The seismic shift in the world of film festivals

3 April '16 57 Comments on The seismic shift in the world of film festivals

new projectToday’s article can be seen as a morality tale for modern times…  it contains everything you would want from a classic yarn – heroes, villains, heroes who become villains, abuse of power and a David and Goliath struggle, all in pursuit of spreading art to the people of the world.

Today’s piece is a bit longer than my average article but I promise it’s worth it.

So, if everyone is sitting comfortably, I shall begin…

‘Film festival’ means different things to different people.  Film audiences see it as a chance to view new and exciting work from all over the world, way before it will be on general release and sometimes there are chances to see films that won’t ever be released.  For filmmakers, festivals are a way of showing your work, gaining recognition and connecting with other filmmakers. Film business professionals often use film festivals as a place to network, learn and find new potential films or partners to do business with.

Some film festivals are very small, running for a day or two and showing films for free to small audiences, while others have grown into huge operations, attracting tens of thousands of people.  When I last studied the topic three years ago, I found 9,706 film festivals which had run at least once between 1998 and 2013, of which 2,954 had run in the previous two years.  I looked at their location, dates, rules, funding, fees and shared the views of 523 film festival directors.  Since then, I have sporadically looked at individual film festivals and awards such as Cannes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), Berlin (1, 2), London, the Oscars and the BIFAs, but I have not revisited at the overall state of film festivals.  I decided to check in and see if anything had changed since the study and, wow, things have really changed in just a few years.

How festivals find their films

An essential part of running a film festival is being able to attract new films to screen each year.  The more prestigious your festival is, the more filmmakers will submit their film.  In my 2013 study, I found that around two thirds of festivals charge filmmakers a submission fee when they send their film in to be considered.  These fees offset the cost of reviewing films, and for many festivals are an essential part of their economic survival. As you may expect, almost all submissions are currently made online, and it’s here that our dramatic tale takes place.

Twenty years ago, all submissions were handled offline and physically. If you wanted a shot at having your film play at film festivals then you needed to…

  • Buried film festival paperworkFind lists of film festivals from around the world.  In the pre-internet days this was tricky, with filmmakers relying on support groups such as Raindance or the British Council.
  • Get hold of the criteria of your ideal shortlisted film festivals, to ensure that your film qualifies.  This could be tricky if they’re in a different country and even more so if they speak a different language to you.
  • Complete the paper submission form(s) in the festival’s native language.
  • Mail it, along with a cheque (often in the festival’s local currency) and a VHS preview of your film (again, in either NTSC or PAL, depending on where you’re sending it).
  • Wait to hear back (by post) if your film has been accepted.
  • Finally, if your film was selected by a festival then you needed to send a 35mm film copy for the screening.

This was a frustrating, slow and expensive process.

Withoutabox to the rescue!

Withoutabox 2010And then, in 2000, along came Withoutabox. *insert angelic chorus*  Withoutabox was such a breath of fresh air for filmmakers as they solved many of the biggest problems in making multiple submissions to film festivals….

  • You could add your film’s details to the site just once, no matter how many festivals you wanted to enter.
  • You could then search, filter and select film festivals from all over the world from your computer.
  • Their site would automatically tell you if your film was eligible for each festival strand by comparing the festival criteria to the details of your film.
  • Once selected, you could apply and pay for submission from the same site, at once, in your own currency.  You would then send off the VHS (later the DVD) copy of your film to the festival(s) with just the Withoutabox reference (no paper forms, etc).
  • Finally, the festival would display when your film had been received, when it was ‘in the system’ and the final outcome of your submission.

In the modern world, this is the kind of service we expect from all submission sites, but try to think back to what filmmakers faced pre-2000 and you can appreciate how revolutionary Withoutabox was.  In fact, they were so new that they filed for a patent.  I doubt if many users even knew that Withoutabox had a patent, but it was this granting of a patent in 2004 that would go on to cause so much pain for the film festival world.

IMDb logoBy 2008, Withoutabox had grown to become a major force, with 125,000 filmmakers using their site to submit to over 2,000 film festivals.  Thanks to this success, that year Withoutabox was bought by the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) for a reported $3 million.  This was welcomed by filmmakers as it meant that it was much easier for them to add their films to IMDb, gaining all-important industry credits on the de facto database of record.

Interestingly, IMDb’s history mirrors that of Withoutabox, albeit ten years earlier.  IMDb came to life in 1990 as a usenet board and by 1998 had grown into the world’s largest film directory when it was bought by Amazon. So, both were started by film fans, both used the internet to solve problems for filmmakers and both were bought out eight years after their launch.

However, there is one big difference – the film fan who founded IMDb, Col Needham, is still in charge of the company and works to keep it in line with the original ethos which made it succeed in the first place.  By contrast, only a few years after the sale, all of Withoutabox’s founders had left the company.

The honeymoon was over for festivals

withoutabox-logoEven before the sale to IMDb, filmmakers were starting to voice their concerns about Withoutabox as their system was clunky, slow and relatively buggy.   I ran a film festival around this time and we repeatedly found that our festival details had been wiped over with old information.

In addition to technological struggles, the payments system was hugely unpopular.   If film festivals wanted to accept free submissions then they would be charged an upfront fee of $2,000. Festivals which charged submission fees (as two thirds do) were charged a commission of up to 18%, plus an upfront fee in the region of $500 to $1,500.   Festivals could reduce the commission if they purchased advertising packages, costing between $300 and $3,500.  This meant that the smaller festivals which couldn’t afford the advertising packages ended up paying the highest commission.

Festivals were required to give a “discount” of five currency points to filmmakers using Withoutabox (so a UK festival would be required to drop the submission price from £15 to £10). While this sounds like a move to help filmmakers, in fact it had the effect of causing ‘standard’ submission fees to rise. In addition, Withoutabox members only benefited from this “discount” if they had bought a premium package costing between $160 and $400 to upgrade their account – none of this revenue was passed on to festivals. If a member submitted to a festival without an upgraded account, then Withoutabox kept those five currency points, on top of their commission fees. All this meant that if a festival wanted to charge £25 for submissions then they would end up with just £16.40 (£25 minus £5 and 18% fee).

Finally, festivals were required to sign exclusivity deals, meaning they couldn’t use other companies which provided core services similar to Withoutabox, such as handling submissions.  When festivals experimented with other services (in addition to Withoutabox, not instead of them), they would receive strongly worded missives making it clear that if they did not desist then they would no longer be able to use the Withoutabox platform.

Filmmakers also fell out of love with Withoutabox

Skeleton-SOS-on-BeachWithoutabox’s restrictions were also felt by filmmakers.  The site’s biggest technology upgrade was the addition of a video streaming service which allowed film festivals to watch submitted films online rather than asking for DVD copies, called “Secure Online Screeners” (referred to by Withoutabox as S.O.S., seemingly without irony).  It was hardly groundbreaking: launched in December 2009 it came five years after the birth of Vimeo and was extremely temperamental. Filmmakers had a hard time uploading their films, festivals struggled to watch them back and there were complaints that it was slow and prone to crashing.

Buried within the filmmakers’ agreements were incredibly broad clauses which gave Withoutabox an almost unrestricted right to do anything they wanted with filmmakers’ films.  Some of these rights were irrevocable and included giving Withoutabox the right to re-license the films to third parties. One such clause read as follows…

You grant us a nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable license right to use, copy, reproduce, transmit, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display any information, data, Work, or any other information associated with your Work (collectively the “Submitted Materials”) you submit to us via the Services in any media or format.

