Introducing Our New Feature Series Showcasing Breakthrough Creative Entrepreneurs
With this profile, we are delighted to introduce our new Feature series, "The New Wave." It will bring you the stories of, and advice from, the most exciting creative entrepreneurs who are changing their worlds and poised to break through to the mainstream.
We could not think of a better example to kick off with than MUBI Founder Efe Cakarel, who embodies our idea of “The New Wave” entirely. His entrepreneurial journey and advice for creative entrepreneurs follow.
Efe Cakarel, Founder, MUBI
While startlingly impressive, Efe Cakarel’s CV does not read like that of a typical creative entrepreneur. As a teenager he was a national maths champion in his native Turkey, before being offered a scholarship to go to M.I.T, followed by a stint at Goldman Sachs and an MBA at Stanford.
Becoming a Creative Entrepreneur
Training fit for a tech entrepreneur? Certainly. But what made Efe want to pursue entrepreneurship in the somewhat less familiar, and famously less predictable creative industries? Simple: a compelling creative idea and a driving passion for independent and cult cinema.
MUBI’s Innovative New Take on the Film Streaming Business Model
Efe is the Founder and CEO of MUBI, the online film streaming service that is poised to hit the mainstream. MUBI works on a monthly subscription model, much like the giants of video streaming, Netflix and Amazon Prime, but differs in two crucial respects.
First, MUBI prides itself on providing a platform for the best of cult, classic and award-winning cinema. Its devoted users are encouraged to engage with the MUBI community by sharing reviews, rating and recommendations.
Second, the MUBI service is highly curated by its dedicated team, with just 30 films offered at any one time - each available for streaming for just 30 days – with a new movie appearing every day. This format not only helps to eliminate the paradox of choice which often afflicts users of streaming services, but also provides Efe and his team with better leverage to negotiate licence agreements with the Hollywood studios and other heavyweight rights owners.
Efe’s Entrepreneurial Journey
The idea for MUBI came to Efe as he found himself stranded in a Tokyo café, frustrated that he could not find a site on which to watch Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 classic “In the Mood for Love.” On the plane back to San Francisco he sketched out a business plan and MUBI was born.
Quite the cinematic beginning, but as with most startup journeys, the path to growth was not always smooth. MUBI originally launched in 2007 as “The Auteurs,” predominantly a social network for cinephiles. Available only on computer screens, it struggled to grow any significant audience.
Efe thought he’d found the solution, rebranding the service as MUBI and securing a hard-won deal with Sony to make MUBI available on Playstation. At launch, Efe watched the audience figures soar, only to fall dramatically back down to earth soon after the excitement of the launch passed.
Efe recalls this difficult time with reverence. Running out of cash and knowing investors would not put more money into a service with such low audience figures, he was forced to cut back sharply on staff and even to consider giving it all up.
This darkest hour, however, forced a major re-think of MUBI, and from it came the idea that was to propel MUBI to success: what if he could show fewer films for a shorter period of time? MUBI’s winning 30-day video-on-demand model had arrived.
In its early days, this innovative business model proved to be both a major blessing and a curse. It gave MUBI the advantage of being able to ask rights owners for far shorter, and therefore less expensive, licensing periods.
On the other hand, it meant asking them to reimagine their standard licensing practices, an enormous challenge in the highly precedent-oriented film business. This required bold and relentless negotiations and years of perseverance, all of which are now paying off.
Efe’s unshakable confidence in MUBI has seen it achieve a number of previously unthinkable feats: deals with the famously intractable Hollywood studios, including Sony, Paramount and Miramax; an all-rights agreement for Miguel Gomes “Arabian Nights;” and the staging of the world premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Junun” on MUBI.
On the investment side, MUBI is credited with achieving one of the largest rounds in history of equity financing from individuals in Europe.
On the Horizon
MUBI now operates in over 200 territories and boasts a global membership of 7 million people. As MUBI announces plans to expand into China, we caught up with Efe (while we could catch him) to talk about his experience as a creative entrepreneur.
Exclusive Interview with Creative Entrepreneurs
CE: Born in Turkey, educated in the States – what attracted you to the UK to develop and launch MUBI? Why did you decide to base the business in London?
EC: The vision of MUBI was to take great cinema to every corner of the world and London is a global city at the heart of Europe - so it was an easy choice.
CE: Where did the inspiration for MUBI come from?
EC: It was in 2007, I was sitting in a cafe in Tokyo trying to watch the brilliant Wong Kar-wai film “In the Mood for Love.” Japan has the fastest broadband speed in the world - but I couldn’t find anywhere to watch a movie online. So I wrote the business plan for MUBI on the plane home.
CE: Talk us through your typical day.
