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September 8, 2013

US6829612: Withoutabox’s Dirty Secret

WithoutaboxIn the last few weeks I’ve spent lots of time looking at film festivals and talking to film festival directors. A very common theme was their dislike of Withoutabox and their frustration that a better alternative doesn’t exist. I was intrigued as to why such a bad situation has gone unresolved for so long. So I dug around to find out:

  • Why is Withoutabox disliked so much?
  • Why did Amazon pay so much to buy Withoutabox?
  • Why isn’t there a credible alternative?

The surprising answer to all three questions is the same – a document called US6829612. But first, let’s have a bit of context.

Withoutabox History Lesson

Withoutabox in 2000Withoutabox (WAB) was set up in 2000 by David Straus, Joe Neulight and Charles Neulight. It was the first website to allow filmmakers to upload their details and apply to multiple film festivals from the same place.

Prior to WAB, filmmakers had to contend with physical entry forms, language barriers and the nightmare of trying to pay submission fees in different currencies. Withoutabox made the whole process of submitting films to festivals significantly easier.

Withoutabox in 2005In 2008, eight years after it launched, Withoutabox was bought by IMDb for a reported $3 million. IMDb started life in 1990 as a British non-profit community Usenet board and was purchased by Amazon in 1998.

It was clear that there would be advantages to IMDb / Amazon in owning Withoutabox, but even so the price tag seems rather large for a relatively small marketplace. Surely Amazon would have to worry about copycat sites popping up and taking slices of their festival submission business?

Not so, thanks to US6829612.

Festivals say that it’s expensive…

Withoutabox is not free for festivals. Festivals with submission fees are charged $500 – $1,500 to be listed on Withoutabox and up to 18% of the filmmaker submission fees. In addition, WAB forces all festivals to reduce their standard submission fee by 5 currency points, i.e. $5 in USA, £5 in UK, €5 in Europe, etc. This means a festival with a £25 standard submission fee would actually only receive £16.40.

It’s worse for festivals which don’t use submission fees, as Withoutbox charges $2,000 just to be listed.

…and buggy

A common complaint of film festival directors is that the WAB system is slow and buggy, which is not surprising as the underlying technology doesn’t seem to have been updated in many years. A couple of years ago the site suffered a repeated bug which would wipe over new festival information with old data, meaning everything from text to logos were regularly out of date. Another issue is with the ‘online screeners’ system, which seems to fail on a regular basis.

“It’s not me, it’s you”

All this has meant that many festivals are leaving WAB. Of the 304 festival which Withoutabox credited as “founding festivals“, only 134 have used the site to accept submissions in the last two years. In my recent survey I found that only 45% of festivals use Withoutabox, and of those they rate WAB 4.2 out of 10 for “value for money“.

So if Withoutabox is so unpopular, why are there no credible alternatives? The answer is US6829612.

What is US6829612?

Ok, enough context. What is it that made Withoutbox so valuable to Amazon, that results in such poor service and which has prevented any rival appearing? It’s a patent.

In 2001 Withoutabox was granted the monopoly on using the internet to administer film festival submissions. US patent US6829612 is described as such: Withoutabox patent

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.

This means that if anyone tries to set up a rival to Withoutabox they will have to contend with the full force of Amazon’s lawyers and deep pockets. In the process of conducting my film festival survey I was approached by no less than four groups of people who were considering creating a WAB-killer. One of them had some big names attached and were it not for patent US6829612 I think they would have really shaken up the film festival world. Competition in the submission market could drive down fees, provide a credible alternative for free-to-enter festivals and force WAB to improve their site. But US6829612 prevents this. Shame.

The few that get by

The sites which seem to come closest to offering an online film festival submission service (such as Short film Depot) don’t list any US or Canadian festivals. Seeing as almost three quarters of all film festivals are based in North America, I can only assume that this is the result of Amazon enforcing their US patent.

Withoutabox 2007 vs 2013

In 2007 the Withoutabox homepage included the following manifesto: Withoutabox in 2007

The Declaration of Independents. With this revolutionary suite of online tools, Withoutabox declares all members of the film community to be free from restrictive distribution channels. Withoutabox grants the power to simply and economically manage the entire process — from production to festivals to distribution to connecting with fans — and the inalienable right to enjoy all artistic and financial rewards to which one is entitled. Go forth, Withoutabox

Six years later, when I asked film festival directors for their thoughts on Withoutabox the following response was typical:

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 all because they have patent US6829612. When you can prevent all competition, why try harder?

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31 Responses

  1. Daniel Cormack September 9, 2013 at 10:50 am #

    Guess everyone will have to wait until 2021, and then leave Withoutabox as a worthless asset (hopefully having been replaced by something better and fairer).