Withoutabox shifted from liberator to captor

So, to recap, we have…

  • A bad, buggy site
  • Large upfront fees for film festivals
  • High commission fees
  • Forced discounts, which were only passed on to filmmakers if they sign up for paid plans
  • Anti-competitive practices
  • Grabbing unnecessary rights from filmmakers

Anger and frustration within the film festival community grew.  When I surveyed film festival directors in 2013, Withoutabox received scathing reviews.  I asked the festivals to rate Withoutabox out of ten and it received low scores across the board.  The categories were value for money (4.2 out of 10), customer service (4.6 out of 10), ease of use (4.5 out of 10) and overall (4.9 out of 10).

Here is just a taste of what they said

If there were one piece of advice I would give a beginning film festival promoter, it’s avoid Withoutabox like the plague.

We stopped using [Withoutabox] this year after 8 years because we felt that for the number of entries, it wasn’t worth what we were losing to them. including our package fee and the 18% cut per entry, we only took home about 57% of our fees, to get about 350 entries.

Withoutabox is the ugliest monopoly in the festival scene, and they keep your entry fees artificially high. Before a festival has even received a single submission, they’ve already spent thousands on Withoutabox for basically an entry system that hasn’t significantly improved in years.

And it wasn’t only filmmakers and film festivals which had woken up to how bad Withoutabox was, the US authorities also took note.  The Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation and interviewed a number of film festival directors, focusing on Withoutabox’s anti-competitive practices around exclusivity.

Despite this growing rage, Withoutabox stayed the same.  Their system was not overhauled, their prices did not change and it was business as usual.

Why did nothing change?

If everyone was so unhappy with Withoutabox, how did they get to keep their crown as the pre-eminent submission site for film festivals?

Because they owned a patent. Withoutabox patentWithin a few months of launching in 2000, Withoutabox filed for a patent, which was then granted in 2004.  The wording is incredibly broad, and the summary is…

Internet-based film festival digital entry and back office services suite model. A new computerized methods using a database system on a global network to administer film festivals. The methods include the filmmakers inputting film information into the database, which information becomes available to selected film festivals. The system preferably handles multiple submissions to different festivals, processes applications, provides simultaneous judging of a competition, and schedules film play times at the festivals.

So if you wanted to create an internet-based film festival submission service then you would have to contend with Amazon’s lawyers.  A few plucky sites tried, but challengers had to contend with two lines of attack: legal attention from Amazon (such as the pressure which closed Submissions 2.0) and the festivals who used any new site also got squeezed (such as those who used and were told by Withoutabox that they must “deactivate all third party submission services in order to avoid disruption to your Withoutabox service“).

And this worked; Withoutabox continued to provide a poor service, was widely disliked and yet kept a virtual monopoly.

FilmFreeway to the rescue!

In late 2013, the following tweet heralded the emergence of a new player on the scene…

FilmFreeway was a Canadian company who had decided to take the plunge and go head-to-head with Withoutabox.  Their reasons for not fearing Withoutabox / Amazon’s patent were threefold…

  1. Location – The patent is only valid in the US and as FilmFreeway is a Canadian company it didn’t restrict their non-US operations.  Some smaller European festival submission sites had taken advantage of this in the past but failed to gain a significant market share, thanks in part to Withoutabox’s aggressive exclusivity arrangements.
  2. Willingness to challenge the broad nature of the Withoutabox patent.  In the late 1990s, a flurry of extremely broad software patents were issued by the US Patent Office which were later successfully challenged in US courts (not least Alice Corp Vs CLS Bank).  These cases opened the door for FilmFreeway to claim that the Withoutabox patent did not meet the newly tightened requirements in order to be defendable.  It’s unclear if they ever actually had to make such a defence, but knowing that they could gave them, and other festivals, confidence that FilmFreeway was not just a flash in the pan.
  3. Design – Finally, FilmFreeway claim that they have engineered their system in a way that does not infringe the Withoutabox patent.  Their founders have a background in software development so this is certainly credible, although it must have been a tough ask considering the broad patent wording.

Film-Freeway-LogoIf back in the year 2000, Withoutabox was the perfect solution for the modern filmmaker’s festival submission issues, then FilmFreeway was a perfect solution to the issues of the modern filmmaker.  They offered a reliable, fast, online video screener system and they didn’t charge filmmakers for using it.  At the time, Withoutabox was still charging $2.95 per submission (not per film, this was every time you used the online screener service to submit your film) and were not yet in HD, much to the chagrin of filmmakers.

The FilmFreeway interface felt modern and was quick to use.  By comparison, the Withoutabox system was based on the same basic code used when the site had been launched fourteen years earlier in 2000.  In 2011, festivals had been told that the Withoutabox technology would be revamped but that was later put on hold. Therefore, it wasn’t hard for FilmFreeway to seem like the knight in shining armour.

Festivals also loved their pricing strategy as they offered completely free listings to festivals without submission fees (unlike Withoutabox who were charging up to $2,000) and their fees were under half of what some festivals paid Withoutabox.  FilmFreeway charged festivals 8.5% of submission fees processed, although this could be reduced to 7% in return for a tweet and a logo on the festival page.  Taking a lesson out of Withoutabox’s playbook, they offered their lowest rate (5%) to festivals who exclusively use their services. 

Film Freeway comapred speed WithoutaboxThis fresh, modern approach was also carried over into their marketing.  A typical Facebook message from March 2104 read “Innovate or be relegated to obsolescence. ‪#‎Blockbuster‬ ‪#‎MySpace‬ ‪#‎Withoutabox‬“.  FilmFreeway shouted about the number of festivals they had signed up, and made a lot of noise as they closed in on Withoutabox’s total.  They even bragged about how much faster their site was compared with Withoutabox.

In 2014, one of Withoutabox’s original founders, David Strauss, reached out to FilmFreeway, suggesting a joint venture for his new project.  FilmFreeway declined the partnership offer, but never ones to shy away from a marketing opportunity, they tweeted a copy of his email.

The new kid on the block

Filmmakers and festivals alike loved this bold, innovative new player in the film festival market.  Some were dying to leave Withoutabox, while others stayed with Withoutabox but benefited from the effects of actual competition in the marketplace.

FilmFreeway’s web traffic grew, as shown below via each site’s Alexa Rank.  The Alexa Rank measures the popularity of websites based on traffic, with the most popular website in the world (currently having an Alexa Rank of 1.

FilmFreeway first appears in the Alexa data in February 2014, when it was ranked 19,479,271th in the world, compared with Withoutabox’s rank of 45,416.  FilmFreeway quickly gained more traffic and overtook Withoutabox in early June 2015.  At the time of writing, FilmFreeway has an Alexa Rank of 45,748 and Withoutabox is at 62,737.

Alexa rank of Withoutabox and Film Freeway 2

Withoutabox fought back

New Withotuabox siteWithoutabox made efforts to reclaim their dwindling market share, including…

  • Reducing their fees to festivals, eventually matching those of FilmFreeway.
  • Dropping charges for ‘free to enter’ festivals.
  • Dropping set-up fees.
  • Removing exclusivity clauses.
  • Upgrading their online video screeners.
  • Altering the small print on filmmaker agreements to stop grabbing rights.
  • Updating their site, although it appears to be more of a cosmetic change as their core system and festival-side is the same as it was in the early 2000s. They still admit that their site will cause “certain errors” if you use “Internet Explorer, Chrome, or Safari”.
  • They even ran Google Ads targeted at people Googling the phrase “Filmfreeway”.

But the genie was out of the bottle and the anger and frustration that had been building for over a decade manifested as an exodus from Withoutabox to FilmFreeway.

Festivals flocked to FilmFreeway

Using public statements by the two companies (i.e. Withoutabox’s declarations on their website and the FilmFreeway Twitter feed) I was able to track how many active festivals each had available to filmmakers at any given moment.

