service currently has around 7 million registered users, though it isn't profitable, and only about 100,000 are paid subscribers (a figure that is growing at a weekly rate of 2 percent, the company says). That pales in comparison to the millions who pay for Netflix, Hulu, and other major streaming services, but Cakarel doesn't think of them as direct competitors.

"I know that they're not for everyone," he says of MUBI's selection of films. "Netflix is trying to be for everyone. They are going after 70 percent of households, I'm going for ten. But I can really satisfy that ten."