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Withoutabox was the Goliath of the film festival world, but upstart David, FilmFreeway, has become a favorite of filmmakers and festival owners alike.

Withoutabox vs. FilmFreeway: The indie film festival war

Twenty years ago, entering and organizing film festivals was no easy task. Submissions were handled offline: if filmmakers wanted a shot at getting in, they’d have to search through lists of events and criteria, fill in paper forms, mail in a VHS cassette of their film, and wait to hear back.

It was a slow and tedious process, which is why everything changed when online service Withoutabox came along. After the platform proved popular for digitizing festival submissions, in 2008 Withoutabox was bought by IMDb for $3 million.

Withoutabox might hold reign as the Goliath of the film festival world, but the David of this story – Vancouver-based company FilmFreeway – has become a favorite of 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 physically. In 2000, Withoutabox came along and 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.

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Cracks starting to show

Withoutabox has drawn criticism for its takeover by IMDb (owned in turn by Amazon). Filmmakers and festivals alike accuse the site of excessive fees: festivals accepting submissions for free had to pay an upfront fee of $2000, while those charging were made to pay a commission of 18% as well as an upfront fee of $500 to $1500.

Even before the buyout, the cracks had started to show. Users decried Withoutabox’s poor user experience – 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.”

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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 spearheaded by Amazon. In 2001, the site was granted a patent on using the internet to administer film festival submissions, meaning 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 simply 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 has truly proved itself to be the underdog in this David vs. Goliath story. Film Daily were stoked to take a break from the newsroom to sit down with FilmFreeway’s founder Zachary Jones to find out more about this unstoppable force and where it’s headed.

FilmFreeway: The new film fest favorite

Unafraid of going head to head with Withoutabox, FilmFreeway took the plunge, introducing themselves to Twitter with the following message: “The game is about the change. Finally, a free and user-friendly alternative to Withoutabox for filmmakers.” FilmFreeway sidestepped Amazon’s patents with its Canadian location and design, engineered in a way that doesn’t 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.

FilmFreeway’s bold marketing strategy seemed to work in its favor, taking any opportunity to outline the benefits of the site over Withoutabox, including its “FilmFreeway vs. Withoutabox” page featuring 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.”

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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 interface. Last year Withoutabox 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.

The upgrade was intended to make it easier for festivals to use Withoutabox to organize, assign, and review submissions. Apparently, it wasn’t enough. In October 2018, IMDb announced it would be sunsetting the Withoutabox service entirely.

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.

FilmFreeway has truly proved itself to be the favored underdog in this David vs. Goliath story. Film Daily was stoked to take a break from the newsroom to sit down with FilmFreeway’s founder Zachary Jones to find out more about this unstoppable force and where it’s headed.

Film Daily: When you started back in 2014, did you have any idea FilmFreeway would blow up to where it is now?

Zachary Jones: When we set out to build FilmFreeway, our goal was to completely reinvent film festival submissions by creating a vastly superior product and user experience. The mandate was that FilmFreeway had to be at least ten times better than the competition.

Next, we’d offer our product completely free to filmmakers and at a fraction of the price for festivals. And finally, we’d back it up with nothing less than world-class customer support. We knew that once filmmakers and festivals gave FilmFreeway a try, they were going to fall in love. But no, we never imagined that we would be embraced by the community this fast and to this extent.

Why do you think FilmFreeway has enjoyed such success?

First, I think the quality of the user experience that FilmFreeway provides is what really sets us apart from anything else out there. FilmFreeway is the world’s #1 submission site across all top metrics including global web traffic, total festivals, Oscar-accredited festivals, and daily active users.

This year, all three Oscar-winning short films were made by FilmFreeway filmmakers. There’s no way we would have achieved all this in such a short time if our product was anything less than the best in the world.

We never stop working to get better and we never will. Our goal is to continually improve our service by at least 10% every week. Over time, that ethos and approach to our work compounds and our customers enjoy the benefits.

Next, we have a genuine respect for our users that they can sense when they interact with our team in any capacity at all. That represents a radical departure from how they’ve been treated by the former leader in this space for years. Customers appreciate that, and that’s how we’ve been able to earn the loyalty and word-of-mouth goodwill from so many users all over the world.

With regards to improving your service week by week, can you discuss any upcoming new features or projects you’ve got planned for your customers?

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Now filmmakers can create profiles to beautifully showcase their work, and unlike IMDbPro, we gave them complete control over their information, their privacy settings, and made it all 100% free. That’s how we do it and that’s why filmmakers love us. We’ve got some more awesome stuff in the works now; there’s always something in the oven. All we do is think of ways we can make things better for filmmakers and festivals.

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So how about your own professional background – how did you come to create FilmFreeway?

I’m a web developer, technology enthusiast, and film fan. Our team at FilmFreeway is comprised of super-talented engineers, designers, and customer support staff who have a true passion for film. FilmFreeway was created to cure a plague that was slowly killing independent film. That plague was Withoutabox.

When we learned that an entire industry was being subjected to brutally unfair business practices and being forced to use quite literally one of the worst websites we had ever seen, we knew we had a golden opportunity to build an awesome product and at the same time liberate an entire industry from the clutches of a comically greedy and terribly inept corporate bully.

Knowing that we were fighting against a horribly unethical company and also saving filmmakers and festivals tons of money and frustration made the mission of building FilmFreeway fun and gave it all a sense of purpose at the same time.

Speaking of Withoutabox, could we talk a bit about your marketing technique? A lot of it is heavily focused on comparing your strengths to your competitor – was this something you set out to do from the start?

Absolutely. Look, Withoutabox is one of the most evil companies we’ve ever seen. Before we arrived, they were charging filmmakers $3 a pop for online submissions. $3 each! And that was for laughably bad standard-deaf online screeners that played in a tiny little pop-up window and barely even worked. This was not 1997, this was 2014!