In July 2006, Withoutabox claimed to have 500 active festivals and by January 2008 they put the figure at 700.  The next public figure I could find was in January 2012, when the number of active festivals had risen to 850.  They have not publicly revised this figure since then.  FilmFreeway by contrast, have been regularly tweeting about their growing festival roster and as a result, much more detailed data is available.

Active festivals Film Freeway Withoutabox 2

In order to do more detailed primary research, I measured the number of festivals which are due to open in the remaining months in 2016. Withoutabox have 535 film festivals listed to take place between 1st April 2016 and 31st December 2016.  By contrast, over the same period FilmFreeway have 2,187 festivals, just over four times more.

Film festivals on Withoutabox and Film Freeway

What do film festival directors think of this revolution?

Another way of taking the temperature of the film festival world is to speak to the people who run the festivals.  Last month, I contacted as many film festival directors as I could, with 395 eventually sharing their views.

Withoutabox achieved a higher rating than they did in the previous study:  in 2013 they received 4.9 out of 10 whereas this time they received 5.6 out of 10.  However, FilmFreeway came out on top, with an average of 8.6 out of 10.

Film festivals director scores 3

I asked the festival directors to comment on their experiences with Withoutabox and FilmFreeway and below are the answers I received.  I have removed the single word answers, those which were too private to publish and redacted names to protect anonymity.  However, these comments are the vast majority of the answers I received and the ones I have removed did not skew the overall tone in either direction.

Click ‘Next’ at the bottom right of the table to cycle through the answers.

