How MUBI India Fumbled Indie Films

In 2019, when UK-based arthouse cinema streaming company MUBI came to India, it was hailed as the answer to cinephiles’ prayers. That year, it launched with Oscar-winning producer Guneet Monga as a content advisor. MUBI also had a dedicated channel for Indian films, curated across genres, years, languages, and directors. This ranged from from Basu Chatterjee’s slice of life comedies  and gritty black-and-white features of the ‘50s to contemporary, small features made by independent filmmakers searching for a breakthrough moment. 

A lot has changed since. For one, at the time of publishing this story, The Impression found that MUBI has 362 expired films on its India catalogue, titles it is no longer streaming. Its Indian catalogue is vastly reduced to just 31 films, with only three of them made in the 2010s. The latest Indian film it has on offer is Gamak Ghar, released in 2019. 

Instead, MUBI India’s focus seems to have shifted from being a home for both Indian and world cinema to being a platform for Indian cinema lovers to discover award-winning foreign films instead. In fact, its current focus is Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, for which MUBI has distribution rights outside the US, including India (in partnership with multiplex leader PVR-INOX). 

It’s a departure for a platform that first came to India hosting parallel cinema darlings such as Om-Dar-B-Dar (1988) and Salaam Bombay! (1988). Independent filmmakers are struggling for a profitable path to their audience. When (and why) did MUBI step away from this role? 

Changing business model

MUBI does not have an incorporated entity in India, although it has a content team on ground headed by Svetlana Naudiyal, the company’s programming director for the Asia Pacific region. For calendar year 2022, the UK parent reported a 53% increase in revenue, though accompanied by wider losses. However, these figures were for its operations in the UK only; there are no numbers available for the company’s overall performance. In 2018, it raised an undisclosed round from Times Bridge, the investment arm of The Times Group, to fund its expansion in the country. Per research firm Tracxn’s estimates, MUBI has raised a total of $32.3 million since it was founded in 2007. 

MUBI India did not respond to emails asking for comments. 

By all accounts, MUBI’s presence in India is marginal compared to bigger subscription-model foreign rivals such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Two of its sources of revenue—theatrical film distribution and MUBI GO—were practically shut down during the pandemic as films held off India restricted cinemas to 50% occupancy. 

In 2022, the platform reintroduced MUBI GO, a subscription plan that offers customers a free movie ticket every week to watch a specially curated film. MUBI GO costs just under twice the price of a regular annual subscription in India. 

MUBI has spent over 15 years acquiring an audience dedicated to ‘art house’, ‘independent’, or simply non-mainstream cinema from around the world. Its key differentiator from other competitors and Big Tech rivals producing Oscar-winning films is that it offers a curated library of cinema to subscribers instead of simply dumping a never-ending menu of shows and films with few ways to discover something new. Many films in MUBI’s library are available for a limited time, prompting viewers to watch them on a schedule, much like they would at a theatre or a film festival. 

While MUBI is working to acquire and retain a loyal audience with an international catalogue, it seems to have given up on the task of building an equally compelling library of Indian cinema. 

Shallow Pockets

Film industry insiders The Impression spoke to say they repeatedly encounter the same problem when dealing with MUBI in India: it offers extremely low prices for streaming rights. 

On average, MUBI licences the rights to independent films in India for $500-1,000, going up to $2,000-2,500 for some titles. That comes to about Rs 40,000- Rs 1.25 lakh, hardly enough to begin covering the production cost of even films made using little more than an iPhone, a small room for a set, and a skeletal crew of 3-4 people. 

“MUBI only works for filmmakers who have made their films on very tiny or almost no budget at all,” Mauli Singh, a Mumbai-based independent film producer and publicist, told The Impression. “There are filmmakers who travel to their villages to save costs and make films successfully. Otherwise, MUBI pays a couple of lakhs [of rupees] even for films made for Rs 1-2 crore.” 

However, Singh adds, there is still value in what MUBI offers filmmakers striking it out on their own. “They have built a great audience set, and it is a great platform for film buffs to discover all indie films in one place,” she says. “They don’t pay much but then they also don’t take exclusive rights to a film.”

Typically, filmmakers sell streaming rights to their films to MUBI for a limited period of time—say, 2-3 years—often for India only. That leaves them free to pursue other streams of revenue, such as an international theatrical/streaming release or running the film in foreign film festivals. As covered in this edition of The Impression, small and indie filmmakers have realised that the ideal way to recover their investment in a small film is to monetise it in as many ways as possible, beyond the traditional route of a theatrical release and an eventual sale to an OTT platform. 

This is similar to how other platforms structure streaming rights deals with filmmakers and production firms, big and small. The trouble for small filmmakers is that while MUBI may have exactly the audience they’re looking for, it isn’t profitable for them to strike a deal with the platform. 

“What I don’t like about MUBI is that it has built a valuation of over $100 million on the shoulders of independent filmmakers, but it isn’t willing to pay them fairly,”  says a film distributor, requesting anonymity. Another industry insider told The Impression, on condition of anonymity, that small filmmakers were able to profitably licence their work to MUBI by keeping production costs extremely low. However, when these streaming rights come up for renewal, the platform sometimes offers only a fraction of the already-low offer price. 

Great Expectations

High acquisition costs have made it difficult for subscription-based streaming platforms to make money in India. Worldwide, subscription-based streaming platforms are struggling to turn profits, with the exception of Netflix. Meanwhile, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ are rolling out ad tiers. It stands to reason that MUBI’s India unit looks to control costs while relying on high-profile international deals—such as the one for Priscilla—to hold on to its niche Indian audience.

However, in a 2019 interview, MUBI’s founder-CEO Efe Cakarel and then-content advisor Guneet Monga had described the company’s carefully curated channel of Indian films as a crucial offering to subscribers here and abroad. 

“There are multiple Indias in India, it’s such a rich culture of cinematic heritage,” Cakarel said. “When you launch in a country, you start doing licensing deals with local distributors. So, we’ll start getting bigger films… There is going to be MUBI, and there will be the MUBI India channel with a new film every day. The more I get into Indian cinema, the more I realise how rich it is. It needs to be highlighted on its own.” 

Perhaps for MUBI India, that richness of Indian cinema just isn’t a rich enough business. 

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