  2. S.Y. September 9, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    I’m glad to see that only 45% of the market uses WAB. Many sites just allow online upload directly using Vimeo or Dropbox. Was frustrated with WAB and not impressed with pricing. Going to look for the 55% of festivals that don’t use it until the site is less buggy.

  3. Roberto Rizzo September 11, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

    Hi Stephen,

    I participate in your survey and I agree about WAB, but, as a film festival WHERE can I promote my film Festival? I would like other options to be seen, would you please email me a list of other places where we can advertise our festival?

    Thank you for all the work you have done to open many filmmakers and film festival’s eyes

    All the best
    Roberto Rizzo

  4. Rajan P September 12, 2013 at 4:12 am #

    Hi Stephen,
    We are preparing to launch a global TV channel, IFFTV for the media people all over the globe.
    International Film Festival TV, a unique concept, an online and satellite TV channel for the film and broadcast industry.
    IFFTV is expecting to create the largest media platform, may be first of its kind in the world, an online film festival, enabling millions of film fans across the globe through sites, mobile apps and social networks to see films, vote for film awards, contribute, participate, write and share their views online. The online platform which can be accessed from all major platforms and includes multilingual facilities. This will be promoted by a specialized TV channel for film festivals.

    You are invited to join IFFTV group in Linked In and introduce yourself .
    Your support for the project expected.
    Let me know your thoughts.
    Regards.
    Rajan P
    CEO
    My UK Network Ltd

    [email protected]

  5. Thomas Santorelli October 2, 2013 at 3:29 am #

    There us nothing stopping anyone from creating a festival data base to compete with Withoutabox. That patent is bullshit. WAB is a monopoly and if someone were to develop their own system for film submissions, WAB could do nothing about it except offer to buy you out. WAB can be sued under our Anti-Trust Laws and I’d like to see that happen.

    • Roberto Rizzo October 2, 2013 at 9:43 am #

      I would love to create a company like WAB but the problem is ALL the filmmakers goes to WAB is not to create another company is how to put your word there, to Filmmakers to know about it we can do it within a month but help me to promote and Im not affraid to be suit because they have a MONOPOLY is illegal

    • Philip Arlington March 6, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

      It is a tiny niche monopoly but it is backed by a giant corporation. A small start up wouldn’t be able to afford to fight it unless it had very wealthy backers and a big company wouldn’t consider it worthwhile to fight it as the potential financial rewards are small. This is an excellent example of the problems caused by granting patents to software.

  6. Bob Thomas October 4, 2013 at 5:10 am #

    I have never seen a shadier, more corrupt “mainstream” website than Withoutabox. The monopoly they have has gone to their heads and they treat all their customers with outright contempt. Boycott Withoutabox.

    • Roberto Rizzo October 5, 2013 at 2:14 am #

      I will need your SUPPORT Monday I will go to my Lawyer to Suit WABOX

      Plese help me,
      My personal email is [email protected]
      my phone 212-228-7910

      Best
      Roberto

      • Thomas Santorelli October 5, 2013 at 2:27 am #

        I am the President and Executive Director of the Long Island Film Festival, a festival that next year will be 31 years old. They just terminated our service for no reason. They referred me to its contract that states they can terminate the service with or with of without cause.

        They cannot be reasoned with. We have to now take submissions on our site. This may or may not effect us drastically.

        • Robert Braine October 3, 2017 at 11:28 am #

          We are an international law firm and are working with 10 big festivals which have all been established for over 5 years. It has come to our attention that all of these festivals have been denied reactivation by Withoutabox and received the following text as the reason, with no further explanation given:

          “Thank you for providing the below details about your event and for your interest in Withoutabox.

          Based on the information provided we have determined that is not a good fit for the Withoutabox system and will not be activating the listing at this time.

          We wish you the best with your call for entries.

          Best regards,
          Withoutabox Accounts”

          We are interested in finding out whether other festivals have also experienced this problem as we are conducting an investigation of Withoutabox and are finding that their activity infringes the interests of small and medium-sized businesses. If you have any information that could help, please add to the thread.
          Thanks

  7. Michael Hauser November 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    US6829612 seems to have no inpact in Europe. I work for a swiss shortfilmfestival and we get trough reelport.com and festhome.com lots of US shortfilms. In particular Festhome does a lot to treat filmmakers as fair as possible and actualy was founded as an answer to Withoutabox and similar organisations.

    • Thomas Santorelli November 16, 2013 at 3:34 pm #

      That bogus patent, if you don’t know by now, is just a ploy to scare off any competition. I think we should all start a letter writing campaign to the US Attorney’s Office under the Anti-Trust Laws. They will investigate and sue WAB. The cost for attorneys for WAB will put them out of business. It happened to Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company where all the film companies that contributed to the development of Edison’s camera and projector and had their own patents, pooled their patents to form this organization. Anyone wanting to enter the film business had to pay a licensing fee to the patents company to be in the business or else they were forbidden to produce films in the US. The government busted them up in 1915, but some of those companies could not come up with their share of the attorneys fees and were bought out by Vitagraph Company of America that became Warner Brothers in 1925. WAB will fall.

