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 Indee.tv 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 Google.com) 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.
yes..it 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.

Epilogue

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…

NEW UPDATES TO THE STORY

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.

Notes

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?