Welcome to “Behind the Screens”, where we interview the people in charge of arthouse and indie programming across all platforms. Along the way, we’ll uncover some of the challenges, thrills, and secrets of the trade and, hopefully, get a sense of what gives the American cinematic landscape its unique identity.
Marie Kondo, founder of the ubiquitous “KonMari” method, has become famous for advising people who live in cluttered homes to gather all their possessions and keep only those that “spark joy.” If most film streaming services are overrun with the cinematic equivalent of tchotchkes and ill-fitting clothing, MUBI, with its constantly rotating selection of only 30 critically acclaimed films, might be the first to truly embrace a “KonMari” approach to curation. Typical MUBI offerings include everything from 5-part 1970s Japanese crime sagas to recent Best Picture-winning American films to 1960s Italian sex comedies. Recently, MUBI has launched its “Discoveries” series, exclusively presenting films that have just premiered at some of the world’s most exciting film festivals. To learn more about the philosophy behind MUBI’s unique curatorial style, I spoke to MUBI’s Director of Content, Daniel Kasman.
How did you get involved with MUBI?
I’ve been here for 9 years, coming up on my 10th year. I’m actually the longest-tenured employee here. I came on at the very beginning when it was just a vision of the CEO, Efe Cakarel, who wanted to create a digital space where one could find art films, or classic and independent films not being distributed or available digitally. And this was 2007, so there really weren’t many streaming services out there. Efe didn’t come from a film background, but he’s sort of self-taught. He went to the Cannes market, went to the distributors, the sales agents, talked to people, and learned the business that way. At the time, I was interning at Zeitgeist Films, which was a small New York based distributor. I’d just graduated from NYU with a degree in Cinema Studies, and I met Efe because he was looking to acquire films from Zeitgeist. He had just launched this product called “The Auteurs.” Because the platform was very early, it was basically a CEO, a lead developer, a secondary developer, and a designer. But no film staff. So, I became the film staff.
When Netflix and Amazon started to offer streaming, what was MUBI’s reaction?
At first, we basically felt we could keep doing what we were doing, which was operating a TVOD/SVOD catalogue service. TVOD is transactional video on demand, where you pay one fee to get one film, sort of like iTunes, and SVOD is subscription video on demand, like Netflix, where you pay a subscription fee and get access to a lot of content. We had a library of films that were all acquired under long term acquisition deals, but our goal was quality over quantity. That’s fine if you have 200 films or 300 films, but once we had 1000, 2000, 3000 films…They’re all good films, but if we have Wong Kar Wai and Akira Kurosawa films and then we put a small, independent documentary on the platform, you’re going to be scrolling through 2000 films and still never notice it. And we really did want to feature these films that can’t be seen elsewhere, so we shifted from that model to what we have now, which is more ephemeral and adapted from cinematheque retrospectives and festival showings. When you only have access to a limited number of films, it’s very clear what’s available and what’s not, as well as why we’ve chosen each film.
How did you land on the 30-day window?
We just thought there was a beautiful simplicity in a month. We wanted to create a window that was neither too much, nor too little time. You know, a week is too much pressure, a year is too much time. Like, then, there’s no reason to watch the film today. So, with a month, we thought we’d found a nice middle ground that also led us to introduce this idea of one film a day. I think it’s important to introduce a structure into programming because once you have a structure, then you can be more free you can show whatever you want, whenever you want. When there’s no structure, the selection expands and contracts at will.
I imagine the 30-day window also allows you much more flexibility to get certain movies.
Exactly. This model isn’t just for the audiences to get to see these movies, but also for the filmmakers to expose their work in a much more direct, highlighted way, rather than just being dumped into this week’s content update on the platform. Here, we have “the film of the day,” which lets everybody know we put a lot of emphasis on each film we program. Even though some of our deals, are, in a way, like our original catalogue deals where we sign a large number of films from a rights owner and use them as a repository, we can do the exact inverse of that. I might see a movie at Rotterdam next week and say to the director, “This is perfect for MUBI. This is how we’ll treat it. It’s going to have a fun, online run, but it’s not a permanent thing.” I think a lot of filmmakers in the independent sphere are worried about giving permanent access to their films and, for us, this model sort of frees them up. It’s here for a month, and then they can do whatever they want with it. They can then put it on a rival service and let it live there forever, but the purpose is to let them sort of pass through the programming cycle.