What film festival directors think of Withoutabox in 2016
They are a rip off and use their status to bulldoze everyone else. It is a badly done service as well.
We stopped using Withoutabox for this years submission cycle. Their website wasn't user friendly and up t0 2016 standards. Withoutabox's website is hard to navigate and we felt like we were wasting time to look for things. Withoutabox's customer service was a disaster and they take a larger % of submissions than any other submission site out there.
I absolutely loathe Withoutabox. They were not content in taking a slice of each submission but they also demanded a membership fee. It was the terribly designed website so they did not reinvest that money. Their support was dreadful. They did not try and reward long time customers.
Withoutabox process has been improved, but still has a ways to go and they don't seem very motivated. Playback of films can be terrible, but don't know whether this is Withoutabox or insufficient bandwidth. Some judges have more trouble than others. But they still have the biggest data base as far as I know.
They serve their purpose and I have never felt as hostile to them as some of my peers.
They've been making some strides to improve. Their fee to get listed and take online submissions is ridiculous at the outset, but haven't had to pay them any money since. Annoyed that they take such a large cut of submissions.
Withoutabox gets bad reviews from my fellow festivals because of the high fees and the heavy or hard sell to use their expensive "added" services/features. We keep our Withoutabox relationship simple, appreciate the convenience of working with them, and we accept the high fees as the cost of doing business in today's festival market. Our filmmakers know the brand and feel comfortable uploading to the page which makes my job a ton easier.
The dashboard is more user-friendly. That's about it. Still inferior to Film Freeway.
We tried to use them and it was so bad we will not go back.
We stopped using Withoutabox. Even though they've cut the percentage they take out of every submission and they've improved their online screeners, their marketing fees are very high - FilmFreeway offers the same basic marketing package at no cost. Withoutabox customer service also left a lot to be desired.
We have closed our account with Withoutabox. We would rather miss out on submissions than deal with them and their policies on pricing and the returns. It's expensive, and they do so little to help.
Withoutabox is truly a toxic poison in the filmmaking world. They rip-off filmmakers and they shit on film festivals. The owners present themselves as creative artists, when they're actually very deceitful business people. In the entire time of my film festival career (almost 20 years), Withoutabox is the ONLY entity that has left a bitter taste in my mouth. I try never to use the word "hate". I hate Withoutabox.
Their "updates" have been more on the submission side, not on the reviewer/festival side. It could be much, much better, especially for how expensive it is(how much of a cut they take) compared to Film Freeway.
Nope. Even with the update, I was so turned off that their FilmFreeway copy made little difference to me.
Withoutabox- the only thing decent about it is that they filter film festival entries.
Don't use it anymore because it is so poor
To be blunt...Withoutabox sucks. Horrible platform robbing festivals of hard earned money. Film Freeway is amazing.
My festival does still use it. It has improved some of the most problematic parts of the site, in order to compete with Film Freeway, which is more user friendly and offered features that Withoutabox did not. As clunky as it is (though it has markedly improved), Withoutabox is still so widely used that my festival is reluctant to remove it as a submission outlet, as we do still get a decent number of films submitted though it.
The website is counterintuitive
They're much better. But still inherently more clunky and harder to use. Also no where near as profitable as Film Freeway.
It is a lot better than it used to be but for some reason it is harder to find information on the movies/directors but it could be that they are not asking for the information as much anymore so I'm looking for something that isn't there. It is more expensive than Filmfreeway for the almost the same volume
Online screeners play much better since the Amazon buy out and the export of entries works better. It's still buggy and difficult to navigate. The modify search bar is terrible and unless you remember the exact title or tracking no. you'll never be able to look a film without it.
I have never used it for submissions, but I found that their commission rate was higher than other sites. As a filmmaker, I hated using their site to upload and submit to fests because it was hard to set-up an account and frustrating to navigate through all the sections for film information.
My opinion is low - they are slow to keep up with change but are the original entrant into this field and so retain some degree of popularity even as other sites are becoming more prominent.
Stinks. We will be dropping them next year.
At the time, it was the most expensive. I did not look back since that day.
I've been on the 'sending' end on Withoutabox. The process is clunky beyond all reason even as recently as 9 months ago.
As we are very much a still growing festival, This was our first year taking films via a 3rd party/online. We backed off of Withoutabox due to the reviews we saw on line. We were pointed towards FilmFreeway by several folks in the industry.
Withoutabox is so bad that we will never use their service again. FilmFreeway has been a pleasant and needed game-changer.
I have never used Withoutabox but the festival used to use it. I heard it is expensive and FilmFreeway is much better and free.
They're still cost-prohibitive and it time effective. They designed their new exterior to look like Film Freeway but when you dig deeper, it's the same old platform.
We don't use Withoutabox, I just created account there, but that was such discouraging, especially in comparison with Film Freeway, that I give up with Withoutabox. WB is very complicated, unintuitive, asks to many questions during creating account, f.e. about accepted film formats - many strange, obsolete formats, and no option with "online screner"...
We still use it. Most of our submissions come thru FF, even though both take the same base percentage. Withoutabox is a behemoth and a bureaucracy and this year, when we changed our bank, we had a frustrating time with our first payout which was delayed for over 3 weeks. But it's also still, for many, the gold standard. We are strongly considering going exclusive with FF for next year.
Withoutabox has improved. Linking with Vimeo has helped a lot. We are still using the platform. However we have also added Film Freeway in 2016 and at our midway point for submissions we have seen an increase of 50%.
Too complicated for entries, takes ages to upload a film
I know the people who started it before when they were just filmmakers. I also had a friend who worked there and was asked to work there as well. It was great in the first few years, but I feel they lost touch with the filmmaking community as set themselves apart. It was too bad as in the early days it was a great service.
We have changed to Filmfreeway - as it is easier to use for both us and filmmakers, better layout, and prompt at paying.Withoutabox is cumbersome, cold, and poorly managed.
We don't use it. Withoutabox is too expensive.
We used Withoutabox for our second annual festival. We were surprised by the fees, but we got a fair amount of submissions. We really liked the interface with Film Freeway better. And other festivals and filmmakers alike were sharing frustration with Withoutabox. We decided to go with just Film Freeway this year. We might have gotten fewer submissions this way, but it's hard to tell. We had a free student category, which we received over 2,200 entries for. That created a huge jump in submissions. It's possible we would have received more paid submissions with Withoutabox. And since we moved away from Withoutabox, they have reduced their fees so it is possible we would reconsider using the service again.
OK, but costly for the Festival
It's better, but their fees are still too high. Do not like their online screeners. Prefer Vimeo links like FilmFreeway.
We were among some of the first to use Withoutabox (we started in 1995, before there was a robust internet!), and so have seen some fundamental changes, including going from self administrative submissions to all of the platforms online today. We still use Withoutabox, as, out of all of them, we still get our second largest number of submissions from Withoutabox. Filmfreeway is no. 1, and simpler.
I have switched platforms to Film Freeway, but went back to WithoutaBox and it is still infuriating, full of glitches and not cost effective. I will say, their support staff have improved and are much more helpful.
Yes we still use it. It's one part of many...some filmmakers only use it and once you're used to it it's OK. The updated site is only updated on the splash page...everything else is basically the same. The viewing platform is better but it's basically the same. Our own submission portal through our website is easier and better but Withoutabox is OK. If you use a combined platforms you can reach quite a few filmmakers. But it's not only about getting the films it's about signposting the event internationally.
We like Withoutabox, but it doesn't seem as easy to use as FilmFreeway. The ability to request a download directly on the submission is very helpful on FilmFreeway, Withoutabox doesn't offer that, although the easy access to the Vimeo links is a great improvement on Withoutabox.
It's much better but still could use some improvement. I do understand they have a massive legacy database of info that would be hard to move over.
Withoutabox is better than it was. Reporting is still terrible and Withoutabox has some pretty terrible features, but it is at least much cheaper than it was. Withoutabox allows filmmakers to submit without paying, which is a problem, and to enter bogus fee waiver codes. Withoutabox data is difficult to extract. Setting up a Festival is a huge pain in the neck. However, Withoutabox does have a huge filmmaker audience, so we are sticking with them for now.
The last time i checked it it was to expensive.
Their new site is great! A little too late though, only updating because of being knocked out by filmfreeway.
My opinion of Withoutabox has definitely improved. I think that is mostly due to the arrival of Film Freeway. Withoutabox's charging/business practices have eased considerably where they are now largely comparable to Film Freeway. However, Film Freeway's user interface, back-end, customer service, and marketing packages are far superior to Withoutabox.
It is marginally better and finally accessible via mobile device. But we'll be phasing it out as of 2016. They take too large a cut.
It's convenient, but it negates the important of smart curation. Curates should go find content; they shouldn't wait for it to come to their inbox.
I do not use it as a festival coordinator. I maintain my account as a filmmaker for the sole purpose of being able to get IMDb credit through submissions. However, if that was not a concern, I would use Film Freeway exclusively.
No. It is awful. Film Freeway has been tremendous and I would never go back (I used Withoutabox personally, not as a festival director - I haven't used it in years in either regard).
Would never use again. Delivered exactly ZERO submissions, charged full price anyway. Could never even prove they sent the mailer they promised, I never received. I was crushed and sunk, investments wasted.
Yes, Looks like they are copying Film Freeway on a first look. Support on withoutabox is still horrible. Enjoy the variety of films received and the amount of information provided by entries on withoutabox. The commissions withoutabox receives is still ridiculously high.
We still use it and have no major complaints other than it seems more expensive for their services and they take a bigger cut of the entry fee.. I really like the updated site.
We don't use it. You have to pay for it and there are other free alternatives.
We still use it because filmmakers still use it. But it's not preferable. They are tailoring their site now to look and feel more like FilmFreeway. But the administrative side of it still looks the same, dysfunction and all (the tracking system I mean). There are problems with their site that haven't been updated since I last responded to your survey. And their customer service is so horrible I stopped trying. It feels pretty helpless trying to troubleshoot my own problems in Withoutabox sometimes, because I'm the one who knows it best, and there are no professionals to ask. I will say that it looks much more pleasant for our screening committee with only judge permissions.
We dropped them and haven't gone back
We don't use it as of this year. Film Freeway is incomparably better in all respects.
I like it still. A few clunky things. Film Freeway "looks" better on screen but Withoutabox gives me better info.
I was with them literally from the beginning and have always been quite disappointed by their attitude, lack of any real updates to their site in regards of setting up entries each season and refusual to do much with scam fests - even when the evidence was overwhelming.
Occasionally peep into it. Nice rennovation of site but it's a bit late in the game. Initially wasn't very reliable and slow. Filmfreeway swooped in and did it better.
I do still use it. When you are the only real option in town people will hate, partially because it is deserved and partially just to do it. They have changed policies significantly but it may be too little too late as our submissions from them are a small percentage of what we get.
They are still atrocious, even after losing significant market share to Film Freeway. We still use it for the late adopters of the Film Freeway platform, but we try to give Withoutabox as little business as possible.
Still use it but am considering parting ways. They have offered improvements but not so much that I feel obligated to continue. We only hold on to it because it is all that some filmmakers still know and we don't want to miss that opportunity to see their films by disappearing from their radar.
We use it due to necessity. Our second festival is looking at leaving withoutabox as they no longer receive the same volume of submissions
I have never had any problems with Withoutabox. There are things I prefer about Film Freeway, but currently we're using both. Probably next year we will go straight-out Film Freeway, simply because it's too much trouble to do two platforms, and Without a Box's SOS (secure online screener) is much less user-friendly than FF's.
Withoutabox don't help any body they jest used the festival to promote themselves nothing ales, we not even mention them they are terrible, I do not know what they are doing in the industry.
We do because Film Freeway is only used USD currency and with the Canadian currency against the USD we can't afford to lose submissions over a 35% increase after exchange. It still looks the same to me but allowing Vimeo screeners and taking a 8% cut vs 18% were changes only made because Film Freeway was eating too much into their market imo. It's still ok, I really find their customer service lacking as in you can't talk to anyone real and the staff is always changing.
We do not currently use, because they took so much in marketing and % of entry fees.
membership is too bureaucratic. We prefer sites with easier access
I use it as a pre-screener for other festivals. They've made some cosmetic changes to the front end, but it's still built on an ugly and user-hostile codebase and design.
For a small non-profit festival like mine it's just too expensive. Their fees just make them unattractive when you have a very limited budget.
They are crap- tried to use them, but their user experience is total junk. It's like they asked all the back end developers to create their front end! It's a disaster of a site.
Yes, it works well. They are doing a good job. The only issue is support is not as fast as I would prefer.
I actually just heard of it this year, and went through the agonizing process of signing up - only to have another survey to complete, and then be asked for my credit card info, even tho' our festival does not charge a submission fee. I decided not to use it after all.
We made the switch to Film Freeway after seeing no growth in submissions through Withoutabox. Film Freeway's user friendly design and easy upload process saw a huge increase in 2016 submissions.
still use Withoutabox. They have made things easier to use their site but still no body to talk to other than emails only. That is still a bother for us non-techies types.
film freeway seems to be the best for us, simple and economical
It's still horrible, even as a business set up. I don't agree with their policies.
They're ok. The site is still lousy in terms of use. is not updated..same hard to use interface...but we still get the best films form that venue so we keep using it not user friendly..have to go back and forth all the time to add information
They've made some improvements that are sufficient.
The updated site is good, but for us, we decided to go 100% exclusive with FilmFreeway. Just better customer service, better interface, constant IT development, etc. In all honesty, Withoutabox screwed itself. It lacked the necessary urgency to implement change, still charges film festivals (which is ridiculous), and despite the upgrades, has shown no reason to be used. At this point, with the overwhelming momentum of FilmFreeeway, the only reason to use Withoutabox is to gain the submissions from filmmakers and screenwriters that yet to become aware of FilmFreeway. Other than that, there's no point anymore.
We still use them. They've made some strides in improving their system. Hopefully they'll continue to make upgrades. We were an early adopter of Withoutabox and we hope they improve.
I still use it. The updated site has some improvements, mostly in the online video section but the interface still is too antiquated. i have sent them a few emails about needed changes and they thank me but I have yet to see any of them instituted.
I have always liked Withoutabox and continue to use it. However, Film Freeway is beginning to generate more submissions each year. However, I still prefer the Withoutabox site user interface for the time being.
horrendous totally unwieldy no way to know when you get submissions pr payments more outreach to film students & film schools- those are the directors of tomorrow who have no way to get seen
It seems to be more user friendly, but as a first year FilmFreeway user, I'm excited to see how that process goes.
Withoutabox is unnecessarily expensive.
We work exclusivly with Filmfreeway. When we try to list our festival in Withoutabox they tried to charge us and charge filmmakers for their uploads. We know they changed their platform, but we not longer desire to be listed in their website. Plus they belong to the same owners that run imdb and they refuse to list our festival in their platform. Why we should have any interest in collaborate with them? We had 1.223 fions submitted last year, using only Filmfreeway.
the site still runs pretty much the same for our purposes. It's still ridiculously complicated and cumbersome. Only the landing page looks different...but the customer service has definitely improved.
No, because of all of the negative feedback I received every time I asked someone about it.
i used withoutabox years ago as a filmmaker myself. at the time it was the only game in town. As a festival organizer i couldn't be happier with the new innovations on all sites, but especially filmfreeway has been a joy to use, gives a discount for exclusivity (which makes my life easier anyway) and has fantastic customer support.
Stopped using it this year. Tried to support it but found that each year there were less submissions more fees and finally it started costing us. Meaning that we now owed them.
Haven't used Withoutabox in years. Film Freeway came out strong for both the filmmakers and festivals and made it so easy to use. FF customer service is incredible.
it was a little better with vimeo and the fees went down but FilmFreeway is so much better
Stopped using Withoutabox. Overall opinion was that it was a waste of our time and money, the staff that runs the site is very demanding of needing a special discount for their users, and then as a festival we needed to shell out a large portion of money to just get started.
Never used Withoutabox because of it's complicated format and costly expense.
FUCK NO!!! WE NO LONGER USE Withoutabox. FUCKING RIPOFF FUCKS! I'M GLAD Film Freeway stole their business.
Too complicated and tricky
It is OK. Confusing and too many options, but usable in it's most basic form.
The updated site is an attempt to copy the FilmFreeway model. But it's actually not much better than it used to be. With the exception of the video quality, which improved once they allowed films to be posted on Vimeo.
I do not use Withoutabox anymore because it was expensive and not filmmaker friendly. Film Freeway's display of my festival and the ease of submitting, assigning judges and viewing films is so much easier and friendlier to use.
As I said I do not use it anymore... however they did slightly improved.
Its still incredibly painful to navigate...3 windows to click before you can view the movie and popups? ridiculous.
I will never participate with Withoutabox. They are corrupt.
We still use Withoutabox, and the updated site is much, much better.
Strangely as a film maker I had only used withoutabox to submit my films to festivals. I was going to use it for our festival but found it too clunky and Film Freeway seemed a whole lot quicker. Which is important. I have avoided Withoutabox since.
We never ended up using it because of the high costs when Film Freeway is free and bloody fantastic!
We initially planned on receiving submissions through Withoutabox. We found the set up process to be cumbersome and the interface clunky, especially for a start up festival.
It's OK, and has improved somewhat as competition has increased.
OLD technology that shows its age. Pretty filmmaker-facing; horrific back end.
It's better than it was before, but I still wish we could create discounts that are not just full waivers. I also wish they were more efficient with how they deal with submissions, perhaps not separating the screener with the payment, or not allowing a submission to be finalized without having uploaded a video.
I use it as a maker; it seems like a useful tool though some things about it are annoying!
I had some navigation issues at first but once I became familiar with the interface, I found it very useful.
Someone at Withoutabox is making a lot of money.
It's ok. Issues with lost submissions and errors but can work well for out of area submissions
we looked into using it early on but did not have the budget to do so.
We used it for one year because that was the only option. It was expensive and service was almost nonexistent. As soon as Film Freeway and Festhome opened we switched.
Cumbersome and lots of pressure to buy ads, packages and more
Felt they were unfairly biased.
In the version I used, it seemed convenient for filmmakers to submit, but was somewhat cumbersome for me to pull data/info I needed. That may have changed in newer versions.
Terrible, wouldn't work with us but they controlled market. We were non-profit, no funding, intended to help local animal humane societies and raise awareness of animal/human issues.
Seemed really expensive
They seem to take a large chunk of money for themselves
Costs WAY too much when you join. I'm sorry we did.
It's clunky

