Just over a year ago I published a long piece about the huge changes we’ve witnessed in the film festival market over the past fifteen years. It covered the emergence of online submission service Withoutabox, how the industry fell in love with Withoutabox, how it then fell out love thanks to poor service and monopolistic practices (due to their all-powerful patent) and finally the emergence of a rival, FilmFreeway.
If you’ve not read the piece then I recommend you do now as (a) it’s quite an entertaining, shocking story and (b) it will provide context for today’s article.
A year later, I thought I’d check in and see what’s changed. I spoke to Withoutabox, FilmFreeway and senior people within major film festivals. Throughout the article, I have included quotes from the official spokespeople for Withoutabox (see blue sections) and FilmFreeway (in green). All of the festival staff I spoke to wanted to remain anonymous, which shows how touchy some of these topics are.
I’m going to split this into the good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s start on a positive note…
I tossed a coin and Withoutabox won, so let’s look at their new features first.
Withoutabox’s improvements and additions
Withoutabox is owned by IMDb, which is in turn owned by Amazon. Hence it makes sense for Withoutabox to start taking advantage of the technology their parent company has developed.
Festival judges can watch submissions on whatever device they can connect to an Amazon Fire stick, including large home TV screens. They will gain access to all of the submissions assigned to them, be able to watch them in HD, rate the films and make recommendations of which films should progress to the next judging round – all from within the app. This data is then accessible in real-time by the festival admins from the Withoutabox site.
One festival using the app is Sundance, and a senior manager at the festival said of it:
Withoutabox’s Festival Judging app is a game-changer for festivals. To pour your heart and soul into a film only to have festivals watch it on a laptop has always been a concern for our applicants. Now we can easily view them on larger screens in HD, which is more in line with how filmmakers want us to experience their work.
A common complaint of Withoutabox in the past was their poor submission system, which appeared to be running on the same basic code created in 2000 when Withoutabox first launched. Over the past few years, Withoutabox started to address this via a number of improvements, including:
- A redesigned website with new project pages. Withoutabox calls them “more attractive and easier to evaluate” and they have improved integration with Withoutabox’s HD online screeners.
- Withoutabox now provides free HD online screeners up to 10Gb (they previously charged filmmakers $2.95 per festival submission)
- Or filmmakers can choose to submit their film via a Vimeo link.
- Their festival search function has been enhanced, including filters for deadlines and price.
- Filmmakers using Withoutabox can automatically create a title page for their film on IMDb.
Withoutabox says of its latest innovations:
FilmFreeway’s improvements and additions
Now let’s turn to the new features on FilmFreeway.
Their biggest innovation over the past year has been the addition of a ticketing system. Festivals can sell tickets to their events from their listings page. The fees for selling a $25 ticket are just $2.24 and the system is free for events which do not charge for admission. Once attendees have purchased tickets, festivals are able to manage communication and issue digital tickets. FilmFreeway says:
Other recent improvements and additions to the FilmFreeway platform include:
- New website features such as photos albums, a filmmaker dashboard, a notification centre and advanced search tools.
- Public profiles and judging forms can now be customised
- Non-public listings allow your festival to not appear in the search listings and only users with the exact URL can reach the page.
- Festivals have more control over eligibility, allowing them to refuse submissions that are too long (in either minutes or pages) or because of other factors such as project origin, student status, etc.
- A ‘Laurel Creation Tool’, which create images of laurels for your festival.
The result of these changes
Neither company is keen to share private data on the exact number of festivals they host, or the value of their submissions. However, we can use data from Alexa to get an indication of web traffic. The top website in the world (currently Google.com) receives a rank of 1. FilmFreeway seems to be defending its recently-won position as the most popular film festival submission platform, with a rank of 21,037 versus Withoutabox’s 51,193.
However, web traffic is not the only way to judge who’s on top in the battle. If we focus on the festivals using each platform, there are signs that Withoutabox’s recent efforts are paying off.
Prior to 2014, Withoutabox were the only major submissions platform and so hosted almost all of the world’s major films festivals. However, once FilmFreeway started to get known, many festivals moved away from Withoutabox (See here for more details on this shift). Three years after FilmFreeway launched, we’re starting to see big festivals return to Withoutabox. Not only that, but an increasing number of festivals are exclusive to Withoutabox, including Sundance, Melbourne, Stockholm, Toronto, Hamptons, Santa Barbara, Aspen and Slamdance.
So far, we’ve addressed the public side of this battle – the changes that are visual to filmmakers. However, during the course of my research, I have discovered that there’s a darker, secret side to this conflict. It always seemed strange to me that Amazon was quietly allowing one of its companies to lose market dominance, considering just how aggressively competitive Amazon typically is. Well, not anymore.
It turns out that Withoutabox are paying some festivals to use their service. In some cases, very large sums of money.
I have now spoken to a number of people who are right at the coalface of such deals, and I have seen enough documents to be confident it is a major part of Withoutabox’s current strategy. What I’ve gathered is that a number of major festivals have signed multi-year exclusivity deals with Withoutabox in return for:
- Cash payments. This is referred to as “sponsorship”. All were in the tens of thousands of dollars per year. I am not going to list actual amounts here in case that reveals which festivals shared this info with me. Taken together, the festivals I spoke to were offered well over half a million dollars.
- A much lower commission rate. The standard fee is 8.5% of the amount paid by the filmmakers, but festivals agreeing to an exclusive deal only pay 4%
- Advertising on IMDb. Most festivals were each offered over $100,000 of advertising on IMDb.com.
- Free marketing to filmmakers via Withoutabox, including their “Solo Spotlight Blast Package”, “two-week banner adverts” and “topline mentions”, together worth over $3,000.