EC: When you’re in a dynamic growing company like MUBI, no day is the same but it will probably involve an aeroplane or a really good cafe early in the morning while catching up with colleagues and partners in Asia, followed by some thinking during late morning, meetings in the afternoon and reading in the evening.
CE: Talk us through your business model.
EC: It’s really quite simple - every day we hand-pick a beautiful film gem and you have 30 days to watch it. That means there are always 30 cult, classic or award-winning films to enjoy at any moment.
CE: Did you always aspire to be an entrepreneur? If not, what brought you to setting up your own business?
EC: My father is a very successful entrepreneur in Turkey. I grew up with enormous amount of admiration and respect for him and always wanted to run my own business as well. And when the idea for MUBI came, it was a huge opportunity that no one seemed to be paying attention to. I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a home online for the cinema I loved, so I set about creating a space for that. I knew that there were millions of other people like me, that were passionate about cinema but unless they lived in a big city or were lucky enough to go to one of the big festivals, they wouldn’t get to experience the huge wealth of work that’s out there.
CE: How, if at all, did business school prepare you for setting up your own business? Or did you find that it held you back in any way?
EC: Business school is just a small part of what has brought me to today. You learn vital things and have great mentors who pass on their insights of course, but it’s not the whole picture. I learned most of what I learned that determined our success on the job at Goldman Sachs and MUBI.
CE: How did you find the cultural shift from the finance to the creative sector?
EC: There are a lot of similarities. Both deal in risk and are heavily reliant on relationships, but with cinema, while there is always something financially at stake, there is often also a lot at stake emotionally. Invariably, films, and particularly the films we play, take years to make - blood, sweat and tears are in the celluloid itself - and you are responsible for taking that film out to the world, so you have to be sensitive to and mindful of that.
CE: In the early days of setting up, what resources did you rely on to help you make sense of the business landscape?
EC: The film industry is an incredibly nuanced and fragmented business so in the early days I really relied on a great network of collaborators with years of experience to help navigate the film landscape.
CE: What kind of resources would have been useful, that you didn’t have access to?
EC: It’s difficult to say given that there was no real precedent for what we were doing in the early days. It’s hard to imagine but streaming and this behaviour of watching online has only recently been established as a part of everyday life. I was lucky to be able to surround myself with people that had a taste for the future and believed in the vision of MUBI, but having more of that wouldn’t have been a bad thing.
CE: What specific challenges did you face breaking into the film industry?
EC: In 2007 the idea of online streaming was still a rather radical idea, so in the beginning the challenge was really an ideological one, convincing the industry and rights owners that this really was the future and that the future looked good.
CE: Can you share any tips for negotiating with creative powerhouses?
EC: We’re in a rather privileged position at MUBI because our central driving mission is to give a film the platform it deserves. Every day we dedicate ourselves to just one title, and each film is given a rich context and attention to detail that’s more or less unheard of - so when it comes to negotiating we’re really well aligned with the film’s and filmmakers’ needs.
CE: What are your top tips for creative entrepreneurs?
EC: Break down that distinction between business and creative. I think we’ve proven over the last 9 years that they can work together in quite wonderful ways.
CE: As an entrepreneur, committed to growing your business, how do you strike a work-life balance?
EC: What gets me up in the morning is the beauty of building a business around something so rich and exciting as cinema. And there is no work-life balance. MUBI is my life’s work and I don’t make a distinction. Working incredibly hard is not sufficient, but an absolutely necessary condition for success.
CE: What criteria do you use when deciding which films to include on MUBI?
EC: We don’t have a set criteria, the process is much more human and organic than that. But the thing that unites all the films we show is that they have something about them that’s worth spending your time watching. It might be a hallowed classic or a forgotten B-movie, but it will always have something distinctive, something unforgettable.
CE: What excites you about the creative industries in the UK?
EC: The people are the most exciting thing. London has a huge amount of creative talent. Nurturing and championing that talent is vital to the continued growth of London as a crucible for global ideas.
CE: What was the hardest challenge you faced when starting up, when you may have felt like giving up?
EC: Convincing people that it was better to be ahead of the pack with regards to the online world and cinema, that it was better to own the conversation from the get-go, as opposed to playing catch up later.
CE: How did you overcome this challenge?
EC: The best way ‘out’ is always ‘through.’
CE: What gave you the faith to stick with your business in those darkest moments that all entrepreneurs face?
EC: Knowing that the number one rule of business is to stay in business.
CE: Entrepreneurs must handle all areas of a business, from the areas they’re familiar with, to those they’re not. How did you handle mastering the areas that were not as familiar to you? For example, possibly dealing with the Hollywood studios?
EC: It’s a mixture of instinct and knowing where to get good advice, but also when to need that advice. I have a brilliant advisory board and learn from them every single day.