    • Stephen Follows November 16, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

      Michael, yes it seems to only be enforced in America. Do you know if Withoutabox or Amazon have ever approached reelport on this issue?

      • Michael Hauser November 17, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

        Not as far as i know. I reckon that patent is only valid within the united states(?) There is also at least one festival using withoutabox NEXT to reelport and shortfilmdepot => shnit.org from Bern, Switzerland
        i think they woud rather quit withoutabox instead quitting reelport oder shortfilmdepot in case there was a problem. since they get more than 6000 entries (withoutabox will have a great share there) i think that withoutabox accepts this arrangement.

  8. Michael Slowe November 21, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    So glad to see all this correspondence. WAB is a real rip off and, as you all say, the site is dreadful. My main complaint is that once you’ve sent the film there is zero information as to the outcome, save for the odd festival sending a mail direct and the odd few lines on your submission page.

    How can we establish a list of festivals with addresses of sites? That’s all we need, payment can still be by credit card, no problem there. We’ll just have to fill in separate entry forms. That suits me as I cut different length versions of my documentaries to suit various requirements and the one entry form causes confusion.

  9. Richard N. Wilson March 21, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

    OMG … I wish I had known. I have been struggling to get information onto IMDb for a week. I paid for the Pro service and they ignore me like the plague. I’m shocked. It look like an awesome site but if they don’t provide service then it’s a waste. For those of us on THIS site it’s time for those of us to find better means to survive as struggling artist and not waste our time and money. I am going to look into US6829612. do we have a facebook page?

    Richard Wilson

    • Thomas Santorelli March 24, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

      The FTC has interviewed me about WAB in a preliminary investigation
      of possible violation of anti-trust laws. I use submittable for my film entries.

      • Richard N. Wilson March 24, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

        Tom, can you elaborate? “I use submittable for my film entries.” So much to comprehend. I’m trying to get a handle on things and do not wish to be controlled by what’s going on. I’m still being ignored after paying and paying and they have not produced the product.

  10. Tom Saunders March 27, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    I just used reelport for the first time…after withoutabox, it was a genuinely pleasurable (and quite addictive) experience! I recommend everyone switches. There are American festivals on there, too. HD screeners… brilliant

  11. Michelle Brooks September 15, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

    Thanks for this. I struggled on Withoutabox and so glad it was not just me. Keep up the good work.

  12. Hank Theeson March 1, 2015 at 3:16 am #

    FilmFreeway.com has just about put Withoutabox out of business in little over a year. Festivals and filmmakers are leaving WAB for FilmFreeway in droves, myself included. The difference is night and day. Finally a fair and modern alternative.

  13. Vinay Pujara March 1, 2015 at 8:01 am #

    Just like WAB IMDB too charges a lot, for a pro account it’s $150 a year. Wish there would other similar networks for filmmakers.. If there’s any other besides LinkedIn/ Stage32 / then please inform.

    Regards,
    Vinny.

  14. logan September 8, 2017 at 12:53 pm #

    Hi to all!
    Yes, we moved from Withoutabox to FilmFreeway and World Film Presentation about a year ago.
    What’s great about the latter platform is that once you submit to few festivals then the others start to invite you for free.
    We were screened at 3 festivals this year.
    Before that we used Withoutabox for many years to try and get our film screened but it never happened.

  15. John September 8, 2017 at 1:01 pm #

    Hi, we are a Film Festival which worked on Withoutabox for 2 years. We held 3 events in total and they were all successful.
    However, after we submitted for reactivation for the 4th session, about 6 months ago, Withoutabox sent us this letter without any explanation:

    Thank you for providing the below details about your event and for your interest in Withoutabox.

    Based on the information provided we have determined that your Film Festival is not a good fit for the Withoutabox system and will not be activating the listing at this time.

    We wish you the best with your call for entries.

    Best regards,
    Withoutabox Accounts

    We tried to contact them but the only response we received was that their decision is final and no further explanation was given.

    After that we moved to an aggregator called World Film Presentation, where we received hundreds of submissions and have never had any problems.

    • Kathleen Berit September 11, 2017 at 9:05 am #

      Hi to all!
      Yes, we moved from Withoutabox to FilmFreeway and World Film Presentation about a year ago.
      What’s great about the latter platform is that once you submit to few festivals then the others start to invite you for free.
      We were screened at 3 festivals this year.
      Before that we used Withoutabox for many years to try and get our film screened but it never happened.

    • Kathleen Berit September 11, 2017 at 9:07 am #

      We have had the same bad experience with many other platforms, but World Film Presentation seems to work really well for us.

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