- IMDbPro coverage of the festival. This includes pinning articles to the IMDb homepage during the festival (so long as the article was written by one of the 151 IMDb news desk partners) and coverage in IMDb’s Festival Central section which is pushed out to IMDb’s social feeds (3.6 million followers on Twitter and 7 million on Facebook).
- Amazon Fire Sticks
- IMDbPro accounts
I can’t be sure which of Withoutabox’s exclusive festivals received financial inducements to be exclusive, but my guess would be… all of them. My reasoning for this assumption is thus:
- Outside of such a deal, there is very little benefit to being exclusive to either platform. The added work of using two platforms over one is massively outweighed by the increased number of submissions and attention you can expect. Both systems allow for the easy export of data and so it not hard to mix submissions from different platforms.
- FilmFreeway is more popular with film festival organisers. In my anonymous survey last year, I asked film festival organisers to rate each platform out of ten: FilmFreeway received an average of 8.6, while Withoutabox scored just 5.6
- And with filmmakers. As we saw from the Alexa data, FilmFreeway has the larger number of filmmakers, and in the conversations I’ve had with organisers of festivals that use both platforms, all said that FilmFreeway provided a higher number of submissions, compared to Withoutabox.
- I’ve not spoken to an exclusive festival that wasn’t paid. Every major festival I was able to connect with which uses Withoutabox exclusively either told me outright (or strongly indicated) that they were receiving financial payments from Withoutabox. To be clear, I have not managed to connect with every festival, so it’s certainly possible that my research has missed something. But at this stage, this seems unlikely.
I’m not making a case for FilmFreeway, nor suggesting anyone should use it. I’m just pointing out that it seems implausible that a major festival would voluntarily choose to use just one platform exclusively unless they were induced to do so with a pretty attractive offer.
(Just as an aside, another reason a festival may choose to use one platform exclusively is if they had has a particularly bad experience with the other in the past. For example, in 2015 HBO used Withoutabox for their HBOAccess Writing Fellowship competition. Unfortunately, the site crashed due to the number of submissions, and so HBO now uses FilmFreeway exclusively. But this is a rare and unusual case).
Everyone involved was very worried about talking openly about these deals, partly because of non-disclosure clauses in the deals and because they fear how Withoutabox may react if they knew they’d spoken out. I also picked up a hint of shame from a few of them, as it’s clearly not in the best interests of the filmmakers they receive submissions from. They mentioned how most festivals do not make much money and are run for the community, not for profit. So when they are offered deals that can dramatically help their bottom line (and therefore increases their chances of surviving for another year) they take them.
I also spoke to festival organisers who were approached and rejected the offer. Here’s what one such organiser said when I asked if they had been approached by Withoutabox with a financial offer for exclusivity:
They have indeed and we said no. It’s very wrong. [Withoutabox] have no idea about the value of non-exclusivity, and FilmFreeway is now 80% of our income so [Withoutabox] could never afford to replace our income.
I asked spokespeople from each of the two platforms about exclusivity deals. Withoutabox said:
The battle between Withoutabox and FilmFreeway is getting more intense, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the rhetoric is heating up. The FilmFreeway team have always been ready to speak their minds and often taunt Withoutabox on Twitter. Below are just a few of their missives:
Withoutabox’s last tweet was on March 6, 2013 (over 16 months ago). Looks like they’ve stopped caring altogether. That’s okay… we do 🙂
— FilmFreeway (@FilmFreeway) July 17, 2014
Withoutabox, your new design looks oddly familiar 😉 But if you truly want to improve, why not make your site FREE like FilmFreeway?
— FilmFreeway (@FilmFreeway) June 29, 2015
This filmmaker submitted a support request to Withoutabox’s “Help Desk.” We feel you, buddy. We feel you 😉 pic.twitter.com/GsEKWLc2Tb
— FilmFreeway (@FilmFreeway) March 10, 2015
How to Win the War on Drugs:
1. Legalize all drugs.
2. Require all drugs be purchased through Withoutabox customer service.
— FilmFreeway (@FilmFreeway) April 17, 2015
And when one of the original founders of Withoutabox (who has since left the business) contacted FilmFreeway, they posted a copy of the email chain.
CHECK THIS: The founder/CEO of Withoutabox tried to get FilmFreeway to partner up. Um, yeah, no thanks. We’re good 🙂 pic.twitter.com/chijDG3hqN
— FilmFreeway (@FilmFreeway) 20 November 2014
With this in mind, I’m sure you’re keen to hear what they have to say about the emergence of Withoutabox’s under-the-table deals to festivals. So was I, and when I asked them, they did not disappoint:
Yikes, fighting talk!
Withoutabox provided much more measured and corporate answers to my questions and declined to discuss the hidden payments and deals. However, they did say:
So there you have it – a year on from my big breakdown of the battle and things are as heated as ever.
I’m very grateful to the spokespeople of both Withoutabox and FilmFreeway for their willingness to answer questions on the record. I’m also indebted to the film festival personnel who spoke to me off the record to let me know what’s happening with their festival.
For the sake of clarity, I should repeat that I have not received any kind of benefit or inducement from any company or festival. I agreed to give Withoutabox and FilmFreeway advance sight of this article in order to correct errors but I alone have sole control over what I publish. I am trying hard to retain my neutrality in this increasingly bitter battle!
I suspect this is going to be a story that runs and runs. After reading my article last year you could be forgiven for thinking that Withoutabox’s owners (IMDb / Amazon) had given up on the platform. It seems as if no money was being spent on developing the service or the platform and they were simply squeezing out everything they could from their fast-expiring patent. However, it’s now clear to see that either this was wrong, or that Withoutabox has woken up and is starting to fight for market position.
If you have a view on this situation, then please do leave a comment in the section below.
If you would rather speak to me privately, then please do drop me a line.