Beyond Netflix: Can small curated film sites survive in a big streaming world?
Hopes&Fears talks with the founders of Fandor, MUBI, Shudder, and the Tribeca Shortlist about alternative business models for streaming content and the value of the critics' pick.
If you offer it for instant streaming, an audience will come. That line of thinking informed the rise of Netflix, as well as Hulu and later Amazon Video, services which now threaten the established market dominance of movie theaters as well as cable television. Each of them offer huge and ever-changing libraries of programming, but few tools with which to navigate them. What suggestions they do offer are based in popularity and, increasingly, favor original content produced by those services. Thus far, the strategy is working.
So why, at the peak of big streaming, are new streaming services with more selective libraries appearing? While the critic’s role at power houses is eroded away by information technology, newer services like Shudder, Fandor, MUBI, and the Tribeca Shortlist are re-positioning them at the center of their business model. They are betting against the flow of history since Amazon automated its homepage. These services see themselves as supplemental as opposed to in direct competition with the top dogs of on demand videos, but they’re all betting against the line of thinking that curators and experts are unnecessary for movie lovers and the companies that provide them with entertainment. They may not revolutionize streaming - not one of the people interviewed for this article chose to describe their services as competitors to Netflix - but they may make a new future for criticism within new media.
Specializes in showing international arthouse cinema
Headquarters: London, UK
Founder: Efe Cakarel
Titles: 30 (rotating every 30 days)
MUBI was born of frustration. Founder and CEO Efe Cakarel dreamt up the idea for the site while sitting a café in Tokyo, searching for a stream of Wong Kar-wai’s stylish romantic drama In The Mood for Love. “Realizing how difficult it was to find, and how a simple destination for showing great independent and classic films was needed, I created a business plan on the flight back to San Francisco and two months later founded MUBI in Palo Alto,” Cakarel tells Hopes&Fears. The site launched in 2007 as a joint streaming and social media experiment.
That innocuous origin story doesn’t hit at the defining features of the site: it offers thirty films at a time - a miniscule library - with each film disappearing after thirty days. The site displays a timer beneath the films at the bottom of its marquee displaying how many hours and minutes remain in the shelf life of those titles, a decision made for “no specific reason other than the fact that we want to create suspense,” according to Cakarel.
MUBI’s small offerings create scarcity, while its time limit creates a sense of urgency, both sensations that other services skirt around, but that fuel the impulse to see films. Even given the site’s free trials, Cakarel insists that according to the site’s analytics, their most dedicated users only watch between two and three films a week.
Which isn’t to say that Cakarel doesn’t want people watching - or at least looking at - MUBI daily. The films which rotate onto the site create their own kind of narrative the same way a Spotify playlist shared between two people might. For example, the site offered The Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Night of the Living Dead, both classic black and white horror films, back-to-back in October. “[The Creature From The Black Lagoon] was made the previous decade and hasn’t aged as well, but because of this quality it nicely helped counter-balance the double feature propensity towards pure terror, as well as making clear just how big a leap [The Night of the Living Dead] was for the genre.”
MUBI’s one-film-per-day structure also offers a responsiveness that larger sites lack. “Being able to be flexible with what films we programme when, it means that we can react to the world around us, so for example – if a major event takes place, our excellent team of curators might be in a position to programme a film that day that could add context to, because it’s relevant and reflective of the world in which we’re living,” Cakarel said.
This strategy deviates more from those of larger streaming video on demand services than any other examined by Hopes&Fears for this article, and apparently it’s paying off: MUBI is experiencing 2% weekly organic growth, according to Cakarel. Some of that organic growth may stem from the air of trendsetting sophistication which MUBI has cultivated for itself through its partnerships: the site sponsors former LA Times film Critic Karina Longworth’s critically adored film podcast You Must Remember This, and hosts easily shared film lists or “canons” curated by other film institutions such as one by the Alamo Drafthouse.
Maybe most potent: MUBI scored a coup by streaming Junun, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2015 documentary, before any other service. That the documentary profiles Jonny Greenwood, guitarist of Radiohead, on a journey through India, and that it originally screened as part of the New York Film Festival, only increases the film’s - and by extension MUBI’s - cultural cache.
While MUBI leans hard on its curation as a selling point and the writing on the site is routinely very good, the actual curators that work with MUBI are not credited on the main site, while quick impressions from other users get more space, perhaps owing to the site’s confused social media origins.
More transparent criticism can be found on MUBI’s companion film journal, The Notebook, which largely covers films that MUBI is not showing. The editorial there serves to prime readers for future MUBI acquisitions while also providing a high-profile outlet for film criticism. The Notebook “informs our audiences of who the next emerging filmmakers are as well as exploring the work of established masters,” said the Notebook’s Editor-In-Chief, Daniel Kasman. “Many of these films and filmmakers are then featured on MUBI’s online cinema. In this way, the Notebook forecasts what will play on MUBI in the future and explores it in depth.”
