As Arabian Nights comes to MUBI, we speak to some of the team behind the streaming service putting its competitors to shame.
You’ve probably heard of MUBI. Since its inception nine years ago it’s built a reputation as the film-lovers’ way to stream. As much a curator as it is a tool for watching movies, its tightly configured selection of 30 films – in which one is taken away and another added every day – puts an end to those famous Netflix selection woes. Y’know, when you’ve been sitting scrolling through a bloated, often confusingly weak selection for half the time it would have taken you to actually watch something: it happens to the best of us.
Instead, MUBI aims for a catalogue of quality, thoughtful movies that you might actually want to watch. From Arthouse flicks you’ve never heard of (but probably should have done), to well-worn classics that always benefit from repeated watching (no matter how many times you’ve seen them), the crack team at MUBI do the legwork for you. Then there’s Notebook, MUBI’s editorial section, which, much more than a cynical, last minute content add-on, boasts astute reviews, features and revealing interviews – meaning you can bluff as the film buff you’ve always wanted to be. A glance at their Cannes coverage is enough to know that these guys – on the ground every day, sniffing out minor pictures and hidden stories – mean business. With Miguel Gomes’ critically lauded Arabian Nights trilogy hitting the site tomorrow, there’s no better time to sign up for a taster month.
We got the chance to sit down with some of MUBI’s team – Amy Basil, Brand Director; Chiara Marañón, UK programming Director; Anja Liebl, VP Marketing, and Tania Sutherland, Marketing Director – to talk the company’s past, their ethos, and their very bright future.
How did MUBI start and could you tell us the story?
Amy: So it was founded in 2007 and the story goes that Efe Cakarel, our CEO and founder, was in Tokyo in a café and was trying to watch a film by Wong Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love) and even though Japan at the time had some of the fastest internet speeds in the world, he was unable to find it.
This is about two years after the advent of YouTube and streaming was in its really early days. His vision at the beginning was to create a place for great films that could be discovered anywhere you were, wherever you were in the world. So it was really a global vision for cinema. And I think today, nine years later, we’re still delivering on that promise along that vision he had.
Why do you think MUBI has prospered and grown even among fierce competition?
Amy: I think that having this very specific focus and attention on selecting films and supporting films that are great – and that’s a very broad term – but also distinctive or different or visionary. That might be a classic film that everybody understands as this great piece of work or it might be an emerging filmmaker with a really amazing point of view. Or someone that’s doing something quite radical. And I think that this core central premise and that drive and that desire to support global cinema wherever it might happen is what’s carried the company through all the different changes in the industry.
There’s this underlying idea of less is more and I think in the last nine years there’s been this influx of content (there are so many films out there and other amazing things that are competing for people’s attention) so that focus on curation and that idea of quality over quantity is what’s really carried us through.
Speaking of curation – how do you go about selecting what goes on the site?
Chiara: The nature of our model is that we have one new film every day and that allows us to be very reactive to what’s going on in the world of cinema and in the world generally. So if the BFI is doing a retrospective of Godard we try to echo that. If a filmmaker dies then we are always going to be there paying a tribute to his work. Some other times we just create our own context and go ahead with a series on a particular filmmaker or a theme we want to highlight.
At the same time, the other big factor to take into account is that we want to have a very diverse programming and it has to be very eclectic. So it’s very important for us to cover everything from silent films to big classics like Taxi Driver or Hitchcock, to festival gems. We actually go to all the relevant festivals to try and find those film that otherwise people wouldn’t have an opportunity to see. We would really like to be like that guy in the video store that recommends you something to watch.
Tania: One of the thing that distinguishes us is the human element behind MUBI. We’re often tired of hearing algorithms selecting films for people. At MUBI there are experts behind it – people who are experts in film and have studied film. There’s an amazing group of people behind these choices: they’re literally hand-picked.
And the context that Chiara is talking about is so important. Because we can always make it relevant to whoever is watching the films in any country. We’re also a truly global service.
Speaking of global, how much do selections differ country to country?
Chiara: The selection differs from country due to rights fragmentation…but since we are global and we have a global audience, we give a lot of importance to global events. We always try to get festival films and bring them to a global audience – more niche content that’s difficult to find anywhere else.
How does your editorial and content work?
Amy: This idea of editorial and context is central to everything that we’re doing. We all really passionately believe that the utility of watching a film and streaming it is only one piece of the puzzle. And the company was founded with the idea that not only can you watch, you can also discover and discuss great films. So we have a whole community platform, we have a database of over 100, 000 titles, we have reviews and ratings where people can interact with all of these films.
So the idea of not just being streaming alone, or creating a more holistic environment for films is really central to the company. And context spills over into editorial: from day one we’ve had our online magazine, Notebook, which has really been a chance for us to explore in-depth criticism and related content around the films that we’re both showing and not showing. We definitely view ourselves as closer to an editorial structure than a video streaming structure…We’re just trying to bring everything into one place where there’s something for everyone.
What’s the next step for you guys?
Amy: I think the goal really is to keep expanding on the voice and the profile that we have. We’ve been working incredibly hard over the last nine years to really champion and stand up for the types of cinema that we really believe in and I think the objective of those editorial pieces or those activates is to create a culture around the type of cinema we believe in. We want to create a space where films, whether they’re avant garde or a classic film or a new film, are accessible to people and approachable. It shouldn’t feel like something that’s exclusive or for a certain type of person. Everyone very passionately believes in the company that these types of film are for everyone or that at least people can have an experience of something that’s distinct and have an opinion about it. That’s really the underlying factor for us.
Tania: We’re seeing a change in the way films are bought into the world. Obviously, we recently had the global exclusive in October releasing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun…which was a huge coup for us because we released it at the push of a button across the world for everyone….but we believe in new filmmakers and we stand by them…and we try to look for new voices and be the platform for those films to be shown into the world because it’s getting more difficult for some of them to release those films in theaters.
Lastly, what’s up at the moment that you’re really feeling?
Ciara: Well, at the moment we have a Cannes takeover: a series of 10 films that have been playing in Cannes from the beginning of the festival and it’s a very eclectic selection! Plus we put that up with our latest acquisition which was a restored version of Masculin Féminin by Godard which also played in this year’s festival at Cannes Classic – and is celebrating its 50th anniversary.