Do you have some sort of formula in terms of how often you program more obscure movies versus big Oscar movies like No Country for Old Men? Or is it kind of just something you do by feel?
It’s all about introducing a flow to the content. It’s a flow that we’re constantly learning how to modulate, and that can mean anything from the literal programming to something abstract or even data-sounding, though it’s not actually data-driven. It’s more like, “How many black and white films does one want to show in a week period before it seems like that’s all you’re showing?” We ask the same question for more visible films. The lineup is different in every country, but we want to make sure that there’s gateway films for people who aren’t cinephiles but looking for an alternative to Netflix. For those people, we want to make sure that, for those people, a certain number of those thirty films make them say, “Oh I really like that film” or “I heard about that film.” However, by the same token, we also want to be sure that the opposite is true, that people can land on a given movie and say, “I don’t know what this is, but it looks great!”
Are you assuming that your typical subscriber continues to use the big services like Netflix and Hulu, in addition to MUBI?
I think so. Obviously, MUBI’s not a replacement for those sort of services that have such a breadth of content, especially ones that focus more on films. I feel like now Netflix is sort of moving away from focusing on films so much, which provides a good opportunity for us. We start to seem a little bit more like an alternative, but the reality, of course, is that you want to live near both a multiplex and an arthouse cinema. I mean, I subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Filmstruck, and MUBI. Each app offers different things, and obviously, there’s a threshold for our audiences, in terms of how many things they are willing to subscribe to. But on the whole, we’re trying to offer an experience that is different and supplemental to a dominant service.
One thing that stuck out right away about MUBI is its crisp and clear design. Can you talk about your goals for the look of the app and how it contributes to the experience of watching your films?
I’m flattered and pleased that you picked that out because it’s something that really gives us a lot of pleasure. We love design, and we want to be as consistent in our ethos as possible, which is that if we’re choosing really good movies, we want to be presenting them really well. Whether that means using the best master we can find or the best encoding processes we can use to turn those masters into the best streams, I think the user experience is almost as important as the film quality. We’re all cinephiles on this team, and it saddens us that fewer and fewer people are going to the movies. So you’re losing something of the specialness of watching a film, especially in a larger catalogue service, where you’re doing a lot of scrolling, and it’s all kind of sloppy looking. Then, it’s like shopping at Walmart and you’re just choosing a film from a rack. For us, that’s not what movies are. Movies are special, and we’ve tried to feed that ethos into the web design and the iOS design. The new iOS design, for example, puts forward a lot of features that we’ve already had in the web app. Specifically, bringing to the forefront our retrospectives and ongoing series, which are always happening. but the old design didn’t quite communicate those as clearly as possible. We want people to know the film that we’re showing today in the US is part of a French festival series, for example. It’s also incorporated content from our Notebook, which is our editorial publication that I also run. So, then, when you’re watching that film, you have the opportunity to engage with this supplementary content.
You guys seem to have a great relationship with Film Society of Lincoln Center and other cinematheque-type places, which is interesting because, in some ways, it feels like your companies would be in competition with each other. Can you talk about how you started to establish those relationships and what you’re both getting out of them?
Those kind of partnerships are really important to us—and we do consider ourselves partners rather than just sponsors—which comes from the original vision of MUBI as a provider of global access to films that are otherwise difficult to see. The reality is that Oberhausen is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, short film festivals in the world. But who gets to go to Oberhaus in Germany in May and watch these films?
And if they’re not getting picked for the Oscars, you’re certainly not going to see them.
