Testing MUBI, Arthouse-On-Demand

MUBI is an online streaming service specializing in independent cinema. Their roster is small and reserved, focusing on staff-curated films.

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Having grown up in the ’90s, I’m just old enough to remember routine Friday night trips to Blockbuster. It was my family’s suburban ritual equivalent of “hitting the town”, back when browsing the foreign film section was asking for trouble, and treasures lied dormant in the endless shelves of unseen potential. Then, years later, came the first time I browsed the Netflix instant movie catalogue and thought we had arrived at the future, our brave new world. I wasn’t that far off: in 2010, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy, finally closing their last store four drawn-out years later.

MORE MOVIE LISTS: Thrillers | Documentaries | Foreign Language Films

Halfway through 2014, Netflix reported that it now had over 50 million subscribers worldwide, from one million just 12 years prior. The popular belief is that this growth, alongside similar streaming services such as Hulu and HBO GO (partnered with Amazon Prime), represents a paradigm shift in the way general audiences consume media. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings thinks that traditional broadcast television will only survive “until 2030”, with most people becoming entirely dependent on the web for access to television and movies. True or not, there’s been a giant wake in the world of digital media, and riding it smoothly is the black sheep of video on demand: MUBI.

At a Glance
What: A video-on-demand streaming service (with supplementary social media platform and daily publication) presenting a rotating list of 30 films that are often cult classics and festival winners in the independent genre
Streams On: PC, Mac, Android, iPad/iPhone, and Samsung Smart TV
Pro: Superb streaming quality, low cost, few mainstream films
Con: Few mainstream films
Cost: $35 (1 year); $28 (6 months); $4.99 (1 month)

Founded in 2007, MUBI now boasts an impressive 7 million subscribers, especially for a service directed at a niche audience of “cinephiles”. Nowhere is their focus better described than in an open letter written by founder Efe Cakarel to MUBI’s subscribers in 2010, when the site changed its name from “The Auteurs”. “The spirit remains the same”, he wrote. “The idea: a repository and a starting point… to nurture and encourage access to, and the enjoyment and appreciation of all that is exciting and moving” about film. “We embrace great cinema in all its forms and the change in name is to make that embrace all the easier.”

Inherent in his words is the idea that great cinema is inclusive and deserves to be universally shared and seen amongst a range of audiences, not just art house aficionados. It’s a respectable ideal, but for the average user who already uses other media outlets, why give a damn? Bored with Netflix, and virtually exhausting HBO’s TV show offerings, I decided to find out with a free trial week offered by the site.

In contrast to Netlfix, MUBI presents an ever-rotating list of 30 “carefully curated” films with a new selection added every day.

The service is available in three different price brackets according the length of investment: $35 for one year (less than $3 per month); $28 for 6 months ($4.66 per month); or $4.99 for a single month. By the end of day six, I had only watched two features — well, almost two: I couldn’t get all the way through that one about a man who shaves off his signature mustache without anyone noticing; the other was a 15-minute short, which was the only one I could ever recommend in good faith. But I made a conscious decision not to cancel my 12-month subscription. Here’s why.

In contrast to Netflix, with its vast, ranging catalogue of films and TV shows on-demand, MUBI presents an ever-rotating list of 30 “carefully curated” films (most of them cult classics or contemporary festival winners, unseen among general audiences) with a new selection added every day. My initial reaction was disappointment at what was offered. Some films went as far back as the ‘20s. More recent ones, such as Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, were far from my usual routine. I knew the name Juliette Binoche, but under a double bill featuring the actress (MUBI routinely offers selections back to back with a unifying element — sometimes and actor, or just a general theme) were two movies never once found under my radar: Elles, and Camille Claudel 1915. What gives?

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It became evident in this streaming model, or rather my reaction to it, that my approach to film had become complacent and base-level satisfactory. Sure, Netlfix has its own share of indie and foreign cinema flicks. But give me the option and I’m going with House of Cards again. And for some reason, I’ve rewatched more episodes of Food Network’s Good Eats than I’m willing to put on the record, and I don’t even like that show. Ever since Netflix found its way into my bookmarks bar, I stopped being an active audience member, movies and television becoming passive internet crutches that I didn’t have to think too hard about. Perhaps the worst part: mid-buffer blurry picture quality became a necessary evil that I even stopped resisting.

MUBI believes film is more than that and wants to inspire an open engagement with cinematic works that may be more challenging and aspirational, positing that while there’s nothing wrong with box-office mega hits, it’s important too to consider the small stuff for the insight and sustainable pleasures they could offer. It’s a romantic stance, but one MUBI’s actually led me to believe. It shows in their streaming quality (which they’re “very proud of”, by the way), the design and usability of their interface (clean, clear, and efficient), and their supplementary daily publication; named “The Notebook“, the digital magazine explains their film selections through thoughtful criticism and offers additional film and festival roundups. MUBI believes what they preach, with a package both informative and inspiring for those viewers less familiar with the untrodden side of cinema.

Since subscribing, I return daily to learn their new film of the day, watching few but considering all of them. I view more trailers than ever before, make connections between filmmakers, themes, decades, and consider myself a more curious audience with some hint still of that kid long ago who used to roam the aisles of Blockbuster in the act of pure discovery. MUBI isn’t my replacement for Netflix — but for under $3 a month, it’s an accessory that I’m happy to support and utilize for its taste and direction. My only alternative is to sink further into the couch with Netflix on demand, grasping at the straws myself that are barely, if ever, there.

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