What does the future hold for film festivals?

New dawn for film festivalsThe Withoutabox patent is set to expire on 6th June 2022, so we can expect a flood of film festival submission services in the near future.  Or perhaps the success of FilmFreeway will embolden others to bring forward their plans and launch other rival services before then.

What is certain, however, is that Withoutabox’s stranglehold on the sector is well and truly over.  Never again will film festivals or filmmakers have to contend with an overbearing monopoly controlling their submissions.

FilmFreeway may be the first new entrant to truly match Withoutabox, but they most certainly won’t be the last. Some other film submissions sites are already available, including FesthomeReelportShort Film CentralShort Film DepotClick for FestivalsFilm Festival LifeFestival Focus and MoviBeta, although none have the size and scope Withoutabox once had, and that FilmFreeway has right now.  In addition, I personally know of a number of groups and individuals who are planning to launch online services aimed at some aspect film festival market, and there are no doubt many more that have yet to tip their hand.

So, in pursuit of helping the sector catch up for lost time, I asked my festival directors what innovations they want to see next. Here are the most requested features, in order of popularity…

  • Customisable submission forms. Numerous festivals complained that they did not have enough control over their online submission forms.
  • Technology to manage the judging process. Each festival seems to invent its own system for assigning films to judges and tracking their feedback and so many requested a tailored system.
  • An active filmmaker community. Festivals felt that they lacked a single space online where they could connect with filmmakers.  Some cited Withoutabox’s large filmmaker database as the main reason they remain listed.
  • Inter-festival collaborations. Many of the problems that film festivals face will already have been solved by other festivals and therefore the directors are seeking a way to connect and exchange ideas.
  • Improved scheduling and management software to track submissions, prints, venues and tickets.


Amazon boss So there you have it – a story of youthful innovation turning into corporate dominance, only to be toppled by another generation’s youthful innovation.  I won’t lie, a part of me kind of hopes that FilmFreeway become an evil corporate behemoth, if only for the narrative symmetry and so I can write another article like this one in a couple of decades time.

The only thing that still puzzles me about this story is what the strategy was within Withoutabox / IMDb / Amazon.  How many top level people knew what was really going on?  I’m sure Withoutabox staff knew how poor their systems were and how much their fee structure was hated, but did they tell their bosses at IMDb?  And did they in turn pass it up to Amazon? It could be the case that the decision-makers at the top only discovered the true extent of the problems when FilmFreeway seem to effortlessly take away their entire business overnight.

Or, maybe everyone did know, but Amazon decided not to spend any more money and to just ride the patent out until it expired in 2018:  a slow death at the expense of the filmmaking community.