Exactly. And even if one of those shorts is getting picked by the Oscars, maybe you don’t live in a town that has the kind of art cinema that would screen the Oscar-nominated shorts program. As a result, we’re talking about a lot of people who don’t get to see these movies, and potentially aren’t even aware they exist. And so, for us, it’s always important to find like-minded partners who support the kind of cinema we do, which is the first step—we’re not interested in partnering with people that show crap—and want to get their programming out there. So part of our pitch to these partners is to use MUBI as a platform to expose their programming to a wider audience. Since the films they show are very similar to the films we show, it’s not a conflict of interest for them to guest program, if you will, the films that they have.
Sometimes the movies on MUBI are also available on Netflix or Hulu. How important is it to you that your films be exclusively offered on your service?
Well, I think in an ideal world, everything we would show would be exclusive, but because we’re very filmmaker-first, we want to make sure that films are maximizing their profits. We’re a small service. We make all our films money, but we’re not the financial solution for any of these films, unless we’re talking about maybe a short film. So, for us, putting a film on MUBI is maybe a part of a film’s distribution strategy, especially New York films. So, while we desire exclusivity for us, it might not always make sense for the filmmaker.
Is there a specific catalogue or movie that you always wanted to try to bring to the service but you’ve not been able to touch for various legal or financial reasons?
One thing I not only want to bring to the service, but also to the U.S. in general, is a retrospective on Luc Moullet. He was one of the Cahiers du Cinema writers, along with Rivette and Truffaut and so forth. He got started a little bit later; his first film was in 1966, so technically, the New Wave was already over at that point. He’s an amazing critic, but too little of his criticism has been translated. His films are super funny; they’re very low-fi and droll and deadpan. There’s this great quote that said he was the only heir to Jacques Tati and Bunuel.
And why aren’t you able to program his work? Are the rights tied up or are his movies untranslated?
Well, each film presents its own problem. In an ideal world, all his films would reside with one rights owner, which would allow digital masters. They’d look good, they’d be in English, and it’d just be a matter of us convincing them we’ll present them in a way that will please them and make them the right amount of money. But, often, that’s not the case at all. The rights are scattered. Some of the masters exist, some don’t. Some are translated and some aren’t. A big reason why MUBI isn’t programmed in the same way that a cinematheque is programmed is because the rights and materials situation is so different from just simply—I’m putting simply in air quotes—finding a film print and paying that screening fee. I realize that that’s not nearly as easy as I’m making it sound, but somehow, the incursion of digital rights and digital materials has made it sort of additionally complicated. Like, if you can imagine the complication of sourcing an archival print of a Czech film that no one has seen from the 50s. Doing the digital version of that is even more difficult because it’s doing that, plus the transfer and subtitles and so on.
Aliza Ma from the Metrograph was telling me how difficult it can be to program Hong Kong movies, especially from the ‘80s and ‘90s, because the prints and rights could be anywhere.
That’s a particularly heartbreaking scenario because those films have already, for the most part, been translated into English, but many times, they’ve either not been preserved well or they haven’t been made available digitally.
And, in some cases, if a distributor chopped up a film and threw a terrible dub on it, as is the case with many of the Hong Kong movies Miramax released in the ‘90s, you don’t have the option of getting a subtitled or uncut version, at least for the US market.
Yeah, what’s interesting about digital rights is how specific they are to specific masters of those films. So, yes, in that example, those are Miramax films. We prefer for our films not to be dubbed, so, for us, it’s always a question of whether a certain film is worth showing under imperfect circumstances. Those circumstances might include dubbing or poor subtitling or even a poor master copy. If it’s a masterpiece and it doesn’t really look that great, but it fits into the retrospective we’re doing, it’s worth it to show the film. But, there are other cases, especially with the aggregators whose stuff you see on Amazon, when a film has been acquired through public domain, and the masters are terrible. And then they code them terribly. At that point, we just draw a line, even if it’s something we really want to show. it goes back to what you were talking about in terms of design. There’s a certain experience that we want to encourage, and once we set that standard, we can’t downgrade from that.