Monday, December 4, 2023

To re-MUBI or not to re-MUBI

I have been pretty disappointed with my 2023 subscription to MUBI.

Which is no shade on the person who gifted it to me last Christmas, should he be reading this.

I'd been considering subscribing to the service myself, as I was enamored with their unique model of making movies available for 30 days, with one new movie appearing on the service each day. Each day you could check in to be surprised by some long-lost gem, some elusive title you'd been meaning to watch for years, or just some weird thing you'd never heard of but looked like it was worth trying out. Having the choices pre-curated by MUBI takes out some of the randomness of choosing a single movie from a service that may make thousands of them available.

But during the year, MUBI abandoned its signature format.

I can't remember the reasons for this. I'm sure it presented challenges and I'm sure the cost associated with licensing films for 30 days of viewing was prohibitive, relative to the benefit of the format, when they'd be better off just having it for a year or however long. If they wanted to license 365 films -- and I'm not sure if they do have that many -- better to make them all available for the whole year.

In theory, that's no different of a service from having 30 at a time -- in fact, maybe it is better in some ways. But it means MUBI is not distinct from a dozen other streamers, at least at the fundamental level of its structure. It might offer more interesting titles ... or maybe it just offers a bunch of movies you've never heard of for good reason. 

Then early in the year I learned that they got exclusive distribution rights to the movie in this poster, Ira Sachs' Passages. I've seen most of Sachs' movies and his Love is Strange made my top ten of its year. So it gave me a little thrill that at some point during the year, I'd be able to watch this on MUBI.

Not so much. The distribution rights were for the U.S. I am in Australia. I cannot watch Passages on MUBI. In fact, now I'll probably have no way to watch it before my list closes at the end of January.

Then there were the emails I would get from MUBI telling me about the new availability of some title. Maybe they got my geography wrong -- it makes sense as I have some services set in the U.S. (like iTunes) and some set in Australia (all the others) -- but in these instances as well, almost without exception, I would go into MUBI to try to watch the movie in question, and get nothing. U.S. only, apparently.

If services are going to offer different titles in different countries, they should at least figure out what country you're in so you are not getting constantly teased about movies that you can't watch.

Then the offerings themselves.

Things started on a good note when I watched Cleo from 5 to 7. The Agnes Varda film was a regret for me when I watched Varda films a couple years ago for my Audient Auteurs series, because I couldn't locate it at that time. I hadn't specifically sought it out since, but having it handed to me here gave me a taste of the exclusivity MUBI promised. I was tickled pink by the MUBI possibilities.

But as I tried to delve into random movies I wouldn't hear about elsewhere, some of them were just too random, especially this one called The Red and the Black that I suffered through one night. 

Another MUBI highlight was watching The Balcony Movie, which I had meant to catch at a previous MIFF and really liked. But then there were also lows, as when I watched Trash Humpers, which is now my lowest ranked film on Flickchart. I can't blame MUBI for my poor choice in that respect, but it didn't help with my overall impression of the service, regardless of who was to blame.

Is it possible that these are the only four movies I've watched on MUBI this year?

It's possible. 

I went back through the movies I've watched this year and did discover at least two others: Where is the Friend's House, which I didn't love despite it being Abbas Kiarostami, and Actual People, a movie about as bland as its title. I thought I might have watched The Pez Outlaw on MUBI, but if so, it's no longer available. (Six is a better return on my friend's gift than four, and seven would be even better.)

I've tried to watch others. I've used MUBI as a possible last resort when there was a movie I couldn't find on any other service that I needed to watch during a particular period of time. None of the times I've checked has MUBI actually saved me.

Then the real tease is that MUBI has a page for almost any movie you can think of, even if it can't play the movie. So you get to the page and you get all hopeful, and then there is just no play button.

This past week, as I realized my renewal would be due in late January, I had another determined peruse through the various featured films, to be sure I wouldn't be struck by another sudden rush of optimism about MUBI's potential role in my viewing life. I was struck by more disappointment, namely:

1) There were so few featured titles that the same titles kept on popping up in different featured categories. I'm not sure how one movie can be a film noir, a superhero movie and a romantic comedy, but that's the sort of thing I was seeing. Not that any of the genre assignments were inaccurate, just that the categories themselves were written in such a way to allow the same movies to appear in multiple ones -- creating the impression of more titles than they actually had, an impression easily disproven by the most casual memory of the titles you had just seen featured in the other categories.

2) There was one particular category that focused on 1940s classics. This is the type of place I'd expect MUBI might help me out. There were exactly three movies listed here, all bonafide classics like Citizen Kane. I don't need MUBI to watch Citizen Kane.

3) There should be a three just for good list-making etiquette, but I'm disappointed enough by 1 and 2 that 3 is pretty much superfluous.

If MUBI can't offer me more elusive classics from the 1940s, if it can't offer me the movies it says in the emails it is going to offer me, and if it doesn't even have a unique structure as a streamer, what good is it to me?

And yet I am thinking of renewing.

The idea of MUBI is still powerful. The potential it has to be great is still exciting. It has a lovely layout that supports both this idea and this potential. Simply put, it looks like the sort of exclusive place I want to spent my streaming time, with the sorts of undiscovered gems I want to discover.

Do I have to give MUBI another year to try to realize this potential?

It's hard to say. 

I have almost two months until my subscription expires. It's enough time to give MUBI a red hot go, to use the Australian phrase.

The problem is, these two months are when I'm watching as many 2023 movies as I can before I close off my list. MUBI does not offer 2023 films, as a general rule.

And when it does, like Passages, I'm in the wrong country to even see them.

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