Cinema is changing. As current BFI statistics reveal, Subscription based Video on Demand (SVoD) platforms are on a steady rise. With a clear mission to provide more inventive, quality and niche cinema MUBI distinguishes itself from many other SVoD services. At the head of their meticulous curating team is Chiara Marañón. After building an accomplished career as director and producer, amongst others working with Abbas Kiarostami on La Chica de la Fábrica de Limones, Chiara joined MUBI over eight years ago. She can be credited as one of the heads who worked to create a distinct vision for the platform and establish MUBI as the independent, creative powerhouse for cinephiles we know today. Back in April I met with Chiara for a coffee to discuss her thoughts about digital cinema and the future of curatorship. Here is our conversation:
Clara Helbig: What was your personal vision when you started at MUBI and how has it developed over the past eight years?
Chiara Marañón: At the time when I joined the company, eight years ago, the product and the platform were completely different. The business model was closer to a content aggregator in the same vein of platforms like Netflix, just with a special focus on quality cinema, including more adventurous cinema, and generally more niche content. To see these films presented in an online environment with such care, and with such a brilliant overall design, was rare eight years ago. There was no real way of watching these movies other than on youtube in a really non-inviting environment. As a user I started to spend a lot of time on MUBI, discovering films and making lists, which are things I still do today. However one year into my time at MUBI, we changed everything: instead of having a large catalogue we decided to go with the model of one-film-a-day in which curation was very much the essence. This changed the game - I believed in it from the beginning. It’s been eight years and I still have the same faith in it as on day one.
I feel that was the point at which I realised the importance of curatorship. In these past years I have been learning how to handle this; how to grow a subscriber base and how to understand audiences. It is a continuous journey with no end to it: there is always new ways of doing new things, you are never going to have an infallible solution. Even if you have one form of content which you know “works”, you still want to be as diverse as possible. You will still want to support films that need it, and you want to champion certain filmmakers. I don’t think there is a secret recipe but that this is a perpetual journey.
I also believe that by having a small selection of films you can take care of them. You can create momentum for them. Films get lost in large catalogues and people only reproduce the same commercial behaviour that happens in cinemas, where people just go to see the big films that occupy all the screens. I think that having less films allows you to simply take better care of them. You are also able to offer additional content, which adds to the experience of watching them and creates a discussion around them. This creates said momentum and, importantly, gives the same spotlight to all films: no matter whether it is an avant-garde short, a ten-hour Lav Diaz film or an American mainstream movie that we love.
CH: What influences your curatorial process? How do you distinguish between movies and works of cinematic greatness you aim to showcase on your platform?
CM: We are three main curators and we have three junior programming assistants in the team. At the moment we are not able to receive open submissions due to the size of our programming team and the particularities of our model––with 365 slots only, we are not able to program that many films!
Our decisions as a team are very informed by the festival circuit. Festivals are seen as the first step for films that are not commercially driven to see the light, making it a very important side of where we find the films we want to show. We cover as many films as possible when we attend those festivals to get a holistic overview of contemporary cinema, and also restorations - films that have come back from the past. Things that we take into account are the audience potential of the films: who is going to be interested in watching this film and how can you make people interested in it. The filmmaker is also a very important aspect. We are a very auteur driven platform and our vision is to champion filmmakers that we feel are important to the history of cinema. We ask ourselves a lot of questions about how we are able to frame the films, as we believe in context being an essential part of the curatorial experience. Context is really important in establishing a bridge with the audience. We work directly with the right holders and ask them for their availabilities. We then hand pick every single film we eventually want to programme.
At least 50 percent of our programme is not contemporary cinema. That is one of the beautiful things about MUBI and something that distinguishes us from the rest. We think it is essential to pay attention to the entire history of cinema. When you go on Netflix you won’t find many movies from before the sixties. There are other platforms dedicated to classics but for us it is very important for films to find their place in a programme that is eclectic, diverse and contemplates the entire history of the medium. This is how people can start to educate themselves and see that contemporary films are not being made in vacuum - they are a continuation of a history of moviemaking.
CH: Considering your experience working in a museum context of the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona: Do you see a difference in curating film for an online platform or for a traditional cultural institution?
CM: I believe there are a lot of differences. However I am not sure if I am the right person to ask because I was just there for six months as an Assistant. I just know that with MUBI being part of the online world, we always try for audiences to not only associate us with that, but to see us as a presence attached to the cinema space. We found different ways of doing so, one of them being through our theatrical releases, and another through our new initiative MUBI Go. Those two things keep us alive in the real world.
