MUBI Founder on Evolving Into a Studio, Building Global Cinemas and Outbidding Competitors: ‘We Paid an Irrational Amount for ‘Decision to Leave”

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MUBI founder Efe Çakarel has detailed the indie streamer and distributor’s plans to grow into a studio player, build cinemas around the world and compete for high-profile films from leading directors.

In a rare public speaking engagement, the executive joined Toronto International Film Festival CEO Cameron Bailey for an interview at the fest’s industry conference on Monday. Founded in 2007 as The Auteurs and then renamed as MUBI in 2010, the company has 12 million members worldwide (members don’t necessarily mean streaming subscribers), and is available in 190 countries.

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Ten years from now, said Çakarel, “MUBI will be a studio, with its own production, distribution, direct to consumer, and editorial, and more — a modern media company.”

“We are building our first physical cinema in Mexico City right now. There will be cinemas in every major city, from Toronto to Tokyo,” said Çakarel. The cinemas will help the company premiere its films “and program the films we can without having the limitation of the economic realities of the physical spaces and so on.”

In order to realize the vision, said Çakarel, the business needed a “a very strong sales company,” hence why MUBI bought Germany’s The Match Factory earlier this year.

“Because we are going to be producing films we fully own and we are not going to naturally have distribution capabilities in every country in the world, you need the best sales agent to sell it from Poland to South Africa.”

In 10 years, promised Çakarel, “there will be Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and there will be MUBI. We will be doing films like ‘Aftersun’ but we also want to be doing [Quentin Tarantino’s] next series of [films]. That’s the evolution of MUBI as a studio.” (A representative for MUBI has since clarified that the company isn’t involved, so far, on a Tarantino project.)

Çakarel spoke at length about how data from the company’s SVOD platform and subscriber base “informs a lot of economic decisions of how much we’re prepared to pay for,” while allowing that some films come along that blow that formula out of the water. One such film was Park Chan-wook’s Cannes-premiering “Decision to Leave,” which MUBI snapped up for the U.S. and U.K. ahead of the festival.

“For ‘Decision to Leave,’ we paid an irrational amount,” explained Çakarel. “Why? Because my data showed me that that film is worth significantly more than what distributors were willing to pay in the U.K.”

Added Çakarel: “That was an early acquisition…it was a pre-buy, because the market dictated that that film was going to be sold before it was shown, but because we have so much data, we could participate in that and manage to get it.”

MUBI now has “statistically significant data” to suggest who wants to watch what, said Çakarel. “We are also becoming much more sophisticated in understanding the acquisition and retention value of a film, and how many subscribers that film acquired, and what the lifetime value and retention is.”

Bailey asked Çakarel whether data from the streaming side of the business also informed the theatrical distribution strategy, and perhaps gave the company a competitive advantage over theatrical distributors. “And by comparison, what is a Sony Pictures Classics or a Searchlight going in with? Do they have similar analytics or are they different from yours?” asked Bailey.

“No. What they have is what the comparable films did in the cinemas,” said a bullish Çakarel with a laugh. “They are thinking, ‘Maybe I can open this on ‘X’ screens at this time of year, and I expect to do this [amount].’ But the kind of data that we have, that Netflix has, that Amazon has, that Disney has, it’s very difficult for a traditional distributor to have this data.”

Yet conversely, said Çakarel, the distribution stalwarts have highly experienced leaders, such as Michael Barker at Sony Pictures Classics.

“When Michael Barker sees a film, that guy has a lot of solid judgement in what works and what doesn’t,” said Çakarel, who notes that MUBI sold its co-produced film “One Fine Morning” by Mia Hansen-Løve into Sony Pictures Classics for North America.

“But in terms of how sustainable the competitive advantage of Michael Barker’s judgement is against MUBI, I don’t want to name names, but…when we believe in something, it’s very difficult to compete with us to buy,” said Çakarel.

“Because if you put 2, I’ll say 3, and then you say 4, and then I’ll be like ‘8!’ Like game over, you can’t even [compete]. It’s lovely that we’ve now come to a place where— we’ve always had the conviction, but now we have the data and the revenue to back that, to champion the films we’ve always loved.”

The executive highlighted Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” as the film that “changed everything” because MUBI lost out on the title in Cannes in 2019. “We couldn’t get that film in the pay-one window, because it became so big,” said Çakarel. “We said this can never happen again. If you want to show ‘Parasite’ on your platform, you have to own the whole thing — you have to own all rights.”

The company’s primary strategy now is that films have to be new movies that are exclusively available on the platform in an earlier window. “It’s a much more expensive game,” allowed Çakarel.

MUBI theatrically distributes films themselves in markets like the U.K., U.S. and Latin America. In other countries, it works with external partners for release.

“This strategy is working amazingly,” said Çakarel. “It started with a philosophy, but what you’re seeing is that a film comes on in cinemas, it has this amazing tailwind of marketing and word of mouth. People watch it and talk about it and it elevates it. It gets bigger and bigger, and when it comes on to MUBI, a film like ‘The Worst Person in the World’ broke every engagement record we have.”

Asked what exactly comprises a movie for MUBI, Çakarel talked about a “singular vision to show great cinema” that has become more inclusive in recent years.

“Early on, we made the mistake of positioning MUBI to be elevated in terms of culture. And that was wrong, because great film is for everyone. This conception that you need to be cultured, urban in order to appreciate ‘Beginning,’ a lovely film from Georgia, is wrong. You can be much more inclusive,” he said.

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