Who knows.  The truth is out there but until enough time passes that people are willing to talk openly, it will have to wait for another day…


9pm Monday 4th April: Since publishing this article I have been contacted privately by a number of people with interesting stories to tell – some staff ex-members, some festivals and some filmmakers with unique experiences.

I’m still fact-checking of the new bits of information but one that I can share now is that a number of high profile festivals are still under exclusive contract to Withoutabox in return for favourable terms. The agreements are private (hence why I’ve agreed not to name names) but their agreements state that…

[Withoutabox will be] the exclusive, third-party, on-line system for accepting and processing films submitted.

So if you were wondering why some big festivals remain only on Withoutabox (rather than listing on both Withoutabox and FilmFreeway) then this could be one reason why.


neutralityI work hard on this blog to give the facts fairly and without bias.  I sometimes add my own point of view, but hopefully it’s clear what’s fact and what’s conjecture, and also that my opinions don’t colour the findings. To this end, I tend to over-explain my methods and list the limitations to any findings.

Above and beyond all topics, film festivals are the hardest to maintain a measured neutrality.  Not because I have especially strong views (I don’t) and not because I feel I’m skewing the results (again, I’m not), but because so many of the facts stack up in one direction.  It’s like the Stephen Colbert joke about how facts have a well known liberal bias, and as you’ve read above, the facts overwhelming support FilmFreeway.

So, for the avoidance of doubt, here are some notes on today’s research which should speak to any concerns people have about my aims, methods, bias, etc…

  • I have not been paid by either Withoutabox or FilmFreeway.  Not in any way (i.e. cash / goods / tweets / hookers / blow / etc), not directly or indirectly and have received no benefit from either company or their people.
  • This not an advert, advertorial or anything other than a wholly independent article which reflects the real views of the people I interviewed.
  • As a filmmaker I have used Withoutabox a number of times (although not recently) and I also ran a small film festival via Withoutabox five or so years ago.  I have not used FilmFreeway, either as a filmmaker or from the festival point of view.
  • I am happy to change any errors, and to add any commentary from any relevant party.  Just drop me a line on my contact form.  Alternatively, leave a comment below.

I have repeatedly reached out to Withoutabox for an interview but have been bounced between press offices, before finally being told by IMDb’s Head of PR…

Thank you for your interest in Withoutabox. Unfortunately, we are not able to make someone available to speak with you at this time. We do appreciate your interest, though. 

Call meI also approached a very senior person at IMDb via a mutual friend, but I have not received any reply.  I am still happy to hear from Withoutabox and would love to interview anyone there.  If you work for IMDb or Withoutabox then please do get in touch.

Rather fittingly, my own interactions with the two companies have reflected the wider truth – Withoutabox have been slow, unresponsive and ultimately refused to help, while FilmFreeway have been open, courteous and helpful.

I did manage to speak to a current FilmFreeway staff member, and a couple of ex-Withoutabox staff, for background research and fact-checking.  I’m grateful for their time and their candor, because some of the elements in the story relied on their information and corroboration.

Working out exactly how many festivals were historically available via Withoutabox was a challenge.  I used the Web Archive to look at old press releases and updated text on their website, but they have been fairly inconsistent, both with the figures and with the language used to describe what the figures related to.  For example, a press release on 17th July 2006 put the total number of festivals at 500, whereas another press release the very next day put it at 600.

Also, the way they described their stated numbers adds some confusion. For example, in January 2006 a press release included the phrase…

In operation since 2000, the Company first developed and patented The International Film Festival Submission System, currently connecting more than 75,000 filmmakers in 200 countries and 1,800 film festivals.

Whereas just six months later a new press release announced…

The Company’s signature product, the International Film Festival Submission System, is now in use by more than 500 festivals worldwide, growing by up to 20 a month.

I used common sense to conclude that the 500 figure relates to active festivals and 1,800 is their historical database. I used the active festivals figure (i.e. 500) in the chart showing the number of festival open to submission via Withoutabox.  Their stated number of films within their database has also fluctuated hugely – in July 2007 it was at 2,765, five years later it had swelled to 8,136 but since then it has just been referred to as “more than 5,000“.

Finally, please do add your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.  We are entering a new phase for film festival submissions and we’re all still figuring out what it means.  What are your thoughts?



  1. Thanks for this interesting and informative article! As an independent filmmaker money spent on festival submissions is hard to come by and often my own. It was great to have such insight into the festival submission world.

    1. Great article. Yeah I hate withoutabox. Not sure if you mentioned this reason though. Many festivals are just a racket. If they get tons more submissions your chances of acceptance go down. I submitted to a festival that had over 500 submissions. When they announced that they were only accepting 15 films I was ticked. If I knew that’s how many they were accepting I wouldn’t have spent money to submit. I think the recession hit festivals and that’s probably a good thing. They were out of control. I’m glad filmfreeway is here now because the completion is good for WOAB. It’s easy to submit but it might be too easy now. Also there appear to be many online only festivals that a simply about collecting submission fees on filmfreeway.

      1. Great article, Steven.
        I’m a huge fan of filmfreeway… and generally not keen on WAB, but, like Justin, I would love to hear your take on the rise of the “online film festivals” that have been essentially pocketing submission fees in return for laurels. As there is now such a glut of these, it’s hard to tell which one is real and which one isn’t, which in turn de-values the festival laurels for films that did make it into some smaller but solid film festivals.

        1. I so agree with this … I wrote a novel LOL in my response to Claudia’s response to your post here … I hope more people will write articles that support artists in the film industry … it’s an important art and won’t really be respected until some fairness can be introduced.

      2. Completely agree regarding the ACTUAL festivals themselves …

        This article is great and I wish that the author ( and other authors ) might take on the larger world of the overdone festivals themselves … and in fact, the entire “business” of the film art … which is generally operated by a handful of studios, agents and producers on the one hand … or small “cliques” in smaller venues who resent any outsider … I mean, shouldn’t all of this be up to the public and the public having choices and the fun of discovering new voices ?

        Within the actual “pro” world … not many people know about the “breakdowns” which is a list of jobs available to actors in hollywood projects … the actors literally are not allowed to know what jobs are available to audition for, without having an agent … how do they get agents ? by getting jobs … how do they get jobs without agents … they can’t … see ? … this kind of no-win cycle has been repeated so often … that is how we get to the current state of affairs …

        How is it even possible for the fests to SEE .. i mean REALLLLLY SEEEE SO MANY films ??

        WHO is watching / judging the films ? Interns ?

        HOW do we even KNOW that people who have worked for festivals ( and know all the ropes … and … people ) aren’t submitting their films ? … and often filmmakers we have never even heard of are “backed” by realllly big names who take a producer credit and “back” a horse that seems to be the current flavor of the month, regardless of whether that film is a “better” made film / tells a fresh story from a fresh perspective

        “Poor” filmmakers are competing with Studios whether we know it or not …

        I think there are MANY of us who are very upset by the current state of things … and … who are also muzzled by the fear of speaking out.

        Thanks for a great article … and all I can say is, Damn … we need MANY MANY MORE LIKE IT … on all the topics mentioned … AND THEN SOME ….

  2. I used FilmFreeway both as a filmmaker and as a festival director for our first Edition 2014 and the Second Edition 2015.
    We are not charging any fees, so in the first Edition we received 1738 films and the Second Edition 2654.
    If it wasn’t for FilmFreeway I don’t think we would have made it.
    It is trully a revolution in the world of film and I hope they continue to improve and be an active partner to the film industry.

  3. my festival that i program switched to FF two years ago and never looked back after years of resentment with WAB. Our submissions is up. Although we do take AD’s outside which helps and do agree the judging system not being quite there and instead we use google docs. good peice!