They have allowed me to understand how physical distribution works and what the challenges of it are. I am not saying anything new here, but it was still a revelation for me how difficult it is to put films in cinemas. Cinemas need to make money so they aren’t generally willing to take many risks. This is the good thing about institutions which can prioritise other variables. They can be culturally driven instead of commercially driven. Independent cinemas are more adventurous too––there have been a lot of independent cinemas in the country who care deeply and that have been crucial to our distribution strategy and have given us great support.
CH: In terms of getting people to the cinema once a film has made it to the big screen I think MUBI Go does a very good job at acting as a trustworthy ‘word of mouth’ through a digital perspective.
CM: Yes, MUBI Go is a project I love and which I have been very involved with personally. The great thing about MUBI Go is that it removes the two main barriers to bring people to the cinema: choice and cost. MUBI Go solves these two problems. We are telling you which film you need to go see and we are paying for your ticket too. The main age group which is being affected by those problems is young people, which corresponds to the audiences that exhibitors struggle to get at the door. It is very difficult to get young people to go to the cinema,it’s very expensive; they are also tech savvy and are very aware of the multiple ways in which they can access content. MUBI Go’s audience is very young–we are doing a great job in bringing 18 - 34 year old people to see films on the big screen.
CH: I know you also have a Film Student Programme, which is a great programme lots of students like myself are benefitting from. However by explicitly addressing a cinephile audience through your branding and advertising, MUBI has been described as elitist in the past. What role does inclusivity and accessibility play for you when curating MUBIs programme?
Are there other measures you take to make sure the films shown on MUBI reach new audiences?
CM: MUBI Go is definitely one of the measures. It allows us to choose films that are available in cinemas and that might have a broader audience. It serves as a way for us to tap into new audiences and open up our reach. Concerning the elitist-thing; I can’t agree!
I think one of the main aspects of our brand is that, at MUBI, we all take films very seriously — however we don’t take ourselves very seriously. That allows us to find the right tone to talk about film. Building a voice and getting it right is key. We invite people to see things that they wouldn't normally get to watch. We aim to approach people in a friendly manner, sort of like the guy in the video-store giving you recommendations. That’s what MUBI wants to be: unpretentious, like the person who knows a lot about cinema, is super passionate about it and who is gonna recommend you good films. That’s who we are. We think films are important, we feel the history of cinema is important and we are going to keep on talking about those things in a way that everybody feels included in the conversation. The platform itself offers a lot of options for your viewing experience to be rich and complete.
CH: In 2010 Paolo Cherchi Usai gave a speech now known as the Lindgren Manifesto where he declared 14. points that ought to define the Film Curator of the Future. If you were to put together your own manifesto what would your archetype of the film curator of the future be like?
CM: My own manifesto?? What I could tell you are a couple things I have learned over the past years: you have to think about the audience, and the audience comes first. It’s tricky because by saying the audience you are already generalising. I am all against that, but the most important thing to take into account as a curator is to understand that the audience goes first - even before your own taste. A lot of the films I feel compelled to programme I don’t necessarily say that I like them myself but it doesn't really matter. It’s not about what I like or don’t like, because as a programmer, some films just impose themselves on you and in the end it’s more about what I think people should have the opportunity to see and form their own opinion about. So yeah, the audience goes first.
That then opens up a can of worms because it leads to a lot of other discussions about who the audience is and what “audience” means. The second point of my two-point manifesto connects to this. I believe small audiences are just as important as big ones. So say for example when programming a Straub/Huillet film. You’re programming for small audiences, and you know that, but at the same time you can give people access to films they have been reading and hearing about for a very long time and haven’t had the opportunity to see. Even though that group might not be as big, they are a loyal, devoted, cinephile audience who is going to be there every week for the new Straub/Huillet film - and to me this group is just as important.
CH: Lastly, where do you see MUBI’s place in the digital post-cinema universe of our future?
CM: I think we are developing in a lot of different directions. It is very difficult to predict things in this landscape that keeps changing every day. If you would have asked me this question two years ago I wouldn’t have been able to anticipate MUBI Go or that our production and distribution would go in the direction it does today.
What I do know is that we believe in the cinema experience. We exist in the online world but we really think that the communal, shared cinema experience is not going anywhere. I think the next step for us would be to have our own cinema, and be able to run the space ourselves. The other thing we want to explore more is something we are already putting into motion, which is original content. I believe that two to three years from now, there will be a lot of projects which will be entirely or partially financed by MUBI as we would like to have our stamp in the creative process as well. Most importantly, we want to keep supporting the work of filmmakers that we love and think should keep making movies.
Interview recorded in Soho, London, 24.04.2019