MUBI Founder: “We are looking for cinephiles who will be as excited about S.S. Rajamouli as they would be about Amit Dutta”, Film Companion

MUBI has had a journey that is quite movie-like. In 2006, its founder, Efe Cakarel, was sitting in a cafe in Tokyo when he wanted to watch on his laptop Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. It was Christmas. Given Japan had the fastest broadband and the fourth largest film market in the world at the time, he assumed he’ll find it online.

A few hours later on a flight back to San Francisco, he was chalking out a plan for a subscription-based streaming service for films that are not easily accessible online. A business idea was born right there, and Cakarel’s knowledge in technology – he is an MIT grad – meant that he was able to put it all together.

Thus began The Auteurs, which would stream independent, arthouse and classic films. But with getting the international rights for such films, raising capital, and graduating beyond computers to other devices proving to be more difficult than it had seemed, it didn’t quite fly (it rebranded itself to Mubi in 2010).

At one point, it faced a potential shut down, with lay-offs and pay cuts. Cakarel faced the moment of truth when he had a brainwave. How about, instead of an ever-increasing library like that of competitors such as Netflix and Amazon, they make a film available for thirty days? One film a day, thirty a month, and three-sixty-five a year will substantially bring down licensing costs. They will be handpicked by a special team of curators. They will be, as Cakarel put it in his interviews, like that ‘guy behind the counter at that DVD store’ whose recommendations you trust.

Deals with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project and The Criterion Collection followed. Paul Thomas Anderson, who turned out to be a subscriber, called up Cakarel and offered to release his music documentary Junun on the platform.

In the past few years, MUBI has become the perfect alternative for film lovers who have a hard time trying to decide what to watch on Netflix or Amazon. A new film, accompanied by a capsule review and a beautiful, large image, arrives in your mailbox everyday. It has been available in India for more than two years, and in what should be a boost to independent cinema in the country, it is gearing up for the launch of an India version in 2019.

In an email interview, the Turkish entrepreneur spoke about the people behind the curation, why India is ready for MUBI, what we can expect from it, and his dream of building a cinematheque in every major city in the world.

efe cakarel is the founder of MUBI

MUBI has completely different selection wherever you go. Is the current India version also completely unique from any other country in the world?

Due to both the tastes of local audiences and the international complexities of the digital rights of so much of cinema history, the films we show on MUBI frequently differ depending on which country you are watching from. But the kinds of cinema we champion remains consistent across the world: advocating passionately for independent cinema, cult cinema, and classic cinema. As often as we can, we unite our global cinephile audience by showing the same film or retrospectives on the platform internationally.

You’ve said that with MUBI’s launch in Malaysia and India next year, you are, for the first time, going to introduce channels. That the India channel will be further categorised into Hindi and Tamil. Can you elaborate on this?

MUBI has always modified its service and content offering to accommodate individual markets by observing and responding to nuances in cultural tastes and preferences. Take Malaysia, it’s a multi ethnic society with large parts of the population with distinct content preferences. And look how rich Indian cinema is, with many regions producing wonderful movies in their local language. Hence our desire to introduce “channels” which is essentially content streams that will continue to employ MUBI’s unique curatorial style, showcasing the best of cinema while taking cues from demand in each local market.

With focus on content from India after the launch next year, do current subscribers have reason to worry that they are going to lose a share of some of the things they are getting now – the feted masterpiece, the obscure B-movie, the forgotten classic?

Not at all. Diversity of kinds of films is one of the best assets MUBI has. There are all kinds of great movies out there, and we want to show so many of them.

MUBI’s USP is the curation. Can you tell us about your main curators?

We have three curators: Daniel Kasman, who is American and is based in our New York office, and in our London headquarters we have Anaïs Lebrun, who is French, and Chiara Marañón, who is Spanish. All have long and deep histories studying cinema new and old, and travel the world throughout the year to scout emerging talent, champion excellent filmmaking, and foster relationships with artists, festivals, and cinematheques. Their job is to find and present the most exciting international, independent, and classic cinema for our audiences. If you are on a long flight from Mumbai to London, you want to sit next to Anais, Chiara or Danny.

How you are going about looking for curators in India?

We are looking for cinephiles who are as passionate as they are knowledgeable, with a range of interests that span across countries, genres, and decades. They should be as excited about S.S. Rajamouli’s next film as they would be about that of Amit Dutta. Above all, they should be an eager advocate for the vitality and essentiality of the art of cinema, for their mission is to get audiences excited to discover its wonders.

What were your takeaways from your recent visit to India? 

India is ready for MUBI.

MUBI is currently showing Guru Dutt’s films. Dutt is a celebrated figure and his films are still accessible. There are other old Indian films which are hard to track down. Is showing old Indian films part of MUBI’s plans?

Part of MUBI’s mission in general is to celebrate the history of cinema. Film is a relatively young art, barely over 100 years old, yet so much of it is in danger of disappearing. The vast majority of movies were made more than 10 years ago, believe it or not! And so many of those films are wonderful and deserve audiences. We want to help keep that art alive. We don’t discriminate about a film’s age—in fact, many of us might argue that older films are better than new! We plan on always showing “old” movies on MUBI, those from India and from elsewhere.

How amazing was Pyaasa by the way? A towering emotional experience in love, art, and defiance.

From my perspective, it is easy and legal access to cinema’s diversity. That means films in other languages, films outside the mainstream, films of unconventional length or style, films from the past, from other countries—in short, films that are not part of the dominant local, commercial industry. Those mainstream films are all too easy to see

You said in an interview “Emerging countries tend to have less options available to them and as a result MUBI becomes something really special.” What seems to be the issue that needs to be addressed the most in India? 

From my perspective, it is easy and legal access to cinema’s diversity. That means films in other languages, films outside the mainstream, films of unconventional length or style, films from the past, from other countries—in short, films that are not part of the dominant local, commercial industry. Those mainstream films are all too easy to see—while they are in fact the minority of films produced worldwide, they are the majority of films being released widely in India. MUBI offers something else: a window to a whole other side of cinema, which has such a vibrant range and deserves a wider audience.

Mubi is opening a theatre in London. Can we be hopeful that there can be one in India too?

MUBI is not built in a day. Or was it Rome?

But yes, absolutely. It will take us a decade or more but it’s our dream to have a wonderful cinema in every major city that programs wonderful films without the commercial constraints that drives almost every other cinema.

At your session at the Mumbai Film Festival, you said that “People think it’s high brow, and exclusive. We want to change that perception, we think everyone can enjoy these films. They are just not introduced to it, or they are scared.” 

This is interesting. A few months ago, a MUBI ad on social media was criticised as elitist and snobbish. How do you plan to make it seem more accessible and friendly to the non-cinephiles?

For over a decade we have worked tirelessly to bring hand-picked cult, classic, independent and festival-fresh cinema to as many people as possible.

But we know we are not mainstream.We know some of our films are incredibly niche. And we know there is absolutely no point in inviting everyone to MUBI only for them to discover that we are not showing the latest instalment of a franchise.

So it’s a delicate balance. And one we need to get better at… How to be inclusive, and yet not mismanage expectations… The important thing is we firmly believe that cinema is for everyone. Taking great cinema to the world is what we exist to do.


Subscribe now to our newsletter