  4. Great article, Stephen. I’m curious to find out more about your experiences running a festival. Also, what is the definition of an Active Festival on WAB? I thought they had thousands of festivals on there

    1. Thanks for the support 🙂

      Withoutabox have a large database of festivals which have ever used their platform (even just once) and then they have a smaller number of festivals which are open for submissions at the moment (or if they have just run, then this may include festivals planning to open for submissions soon).

      However, as I mentioned above, they have been pretty unclear about their numbers and what their numbers mean. They didn’t want to talk to me and so I can only go on their public statements.

  5. I touch on this in my forthcoming book, The Strategic Producer, (Focal Press, June 28, 2016). Amazing how what appears to be vital one year turns out to be useless the next. So glad to see people walking away from withoutabox – it was a miserably painful interface and there was no rhyme or reason to it. And may filmfreeway not make the same errors as their predecessors.

  6. Thank you for taking the time to put this informative piece together. I’m not surprised that the festival platform space is in a period of disruption. And I’m guessing we can expect more. Technology is allowing filmmakers to create work on an affordable budget, allowing filmmakers and festivals to connect, and allowing for the digital display of films in public settings and on the web. At the CCIFF, we are platform-agnostic, given that our mission is to find the best films in any given year. But we can see how when big corporate interests start trying to control an artistic realm, revolution is bound to occur. The next few years should be pretty interesting…

  7. Wonderful article, great research (as always). I was a “charter” user of WAB and very happy to begin using FF when they started. I sometimes felt I was the only person who bothered to read the onerous terms & conditions for the “secure online screener” because people seemed to keep using it.

    My primary use of WAB prior to FF often was to search out a festival, find their website and apply directly.

    I’m hoping that the entrepreneurial spirit at Film Freeway will take your list of possible improvements and run with it!

  8. Great article. I use both sites and wanted to find some good research about it. thx for great job… though i like more FilmFreeway! 🙂 Would be cool to know how the story develops!

  9. Really well written article and quite a story! As the curator for the 2010/2013/2016 Women Deliver Cinema Corner, I would love to talk to you about doing a post on the growing trend in creating film festivals at conferences. It’s a “thing”.

    1. I’d be interested in reading such an article! Fan con film festivals have been good to me as a filmmaker.

      I also run a film fest, Weird Film at the Winery, via Film Freeway. Modestly priced, well designed, friendly staff. I think they were smart to let filmmakers link to films on, e.g. Vimeo.

  10. As a film maker before we began our Best Actors Film Festival I had numerous encounters with IMDb. They were rude, unhelpful, and the worst customer service I have ever experienced. They felt free to downright insult me as a film maker. I was very sorry to hear they bought Withoutabox.

    1. I have been running a festival for fifteen years and must disagree. We have used both Film Freeway and Withoutabox for the last two years. We far prefer Withoutabox as a platform. OK OK I can t speak to the fees but on the other hand we all hope we will get paid for our next great idea why shouldn’t David Strauss. Our big beef with Film Freeway is that its harder to get the info you need about the film and filmmakers from that system. PLUS you are dealing with filmmakers. Systems that don’t provide DVD ‘s or other hard copy entries have made our life Hell. We had over 20 filmmakers not provide us the DVD or Blu Ray to screen the week before we were to open. PLUS its a nightmare to run two systems. I still think Withoutbox is far superior.

      1. Hey Diane. With the greatest respect maybe you just need to update your own systems. My apologies, I don’t mean to come across as attacking. This is just advice.

        My Festival has the same problems, if you can call it that. In the week leading to every event it’s frantic chasing the films to screen.

        We have changed our preference from physical to digital which means I can get an email a day before the screening and download the film.

        Saying WAB is far superior isn’t accurate. They may have a benefit or 2 but the whole industry needed a shake up, including the way we run Festivals.

        Our events (we now have 5) started in 2005. We have had to move with the times in order to survive and Film Freeway has been a huge catalyst.

  11. As a filmmaker, I’ve used both and I can say that FilmFreeway is a million times better than Withoutabox. I’ll never use Withouabox again.

  12. I am glad to see you taking on WAB. I never was a fan. Haven’t submitted to either since Film Freeway began. At that time WAB had gender and gender identification bias built in to their available search categories for films and declined to change it when I pointed that out.

    Your wording is not unbiased as you use “claim” in reference to all WAB figure statements but only in the chart for FF and WAB. Implying you don’t believe WAB.

    You neglect to also reveal some dirty lirtle secrets festivals fail to tell paying submitters like that they extend the deadlines for friends and lie a boutique it and go to other festivals and invite filmmakers they like from places like Berlinale to submit for free what are basically guaranteed selections before they are done viewing and deciding on the paid submissions, an unfair situation that further diminishes the chance your film will be selected.

    So amy rule is fair game for being waived. In the interest of full disclosure, it is important to note many filmmakers can easily get their submission fee waived because they know the staff, they are an alumnus, their film is a hit elsewhere, they were invited to submit because of word of mouth or the staff has seen the film at someplace like Berlinale, they are a favored minority, or most legitimately, because their film has proven itself worthy of consideration simply by having been screened at other festivals, etc.

    Then there are the built-in biases of the staff of the festivals and any PC/affirmative action quotas they exercise which unfairly reduces the chance you film will be chosen. Example: I know a major LGBT festival now run by Ls that uses most of the spots for gay male directed films about gay male themes for foreign made films while saving most spots for films directed by lesbians about lesbian themes for American filmmakers.

    Too bad you don’t feel the need for Film Freeway and other upstarts to listen to the needs of the filmmakers as much as the festivsls. We are the REAL customer. I would favor a submission platform that allows submitters to track statistics to see which festivals are favoring or biased in favor of which types of films and which types of filmmakers. That is not even mentioned here. We all know of festival CEOS that blackball people who they don’t agree with.

    There should be a forum in each platform for disclosure of these opinions so those slimballs that abuse their non-profit status for their egos can be made extinct, but that would require a platform that recognizes the filmmakers are the customer, not film festivals.

    Doesn’t sound like Film Freeway changed that at all, so I hope some enterprising person sees this niche that is still an open opertunity and continues the reforms and puts Film Freeway out of business so everybody gets the message .

  13. As a filmmaker, I now use FilmFreeway exclusively, after abandoning Withoutabox due to its annoying, time-wasting interface. It’s nice to know everyone else feels the same way!

  14. What a brilliant article. I’m involved with the running of a Film Festival Group (I received the email asking for info but have been out of the country and unable to help). We’re listed on both but only because of the Withoutabox database size. We have found that Film Freeway have helped us grow. We have a reduced number of entries from WAB but still a decent number in addition to those from Film Freeway, which is now our largest source of entries.

    We found that instead of halving our entries on each platform, opening on Film Freeway almost doubled our total entries so from a business point of view we have to stay on both for now, although we are not fans of the WAB system and recognise all of the flaws mentioned in this article.

    I had no idea about the patent but the slowing of WAB’s business now makes total sense and I’m sure they won’t be active post-2018.

  15. Just to add, anecdotally, WAB once shut us down. Our first event started in 2005 and our second in 2007. We re-branded our 2007 event and moved it from a small town where we’re based, to a major city (note here that we were open and then re-branded our website and promotional material) This was around 2012. After our first re-branded event, which was our largest ever at that point, we went to re open and were told no. The only difference was that we had added the name of the city to the title of our event and were willing to pay the fees as a new event (although were hoping we could get away with a simple re-activation for free).

    We got neither. Just a no. Within a few days our 5 year old event was shut down and no reason was given. We asked repeatedly and were sent a section of their T’s & C’s as a reply. It stated that Withoutabox reserve the right to cease all business and do not have to give any reasons. Or words to that effect.

