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Lunch With
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Lunch with Efe Cakarel, Little Social, London

24 April 2016

Efe Cakarel, founder and CEO of subscription film streaming service MUBI, is determined to deliver the best of independent cinema to the world. We spoke to the Turkish entrepreneur over lunch at Little Social in London.

“I love this place,” says Efe Cakarel, sliding into a red leather booth at Little Social, British chef and restaurateur Jason Atherton’s busy bistro on Pollen Street in London’s Mayfair. Slender, dressed in a white T-shirt and a sky blue cashmere jumper, the founder and CEO of “online cinema” MUBI has dark floppy hair, round black spectacles and a big, genuine smile across his lightly stubbled face.

The Turkish entrepreneur is referring to his chosen meeting place, of course, but the 40-year-old’s enthusiasm is not restricted to restaurants. He is no hard-nosed businessman – he’s happy, and he’s not afraid to show it. Cakarel has good reason to smile.

MUBI (formerly known as The Auteurs), the streaming service he founded in Palo Alto, California, in 2007, and now runs from a townhouse just off nearby Carnaby Street, has grown from a niche site screening “auteur-driven, foreign, arthouse classics” for a small audience of film fanatics to the place for more than seven million registered users to get their daily independent cinema fix. With a goodie bag of more than 4,500 films to dip its hands into, MUBI’s team of dedicated cinephiles offers a curated selection of just 30 films at any one time, each available for 30 days before it is rotated out for a new ‘Film Of The Day’.

MUBI will never be as big as market leader Netflix in terms of audience numbers – “They won the game from the get-go,” Cakarel will state later in our conversation, seemingly without concern – but it’s forging its own path. Notable partners include distributor The Criterion Collection and Martin Scorsese’s film preservation organisation World Cinema Foundation, while highlights of MUBI’s short history to date include teaming up with independent filmmaker par excellence Paul Thomas Anderson for the exclusive release of his documentary Junun in 2015 and, more recently, in January 2016, a US$50 million investment from Huanxi Media Group Limited to launch MUBI in China.

The company has come a long way in just nine years, and Cakarel’s personal journey has been no less impressive. Born in the city of Izmir, on the west coast of Turkey, in 1976, Cakarel’s early years were idyllic. Breakfast was a tomato picked from the vine and long, joyful days were spent on the beach or windsurfing on the Mediterranean Sea. Life was so carefree that he didn’t learn to read until he was eight years old.

But Cakarel’s proclivity for business is no accident. He inherited it from his father, who ran (and still runs) a large engineering company. “I am the son of an entrepreneur,” he says, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the mélange of jazz and chatter filling the restaurant.

“My father carried his work home. He was really passionate, like all entrepreneurs. It wasn’t too great for my mum, but for me it was amazing to sit down every night at the dinner table and listen to my father talk about a problem with a supplier or a new business opportunity or the business’ cash flow. From a very young age I grew up with all the excitement that surrounds running a business. Without even realising, I caught the bug.”

The waitress arrives. “Burger. Medium,” says Cakarel. “And a salad on the side, yes?” replies the waitress, who has obviously scribbled down this very same order before. “No bacon, no pickles, tomatoes, and the salad, yes. Thank you,” concludes Cakarel. I order two courses from the set lunch menu: roasted Cornish cod, followed by a selection of ice cream and sorbet.

“I was groomed to take over the family business,” says Cakarel. He was serving tea at board meetings at 11, afterwards taking a seat at the back of the room – listening and learning. Seven years later, Cakarel would leave Turkey to study electrical engineering and computer science at Boston’s prestigious Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT), before securing a job at prominent investment banking firm Goldman Sachs and then earning an MBA from Stanford Graduate School Of Business in California.

Cakarel recalls a question on his application to Stanford: What matters most to you? “It was a very powerful question that made me think a lot,” he says. “Money came to mind. Power. These were the first things. But I took months to really dig deeper into it, [to discover] what mattered most. To me the answer was excellence. Excellence: whatever you do, do it really well. It applies to every aspect of your life. That comes from my childhood.”

“I grew up in a family where no decision was random,” he continues, relating how his mother would eschew the local shops and travel miles to her favourite fromagerie to source the very best cheeses, while his father would traverse the country to find the perfect carpet for the family home. Before MIT, Goldman Sachs, Stanford and MUBI, the area in which Cakarel excelled was mathematics. Once he reached his teenage years summers were no longer spent on the beach. Instead he was in a maths camp in Trabzon in northern Turkey, working on complex equations for 14 hours a day.

“It was my choice,” he says. “I don’t think you could force somebody to do that. But imagine you are 16, you are with the top minds in the country – it’s so stimulating.” The hard work paid off, and in 1994 Cakarel placed third in the European Math Olympiad in Geneva, Switzerland.

“That was possibly one of the happiest days of my life,” he says. “I took the cup and ran to the nearest pay phone to call my mum and dad to tell them.” But the phone call didn’t go quite as planned. While Cakarel was in Geneva crunching numbers his parents had received an unexpected package in the post.

“I had applied secretly to MIT, because my father would never have let me go. He wanted me to stay in Turkey, go to the best school there and take over the family business. That was my future.”

A few months earlier, Cakarel, who always worked late into the night, had waited until his parents had gone to bed, snuck out of the house, bribed the security guards at the headquarters of his father’s business with a couple of packets of Marlboro cigarettes and used the company PC – “one of the first computers in the city” – to complete his application to MIT.

“Everybody else was filling their applications in by hand,” he explains. “Not me. Excellence.” Excellent he might have been, but his father wasn’t impressed. Not yet, anyway. “I flew back from Geneva and there were reporters at the airport,” says Cakarel. “It was an amazing moment, I was feeling really proud of myself. I sit down in the car, and my father says, ‘So, number three. Why not number one? Where did you fail?’”