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They were also charging festivals nearly 20% commissions, forcing them to purchase mandatory marketing packages for thousands of dollars, charging free festivals thousands of dollars to list, forcing festivals to create absurd Withoutabox deadlines, and mandating a shady “discount” scheme whereby Withoutabox kept an additional $5 to $15 on every submission and charged the filmmakers to be eligible. Basically just gouging festivals and filmmakers at every single turn.

These are independent artists struggling to make films on a shoestring budget and festival organizers working their tails off to throw films festivals for (more often than not) zero financial return and for nothing more than the love of independent film. For more than 15 years Withoutabox demonstrated they have no qualms treating this community like their own personal ATM.

What effect did this have on the film festival industry?

The bigger problem with that is filmmakers and festivals had no other choice. And when other startups launched to try to take them on, Withoutabox threatened them with litigation and even sent their own customers sternly-worded warnings that if they used any other service, they would have their accounts terminated. They bullied several would-be competitors right out of the market, forcing them to close shop.

They did everything they could to protect their illegal monopoly. In fact, it took a formal investigation by the Federal Trade Commission to get them to scale back their behavior and finally change their terms to allow festivals to use other providers. The United States government actually had to intervene!

The sad part is that, over many years, they caused great harm to indie film by the way they wielded their power in such a predatory manner. Festivals were forced to artificially raise their entry fee to afford Withoutabox’s exorbitant fees, making it even less affordable to submit to festivals. Many festivals that could not afford their fees even had to shut down.

I can’t tell you how many emails we’ve received from festivals saying that had FilmFreeway not come along, they would have had to shut down, or that thanks to FilmFreeway they can afford to re-open their festival or keep it running. We even had a festival announce publicly that thanks to FilmFreeway, they have lowered all their entry fees so they can pass the savings back to filmmakers. I can’t tell you how rewarding that feels.

And this is why so many film festival organizers and filmmakers dropped Withoutabox to join FilmFreeway.

It’s a mass exodus. Festivals have been dropping Withoutabox and switching to FilmFreeway in droves. The reason is that using Withoutabox is like bashing your own head into a wall. It’s truly a miserable experience for all involved. And now it’s simply not worth it anymore.

Festivals are posting on social media that they are receiving anywhere from ten to twenty times the submissions on FilmFreeway than they are on Withoutabox. One festival tweeted that after their first deadline, the submission numbers went from 12 to 272.

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What would you say about Withoutabox and how it stays in business?

Well, thanks to some amazing investigative reporting by Stephen Follows, it’s been revealed that Withoutabox has been secretly paying some festivals to use their service and not use FilmFreeway. Of course, in true Withoutabox style, even these deals are bound by strict non-disclosure clauses – that’s what they’ve resorted to.

We’ve seen a few of these deals and I can tell you that they are paying some festivals many hundreds of thousands of dollars each. So basically, Withoutabox has created a situation for themselves in which they literally have to pay their customers to use their product. It sounds like a comedy spoof, but it’s real.

In the eloquent words of Sean Farnell, former programming director of Hot Docs, “Submission platform exclusivity tilts the power dynamic even more in favour of festivals and away from independent filmmakers, who should have control over how the data they submit to festivals is managed and exploited.

“Withoutabox paying festivals for exclusivity isn’t a fair deal for filmmakers, who are paying a fee for the privilege of having their data flipped to the highest bidder (in this case, Amazon) without sharing in the revenues their work is generating. Let the filmmakers choose the tools with which they want to manage their IP.”

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Moving towards the film fest industry as a whole, it seems there has been a surge in festivals in recent years. Why do you think this is?

We’re very proud that we have helped dramatically reduce the financial barrier to market for new film festivals and made it easier than ever to receive entries from a worldwide community of talented storytellers, sell tickets, and manage a festival event.

Having your work screened at a film festival in front of an audience of your friends, family, industry peers, and strangers is an experience something close to magic. It’s quite often the culmination of years of work to get these stories told and onto the screen. And when it happens it’s beautiful. You can feel it as a creator, an organizer, or as an attendee, and it’s an experience that is singularly unique to film festivals. 

That’s why there are new film festivals popping up in virtually every township and community around the world. We’re honored to have some small role in facilitating these wonderful stories reaching new audiences, moving and entertaining people around the world.

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What would you say are some of the main challenges for film festivals and how can these be overcome?

I suggest doing things that are unique to stand out. Find a really cool venue. Perhaps screen some films outdoors. Do midnight screenings. Come up with a fun theme. There’s a niche for just about everything. If you visit the “Most Popular” section on FilmFreeway, you can take a look at what some of the best festivals in the world are doing and get some inspiration and ideas there.

Nobody starts out a film festival expert. Everyone was a beginner at some point. So my advice would be to just dive in and get started. You’ll make some mistakes, you’ll find things that work, but you will learn and get better. And if you have a true passion for film, it’s a great way to live that passion and meet other like-minded people.

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What advice would you give to budding film festival organizers?

Focus on the filmmaker. Do whatever within your means to cater to the filmmakers and make sure their experience at your festival is second to none. This is what will put your festival on the map. Filmmakers talk, they tell their friends, and they make more films. You can’t have a great festival without great films. Nurture the source.

Looking ahead, what has FilmFreeway got in store for the future?

I wish we could tell you all about what we are working on now, but as you know, we’ve got a very shady and not very creative competitor that would love to know what we have coming down the pipe next. You can bet that we are only just scratching the surface and look forward to rolling out many innovative new solutions that will continue to make discovering, entering, and managing film festivals easier and more enjoyable than ever before.

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