Specializes in showing independent films, classics, silent films, foreign films, documentaries and shorts
Headquarters: San Francisco
FOUNDERs: Dan Aronson, Jonathan Marlow and Albert Reinhardt
Fandor launched in 2011, but even at half MUBI’s age, it’s more in-line with the big stream business model: its selection, though curated, is large and wide. The site was branded as a Netflix for independent cinema from the get-go. What sets Fandor apart however, is that the talent involved at the site has a particular history with modern independent film, as well as the tech industry and its gradual evolution away from curation.
Co-founder and Chief Content Officer Jonathan Marlow is both a seasoned film programmer and an Amazon veteran who left that company before it innovated away a need for him. Marlow joined Amazon in 1996 when the company employed less than 200 people and left in 2000 when his coworkers numbered, by his estimation, around eight thousand.
“I picked up a magazine around the moment that Amazon was beginning,” Marlow told Hopes&Fears. “Amazon had bought the domains ‘Amazon Music’ and ‘Amazon Movies.’ It was only books at that time, but from the outside looking in I wanted to be part of the film piece of that, but that future took a lot longer to realize than I had patience for. This was a couple years before the music section went live, and the Internet Movie Database was purchased. When I left they were busily trying to become Wal Mart and that was not a company I wanted to work for.” But in a future twist of fate, Marlow would later work with other VOD providers like VUDU, which was later bought by Wal Mart.
Other Fandor personnel share Marlow’s history with independent cinema preceding VOD. CEO Larry Aidem ran The Sundance Channel for over a decade. Similarly Susan Gerhard, the Editor-In-Chief of Fandor’s own cinema webzine, Keyframe, was a Sundance fellow.
Marlow’s history with Amazon and other VOD channels, however, convinced him of the necessity of curation as opposed to its uselessness. “At GreenCine, when we launched VOD’s service the model was, ‘let’s put everything up and let the audience decide what they want to see.’ What you end up with generally when you take that approach is a lot of work that nobody wants to watch. So the things you’re more likely to get are the things you least want and the things you most want become more difficult to bring in,” he said.
Marlow sees the limited selection offered by many VOD services as essentially the product of duress, rather than an adaptation to succeed in the VOD market. “Having a smaller selection lowers your overhead to a certain extent, but most of what winds up on [smaller streaming services] is not a result of wanting to have something but of wanting to have anything. They take what they can get.”
Fandor’s strategy is to create simultaneously a selection that is curated but is also very large while still containing films their competitors do not have. Part of the way Fandor has achieved this is by accepting less-than-cutting-edge prints of some of the films that they show.
Their acquisition is focused on the quality of the work, not the material. “If someone comes to us with a film and says ‘we just have MiniDV,’ we will work with it […] we are actively trying to get the best quality print available, but for most people ‘best available’ is not good enough. We are flexible to the material, but not the quality of the work.”
That quality, however, is subjective. Like larger streaming sites, Fandor’s library can be ungainly. The site is dedicated to trying to assemble near-complete libraries of the filmmakers that Marlow and his fellow curators find important, which necessarily includes those filmmakers’ failures as well as successes. Fandor guarantees that its selections are curated - that is to say, they carry some kind of historical or artistic significance - but that doesn’t make them all good or entertaining. For example, the site carries works by Doris Wishman, a director who is, according to Marlow, “effectively a pornographer, but also a unique filmmaker. [...] When ‘the action’ is getting started in her films she will pan away to focus on a doorknob or something. She was interested in objects in a way that other filmmakers were not.”
That said, major streaming services carry no guarantee of quality either, and the presence of some sort of gatekeeper makes Fandor an attractive service for independent filmmakers to use as a platform to release their films following the festival circuit. In fact, Fandor does carry many films that never made it to a wide release of any kind. This is the same reasoning that led Paul Thomas Anderson to release his film on MUBI: why would the director of There Will Be Blood want to run the risk of his new film being commingled with television series, stand-up comedy, and exercise videos.
Shows variety of critically acclaimed titles
HEADQUARTERS: New York City, NY
FOUNDER: Jeff Bronikowski
Tribecca Shortlist, which launched this year, is hedging its bets not on high-pressure sale of curation or on an unbeatable selection of curated titles, but on star power and professional association.
The Tribeca Film Festival may not have the trusted brand association that Sundance (or South by Southwest) does, but it’s enough to raise the profile of the festival’s streaming service alone. That Tribeca's partner is the prolific film studio Lionsgate also lends the service some weight.
That said, one would be forgiven for assuming that Tribecca shortlist offers exclusive access to Lionsgate films and movies which premiered at Tribeca. That is not the case, at least not yet. “The vast majority of the films do not come from the Tribeca Film Festival,” President Jeff Bronikowski confirmed. “Instead, we work with Tribeca to leverage its expertise to help us select films and to extend our presence within the industry.”
Like MUBI, the Shortlist presents a limited scope of films - only 150 each month, with a third of those titles rotating on and off. Unlike its competitors, however, Tribeca offers more mainstream Hollywood fare than most other streaming services. The service offered acclaimed but widely available titles like Fargo and Annie Hall from the start. These acclaimed films were made in the studio system and also once streamed on Netflix, but are no longer available.
