MUBI, the streaming service for independent films, is launching in China. Today, the London-based startup announced a joint venture with Huanxi Media, a Hong Kong-listed entertainment company that finances films for the Chinese market. Huanxi is investing $40 million for a 70 percent stake in the joint venture, known as MUBI China, and another $10 million in MUBI.
Billed as a "curated online cinema," MUBI offers a selection of 30 films for streaming on the web or through its mobile apps. A new title is added every day as another drops out, and the selection varies from country to country. Big budget films occasionally pass through MUBI's revolving door, but independent and arthouse films make up the bulk of its library. Movies available on the French site Wednesday included Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Austin Powers, and Orpheus, a 1950 film by Jean Cocteau.
MUBI has expanded to more than 200 territories since launching in 2007, and has recently begun acquiring films on the festival circuit. Last year, it acquired exclusive streaming rights for Junun, the latest movie from Paul Thomas Anderson. By launching in China, home to the world's largest online population, it's entering a market that its Western competitors have yet to crack. This month, Netflix announced an expansion to 130 new countries, including India and Russia, though it has not launched in China.
"The market is wide open."
"What we are seeing in China is that they are at the very, very beginning of VOD," says Efe Cakarel, the CEO and founder of MUBI. "The market is wide open." He adds that while Chinese companies like Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba have focused on user-generated video platforms or ad-supported premium content, "no one has quite established a subscription-based platform, which we think is the only viable platform to show premium content and make the economics work."
MUBI aims to launch its service in China sometime this year, and Cakarel expects its new Beijing office to eventually be larger than its London headquarters, which has a staff of around 50 people. The company declined to disclose how many paid subscribers are on its platform, but Cakarel says the subscriber base doubled in 2015 over the previous year. MUBI raised $15 million last year, after raising $5.1 million in its previous round of funding. Huanxi's $10 million investment values the company at $125 million.
Huanxi Media was founded in 2015 by the Chinese producer Dong Ping and directors Ning Hao and Xu Zheng. Dong co-produced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, among other box office hits, and previously founded ChinaVision, a production company that was sold to Alibaba for $800 million last year. The first film financed by Huanxi Media, Lost in Hong Kong, was released this year and has since become the second-highest grossing Chinese-language film of all-time.
Fernando Elizalde, an analyst at the research firm Gartner, says it's "interesting" to see MUBI launch in China, "considering they're a niche [subscription] service." He says Chinese consumers are still largely reluctant to pay for streaming content, which has kept domestic prices comparatively low, though he acknowledges that "the size of the potential market is big there." iQiyi, a subscription video service owned by the search company Baidu, passed 10 million paid subscribers in December, and e-commerce giant Alibaba is reportedly developing its own Netflix-like service. Cakarel says the company has yet to determine a price point for its Chinese users; in the US, MUBI is available for $4.99 a month or $39.99 a year.
"In order to appeal to a market like China, we're probably going to have to do something different."
As for its Chinese library, Cakarel says MUBI will adhere to its longstanding arthouse aesthetic, only with a focus on Chinese films. Huanxi Media CEO Steve Xiang says his company will consider producing original content for release on MUBI China, and although he doesn't rule out screening some of the same movies currently available on MUBI in other countries, he says that "in order to appeal to a market like China, we're probably going to have to do something different."
Huanxi is based in Hong Kong, but the films it finances for mainland China — and those available on MUBI China — must still adhere to national regulations. China sets strict quotas on the number of foreign films it allows in theaters and online, and all titles are subject to approval from the country's censors. Cakarel says the quota doesn't pose a major problem for MUBI, since it only screens 365 films a year, though much like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, he acknowledges that meeting domestic censorship demands is a part of doing business abroad. "We'll handle that as elegantly as possible," he says.
Top image: a still from Lost in Hong Kong, released in 2015