“That’s the kind of family I grew up in,” he guffaws. “Then we go home and have this difficult MIT conversation.” It didn’t go well at first, but after the precocious teenager had written a letter to the president of MIT explaining that he couldn’t accept the offer of a place because he couldn’t pay his way, and received a response offering a full scholarship, his father relented and supported the decision.

Things didn’t go so smoothly when Cakarel later decided to accept the position at Goldman Sachs rather than return to Turkey to take up the role at his father’s company he, as the only male child of three siblings, had been readied for since childhood.

“I told my dad, ‘I want to find my own path in life. You did and you are very happy. I want to do it as well’,” he recalls. “We didn’t talk for a couple of years. It was a very difficult period.” Cakarel now has a family of his own: a wife and a four-year-old son. He works in the MUBI office seven days a week, not returning home until 10pm. But he eats a meal with his wife every evening and spends two hours each morning with his son. Is he preparing him to take over the family business?

“I joke about that, how I think he is the next CEO of MUBI,” says Cakarel. “I’m not going to put pressure on him, because I know from my own experience that it doesn’t work. I think my job, as a father, should be to help him excel in whatever he’s passionate about. I just want to be there with him and hug him.”

Our food arrives, and although my cod is both handsome, with a golden sheen from the oven, and cooked to silky perfection, it is dwarfed by Cakarel’s burger. I prod daintily at my cod, loosening delicate slivers of flesh, as Cakarel starts to devour his fist-sized feast one greedy bite at a time, safe in the knowledge that, once again, he has made an excellent decision. The conversation turns to film. Unlike his entrepreneurial zeal, his love of cinema cannot be traced to his childhood in Turkey.

What films did he see as a child? He chomps on his burger. “Batman! Big studio blockbusters,” comes the uncharacteristically unimpressed reply. It wasn’t until he arrived at MIT that he was introduced to independent cinema, and he was working at Goldman Sachs in New York before he watched the DVD that turned him from a film lover to a bona fide buff. That film was Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express.

“I watched it at home on my laptop, which was the only place you could see that movie [at the time]. Netflix DVD,” he says with a chuckle. “I went to Stanford for my MBA and there it became obvious that I really wanted to start my own company,” he continues. “Stanford is this magical place – being in that environment, in that eco-system, you feel that if you have the right idea and it’s the right time you can create anything.”

But it wasn’t until Cakarel left Stanford and joined German software company SAP that he came up with the idea for his own business. He was in a café in Tokyo when the lightning bolt hit. “I wanted to watch, you guessed it, a Wong Kar-wai film, In the Mood for Love, on my laptop,” he says, eyeing the fast disappearing burger in his grasp, planning his next attack. “There was not a single platform that allowed me to do so.”

“This is before the iPad, smart TVs had just been introduced that year at CES [Consumer Electronics Show] for the first time, but to me it was obvious even then that the consumer experience was going to shift from DVD and pay TV, which at the time was 100 per cent of home video entertainment, to TCP/IP [Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol], because with YouTube we had started to watch long format video on our laptops. For me it was radical. The technology always existed, but the real magic happens when people start behaving differently, and with YouTube people started behaving differently. So I started writing a business plan on the flight back to San Francisco and two months later, in February 2007, I left SAP.”

Soon afterwards he launched The Auteurs. Five years later, having realised that he couldn’t compete with Netflix, which also launched in 2007 but was able to grow immediately thanks to its existing DVD business and existing relationships with studios, Cakarel found a way to differentiate his product from Netflix: curation.

“MUBI is a brand that stands for something. Netflix doesn’t,” he says. Whilst he acknowledges that Netflix satisfies a lot of people, even admitting that he subscribes in order to access its “brilliant” TV content (House Of Cards is a personal favourite), he describes navigating its films as “frustrating”. That’s where he believes MUBI has the edge.

“We can really create an amazing film offering with MUBI and build the brand around it,” he says. “What we want, the long-term vision, is that in three to five years anyone from Buenos Aires to Tokyo, from New York to Istanbul to Beijng, if they want to watch a good movie, they say, ‘What’s on MUBI tonight?’”

My ice cream arrives and we order a pair of single espressos. “There has been no tipping point yet. There have been moments,” says Cakarel as the coffee arrives. In the next two years he wants to have three-person teams in 50 countries, curating content specifically for their local subscribers. This month Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ film Arabian Nights, a hit at Cannes in 2015, will have its UK premiere on MUBI. Cakarel has plans for a MUBI cinema and has already identified a site in London, which he says is not far from where we’re sitting. It won’t open until 2019 at the earliest, but he is already excited.

“Not to jinx it, but it’s an amazing space,” he says, adding that if it works out he can envisage opening more. He suggests New York, Paris and Rome. As well as the move into China, an opportunity that Cakarel says “makes me dizzy”, MUBI is looking to invest in original films, aiming for a first ‘MUBI presents’ release in 2017. It seems like a lot is going to happen very quickly, but seemingly not fast enough for Cakarel.

“These things take time,” he says. “You need to have a long-term vision to build a company like MUBI, and I’m in it for the long-term. The last nine years were great, the next nine years will be amazing and the nine years after that – incredible.”

“We are having so much fun building this, and maybe I’ll still be running MUBI in 20 years and then pass it on to my son. Maybe in three to five years I no longer control the business. I’m totally relaxed.” After lunch, as we make our way to MUBI HQ (Cakarel is keen to show me around), he receives a call from his father. He’s with a renowned Turkish producer and they have been talking about MUBI. Cakarel’s enthusiasm is infectious, it seems.

Words: Gareth Rees / Images: Rebecca Rees