Most of the service’s independent and foreign films, those films which its smaller competitors specialize in, are all part of the aficionado-approved Criterion Collection, which also distributes its films through Fandor, Hulu and Netflix to varying degrees. In fact, at Hulu’s launch, that service offered the complete Criterion Collection as a major selling point.
More so than Fandor or MUBI, the biggest appeal to Tribeca might not lie in the films it offers, but in the tools it provides to navigate its library, because that is where its association with known celebrities really shows. The Tribeca Shortlist site is dominated by short videos and lists by actors and filmmakers offering suggestions on what films they personally enjoy, or which at least fit a prescribed genre category. Instead of peripherally offering film junkies the opportunity to network with one another, Tribeca offers a film viewing experience that is closer to the filmmaking community on the surface of things. There’s a criticism mag, Outtake, which offers more video content than Tribeca’s peers, but the primary appeal is the Shortlisters themselves, as opposed to the proven expertise of film programmers or critics. In this one sense, Tribeca is putting more faith in curation than any other streaming service: they’re more focused on making sure their selection is papered with multiple recommendations and lists than on creating a deep discovery platform or a panel of proven curators.
While larger streaming services are diversifying their content, Shudder’s curated library relies on specialization to reach its intended audience. The service offers only horror films in large supply, and curates within the genre based on tropes.
While some of Shudder’s collections assemble films under the premise that taken together they might be of historical importance - for example the “Foundations of Horror” series features mostly silent films alongside Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu - while others focus on story devices that a set of films might all share, such as “Identity Crises,” which highlights films about split personalities.
That Shudder fixates on a single genre, and operates on the presumption that its users have some prior knowledge about that genre’s in’s and out's, allows the service to curate with a kind of whimsy that its competitors lack; Shudder’s copy is a bit less dry than Fandor or MUBI’s - even the title of the service is a subtle play on the shutter of a camera - and its collections each feature small illustrated icons that convey the underlying theme of a given group of films visually, as well as signal to users that at least Shudder spent the time and the money to pay for a unique design for each collection.
Sam Zimmerman, curator for Shudder, tells Hopes&Fears that the collections offered by Shudder express a kind of enthusiasm that typifies the site’s editorial voice. He said that the thinking behind curating a specific collection is “largely a combination of highlighting and identifying subgenres and themes, and getting rad from there. It can be anything from the delight of putting together a holiday playlist, to opening a window into a favorite film festival, to creating handy spaces for viewers. I want Shudder members to find a film to watch, and the Collections can often help identify the particular vibe or mood that’s appropriate. They can also be educational, from getting them into more extreme or “underground” titles or, going geographical with European or Asian Horror.”
That enthusiasm is shared by the site’s target audience. Shudder is also predicated on the idea that horror lovers consume films in a way that is different from other film viewers in a way that will inspire continued use of the service. It’s not a fool’s bet: there is some psychological evidence to suggest that some people are predisposed to liking scary films. Zimmerman claims that horror is uniquely suited to a dedicated platform: “Horror is one of the only genres that could really inspire such devotion and deep diving. As a lifelong horror fan myself, I know firsthand the passion and cinematic interest that tugs at you. I also know how much is out there. Having an interest in horror can see a lifetime of discovery, viewing genre films from around the world, digging through classics and obscurities, and so on.”
He also expressed that horror fans may be shortchanged by other streaming services, which may treat the genre in a cursory way, at least for the eleven months of the year that do not precede Halloween, even though the site launched this October. “I also know the desire to have something horror-focused that isn’t pandering or condescending. Shudder doesn’t think ill or underestimate its audience, we’re certainly here to serve them.”
Shudder’s primary challenge, since it’s target user base is so selective, is to reach that audience. To that end, Shudder has advertised through targeted channels such as Facebook. The service’s second hurdle is convincing horror fans that Shudder’s library is significantly better than Netflix or Hulu’s, which is where the value of curation is of specific value to the service: it presumes its audience are very dedicated to horror, and so needs films that are not available elsewhere. Films like the rare Austrian home invasion film Angst, a favorite of contemporary director Gaspar Noe, which Shudder carries. Zimmerman confirmed the importance of Angst to the service’s initial library. “Angst was a major priority for me, for example. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, but I also knew its status as something many had heard of, without decent access to. Of course, not all films will be as mythic, but there are so many films out there that viewers have heard discussed,” he said. Zimmerman added “I want Shudder to be the place they see them, with convenient, legal access,” addressing that niche genres with hardcore fans may face an increased risk of piracy.
As to whether or not Shudder’s genre-targeted strategy is as effective as Fandor’s wide-net library, Tribeca’s star power or MUBI’s high-pressure sale, Zimmerman is cagey on details, but positive. “We’re not discussing numbers, but we’re extremely pleased with the positive reception Shudder has received from the horror community.”