Withoutabox vs. FilmFreeway: The major shift in film festival submissions
Sundance Film Festival’s alliance with Withoutabox
This week, the Sundance Institute renewed its agreement with IMDbPro’s online submission service Withoutabox to handle its applications until 2021. For ten years now, Sundance has teamed up with the festival submission service website to process 100,000 submissions of features, shorts, episodic content, and virtual reality experiences. This is just one of Withoutabox’s long-term agreements that shut out competition from the likes of its rival FilmFreeway, which does not push for exclusivity.
However, while Withoutabox might hold reign as the Goliath of the film festival world, the David of this story – Vancouver-based company FilmFreeway – remains a favorite by filmmakers and festival owners alike. But before we investigate this ongoing battle, let’s delve deeper into the history of the film fest market’s two biggest competitors.
A brief history of Withoutabox
Twenty years ago, all film festival submissions were handled offline and physically. If filmmakers wanted a shot at getting in, they’d have to find lists of fests and their criteria for acceptance, fill out a paper submission form, send a check, and wait to hear back.
Needless to say, the process was slow and tedious . . . until in 2000, when Withoutabox came along. This new online service solved everyone’s problem by allowing filmmakers to submit to multiple festivals while only having to upload details once. Users could search and filter festivals from all over the world, automatically confirm criteria eligibility, and apply & pay without any paper forms necessary.
At the time this was revolutionary, and by 2008, Withoutabox had grown to become a powerful force, with 125,000 filmmakers using their site to submit to over 2,000 film festivals, and eventually the firm was bought by IMDb for $3 million.
Cracks starting to show
Withoutabox has drawn criticism for its takeover by IMDb – owned in turn by Amazon – with filmmakers and festivals alike accusing the site of excessive charges. Festivals that accepted submissions for free had to pay an upfront fee of $2,000, while those charging were made to pay a commission of 18% as well as an upfront fee of $500 to $1,500.
Even before the buyout, the cracks had started to show, with users claiming the site was not user-friendly – concerns voiced by festival organizers even to this day. Warren Workman, head of Workman Productions (which manages Utah Film Festival among others), described how from a festival perspective “it was clunky to use, took days to get online, and after everything was done I was required to buy a marketing package for a few thousand dollars or they would not publish the festival . . . the platform is overly complicated and visually boring to look at.”
Executive director of Oxford Film Festival, Melanie Addington, shared a similarly frustrating experience with the IMDb-owned company. “The Oxford Film Festival gave up using Withoutabox a few years back . . . we were one of the festivals that due to a power outage lost quite a few submissions one year on the site and were frustrated with the challenges for filmmakers & festivals using it.”
While numerous festival organizers expressed their frustration over Withoutabox’s user experience, another point of criticism surrounded its “aggressive” litigation outlined by Amazon. In 2001, the site was granted a patent on using the internet to administer film festival submissions. This meant that anyone who tried to set up a rival site would have to go against Amazon’s deep pockets.
In an interview with Deadline, Jon Gann, director of the DC Shorts Film Festival, described how he stopped using Withoutabox after several years: “I don’t like to be beholden to software that I think I could do better myself.” Instead, Gann developed his own program for the festival submission process. However, the director was put off by the daunting prospect of an Amazon lawsuit. While he believed the process patent wouldn’t hold up in court, the concern that Withoutabox would sue was too strong.
Up until around five years ago, many industry figures were too scared to go up against Goliath. However, this all changed when Canada-based company FilmFreeway came along in 2013 – David had arrived with a satchel full of rocks.
FilmFreeway – the new film fest favorite
FilmFreeway started as it meant to go on. Evidently not scared of going head-to-head with Withoutabox, they took the plunge and introduced themselves to Twitter with the following message: “The game is about the change. Finally, a free and user-friendly alternative to Withoutabox for filmmakers.”
It was clear they were not afraid of Amazon’s patents for several reasons, including their location (it’s only valid in the U.S.) and design, engineered in a way that does not infringe the Withoutabox patent. Within the next few years, hundreds of filmmakers and festival organizers made the change to FilmFreeway thanks to its reliable, fast, online video screener system and completely free listings. Between April 2016 and December 2016, Withoutabox had 535 film festivals listed, whereas over the same period FilmFreeway had 2,190 festivals – just over four times more.
Also, FilmFreeway’s bold marketing strategy seemed to work in its favor, taking any opportunity to outline the benefits of the site over Withoutabox, such as its “FilmFreeway vs. Withoutabox” page that includes streams of tweets from festival organizers and filmmakers explaining why they chose to switch from the former to the latter. In their words: “The monopoly is over. Filmmakers and festivals now have a choice.”
Festival organizers: What’s the verdict?
Film Daily caught up with numerous festival organizers to get opinions on their favored site. The result was telling: FilmFreeway seems to be the festival favorite. Winter Film Awards Executive Director Steffanie L. Finn described Withoutabox as “terrible”.
“We do accept submissions there, but only to promote our FilmFreeway entry. Withoutabox charges higher fees than FilmFreeway and their promotional options are significantly more expensive. Setting up your fest is a huge pain in the neck, while FilmFreeway is really simple – it lets you easily copy from the previous year, while Withoutabox makes you type everything into their clunky interface all over again.”
Similarly, Indie Memphis Executive Director Ryan Watt recounted, “We have used both platforms in the past and now use FilmFreeway exclusively. We prefer to be on one platform to manage the submissions and have found the FilmFreeway interface to be easier to navigate on the backend. Filmmakers have given us similar feedback that it is more user-friendly.”
When discussing FilmFreeway, Workman added, “When FilmFreeway came out, they were completely different. Not only did they allow festivals to set up shop for free, but they even helped promote the festival for free or very low costs. It’s easy to navigate, communicate with filmmakers, and sell tickets, and the customer service is outstanding. Withoutabox . . . not so much – I never spoke with anyone from customer service. I don’t even think they have customer service on that platform. The only person I talk to are sales agents. The interface is also way easier on FilmFreeway. Everything is clearly marked and has a very low learning threshold”
Perhaps the years of critical comparison between the two sites are what spurred Withoutabox to work on its user experience. This week the company announced the launch of an “enhanced film festival submission management service”, which the company said was developed in collaboration with Sundance and its other leading festival partners like the Toronto International Film Festival. Apparently the upgrade will make it easier for festivals to use Withoutabox to organize, assign, and review submissions.
According to Lela Meadow-Conner, acting executive director at Film Festival Alliance – a company supportive of both Withoutabox and FilmFreeway – “It’s exciting to hear about the enhancements WAB has added and we are eager to see them in action and hear feedback from our membership.”
However, while this bodes well for Withoutabox’s major partners, perhaps this is not enough to pull the other hundreds of other festival organizers back in. In the words of Finn, “Withoutabox apparently improved their ability to add discount codes, but FilmFreeway is so easy I never bothered checking.”
Forget about David & Goliath: What about the townspeople?
While the film fest market might be dominated by these two powerhouses, in the past several years, numerous new submission sites have cropped up to offer their angle on the process. For example, German site Reelport now has 170 short film festivals in its database, Spanish site Clickforfestivals has over 1200, and Festhome boasts 1800.
While these newcomers might not hold much of the market share – FilmFreeway has 4800 festivals in its database while Withoutabox focuses on high-profile partnerships – with the latter’s patent set to expire on December 7, 2018 perhaps we’ll see more U.S.-based film festival submission services in early 2019. As it stands, David & Goliath continue to grapple, and while FilmFreeway may be the first entrant to have truly matched Withoutabox, perhaps they won’t be the last.