    Imagine the frustration. It’s like when you have a family argument and that one annoying uncle just shouts over you and then walks out of the room.

    We later discovered there was a Fest with a similar name. I mean it was in the ballpark but not the same. This Festival was defunct and had been for some time. Like a Twitter Username squatter, we had been shut down because and event that used Comic Sans as it’s primary website font had the foresight to choose a name that was similar to our future choice.

    We wouldn’t have minded but with a bit if explanation we would have come up with an alternative name!

    Anyway, we did eventually manage to re open our old event under the original name and found a way to brand ourselves using the city name and not tread on toes, defunct or otherwise. But we had a very difficult 12 months where our entries suffered significantly due to WAB simply failing to communicate.

  16. I have been using WAB for a few years now. I don’t think their site is very user friendly and their discounts are not real discounts coz if you buy a package and not use up all of them, in fact you pay even more for the entry fees. It’s time to check out FF as I have 3 films to start submitting.

    Thanks Stephen for this article. Truly enlightening…

  17. Great article on the film festival circuit. I had to use Film Freeway just the once to realise it was a good deal better than Withoutabox, whose fees and project management capabilities were proving disenchanting.

  18. Great article! I would love it if you followed up with the problems such easy access by filmmakers to these festivals through Withoutabox or Film Freeway has created in overwhelming festivals with too many entries.
    A few years ago a festival may have received 1000 entries. Now they contend with 3000+. Yet, there are still the same number of slots for acceptance. Are these on-line services making festivals irrelevant? Can only a high profile film with big names get in now? Interested in your thoughts.

  19. Thanks for a great article. Maybe your next one could be on the preponderance of shadow studio, or agency, films — those backed with big money and stars pretending to be Indies, monopolizing supposedly ‘Indie’ small filmmaker festivals. How does a small first time filmmaker on less than 20K budget compete with a shadow studio, or shadow agency, backed fully funded film with slumming stars on board? Most of the time you don’t. A big festival wants bling, and stars fill seats.

    1. There is definitely a need for an in-depth look at how many festival slots are spoken for by sales reps, celebrity-backed projects, alumni, distributors, etc. Festivals have a right to try to be profitable (or breakeven if they are a non-profit), but it shouldn’t be at the expense of hopeful filmmakers. More transparency as to how many slots are truly available to undiscovered filmmakers without a name cast is overdue. WAB and FilmFreeway should list the number of slots truly available in a festival at the time of submission.

      The festivals have really become film markets that are used as the beginning of a film distributor’s marketing campaign. Spike Lee’s excellent Michael Jackson documentary was available on Showtime a couple weeks after it played at Sundance. Wouldn’t the world of filmmaking have been better off if Sundance slotted a decent film from a new filmmaker (i.e. “She’s Gotta Have It”) than giving up a screen to Showtime? Spike’s film already had a decent spot in the world.

      I know of a specific instance where a sales agent got a film into Toronto with a phone call (the film was weak never went anywhere). This year’s Tribeca has a doc playing that was accepted on the weight of a known television producer without even being viewed. Yes, it’s how the word has always worked. But enough is enough.

  20. Very interesting, though I hope that FF will not take advantage of being well above competition and keep improving. As some readers indicated there lot of space for improvement also in FF. I’m sharing this on FB now!

  21. A nice work of statistics interpretation. I am glad you mentioned the “little players” or competitors to the 2 giants. I heard how makers of such dwarf-sites or short film festivals gossiped about the new kid on the block.

    As a filmmaker I never used WAB for submissions, but most of the other ones and of course FFW. (Mostly aiming at the no-fee-festivals, who now suffer from film spamming and probably don’t really watch the thousands of submissions). I believe that a festival needs to have a lot of prestige to be charging submission fees, nowadays. It needs to invite the filmmaker, cover all costs, offer networking with industry pros, offer substantial money awards, etc.

    Europe and America are very different in the approach to cultural events. Maybe because we Europeans often get municipal support in making festivals. Maybe we make them on a smaller doable scale. In Berlin we have over 80 film festivals alone.

    Next time you can write about the many big and small kinds of festivals and their scope, characteristics, regional and international standing. Their reasons of showing films and the quality level they welcome and expect.

    1. Hello Dave,

      I wanted to find out about the range of film festivals in Germany – I’ve recently make a short documentary that was shot near Leipzig – (I’m based in the UK). My film no longer has premier status so I can’t enter it for the Leipzig FF.

      Any ideas on how I can get more informed?

      Many thanks

      Laure Levy

  22. FilmFreeway may have saved the film festival industry. I had no idea Withoutabox was using a patent to prevent competition. They should be ashamed of themselves.

  23. This was brilliantly researched and written and has given me that much needed boost to dip back into the film festival world and share my work – without all the pain it used to bring. Cheers!

  24. This is truly excellent, Stephen Follows. You’ve written primarily about the top 2, WithoutaBox and Film Freeway. There are many, many more not covered here. We have created the FIRST site, where filmmakers can find, rate and review 7,000 film festivals, and list the submission platforms they are on. Go to:

  25. I gave up on film festivals back in 2013 when I spent over $1,200.00 to many festivals, some in the area i live in, and of course, first time I tried Sundance and SlamDance (both a joke for indie filmmakers) $60 to submit, they received 12,000 submissions and only play 170. what they don’t tell you is you should have someone attached to it, or get invited to have your film, other then that, you are just tossing money.

    I got into 0 of the 60 I submitted too. Well I did get into the Davis Film festival, but, never had to pay, the director of the festival, I did editing for one of her films. Not like that was a real festival.

    So no more festivals for me. I came into it with the presumption that a festival would show my film to the masses, get someone of influence to see it, and mingle with other filmmakers.

    I’ve been to a few and the cases vary; the small ones NO to any of them, and the ones that do matter, good luck getting in.

    Having FilmFreeway helps, a little, but they have no control over the festivals themselves. FIlmmakers beware.

  26. Excellent stuff, Stephen, thank you. Re “I have not been paid by either Withoutabox or FilmFreeway. Not in any way (i.e. cash / goods / tweets / hookers / blow / etc)”, this is where you’re going wrong…

  27. Thank you for this outstanding article and superbly researched data.

    I am one of the Festival Directors of the 2011 Bodega Bay International Short Film Festival and the 2012 Healdsburg International Short Film Festival. Our experience with WithOutABox was a nightmare. They were so cocky in knowing that they had the monopoly. I couldn’t wait to see someone take them down. Their rates were outlandish, the service was terrible, and the interface was terrible.

    As a filmmaker myself, I tried Film Freeway when it first started, but it seemed under-developed and lacking quality festivals. I’m so excited that it has finally taken root.

    WithOutABox dug their own grave by being so full of themselves. Good riddance!!!!! I bet they never thought anyone could take them down! Burn!

  28. God I wish I had read this first. Without a box is a complete waste of money. Film freeway is better, but you are wasting your time frankly if you go through either of these submission platforms.

    A Filmakers best bet is to Google around and find the film festivals that are appropriate, and reach out to them in advance by email telling them about the kind of film you have. Letting them know you want to make sure it’s appropriate for their festival. If it all possible to get a dialogue going with them in advance before clicking submit on film freeway.

    But without a box is absolutely a waste of money.

  29. That’s interesting that back in the day you would need to send in a copy of your film on tape, and then if you got it approved, you would have to send in a reel of film that had your movie on it. That sounds a lot harder than just uploading a file to a web site, or sending an email with a link in it. That’s cool that modern technology has made it much easier for people to share their films.

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Stephen Follows