(A quick note - if you’re looking for help using the Withoutabox platform, allow me to suggest my free tip sheet, "6 Simple But Critical Tips for Using Withoutabox.”)
Technological antiquity. Arcane participation requirements. Premium pricing. These things were all the subject of cranky half-jokes about Withoutabox from festival directors nearly ten years ago when I first started working with film festivals.
Little has changed since then, but festivals stayed the course because there wasn’t a good alternative to the online submissions service founded in 1998. Until recently, Withoutabox (hereafter WAB) enjoyed a pratical stranglehold on the market. Offering one-stop shopping for festival submitters and online payment handling for festivals in a time when credit card processing was prohibitively expensive, the company built a mammoth database of filmmaker members.
A healthy fraction of those members could be counted upon to submit their films to anything on the service that even looked like a film festival if WAB sent them an email mentioning an upcoming deadline. To a small festival starting out or trying to grow, signing up for WAB could instantly increase your number of film submissions. The substantial WAB startup fees and per-transaction commission meant you probably wouldn’t increase your revenue quite as drastically, but if the math worked out you were getting more money and more content to choose from for your film festival.
Filmmakers signed up to use WAB because that’s where the festivals were. (Or where the festivals directed them to go in order to submit online.) More and more festivals signed up because that’s where the filmmakers were. This cycle continued until Withoutabox was the metaphorical lens through which filmmakers viewed the world of festivals. In the minds of the people making films and submitting to festivals, if you weren’t on Withoutabox you didn’t exist. (Unless you were simply too prominent to miss, like notable WAB holdout South by Southwest).
WAB became even more entrenched when IMDb/Amazon acquired the company in 2008. The direct connection between a film’s listing in Withoutabox and its potential for being listed on the Internet Movie Database made WAB more attractive to filmmakers. Even better, Amazon’s resources meant some technology upgrades for the formerly scrappy WAB. For example, all-digital “Secure Online Screeners” began to replace DVDs as the submissions format of choice.
That has been the state of film festival submissions ever since. Though a few intrepid startups have positioned themselves as the next big thing in festival submissions, no one could quite figure out how to break WAB’s grip on festivals and filmmakers. Without serious competition to (presumably) keep them on their toes, WAB's technology has seen few noticeable changes in recent years and now feels like a creaky relic from the 1990s.
Enter FilmFreeway, a startup based in Canada with super-clean, state-of-the-art web design, attractive pricing, and an ingenious name. There exists already a fair amount written about FilmFreeway’s business as relates to Withoutabox. As someone who deals with festival submissions for a prominent film festival, I’m a regular user of both systems. Beyond mentioning that I was very pleased with the setup process on FilmFreeway and its system is a pleasure to use, I’m not particularly inclined to add much to the business side of the conversation.
FilmFreeway is growing fast (the service is closing in on 1000 festival listings after launching in February). The engineers there have the technology down cold and the pricing is right, at least from the perspective of filmmakers and festivals. Hopefully that pricing can support the technical resources required to keep the technology running and support a varied user base.
If the company can persuade a number of major festivals to step away from Withoutabox entirely (many fests using FilmFreeway seem to be keeping a foot in both systems), it stands a real chance of becoming the industry leader. Time will tell.
What interests me most is the laser focus with which FilmFreeway has aimed its marketing efforts on direct comparisons between itself and the industry leader. Using candy-colored graphics and a repeated emphasis on the themes of growth (in number of festivals served) and freedom (both “free” as in price, and “free” as in “from Withoutabox”), FilmFreeway relentlessly pounds WAB for being obsolete, expensive, and for trailing FilmFreeway in the number of festivals served. (The younger service claims to handle submissions for more festivals than Withoutabox as of a few weeks ago.)
Examples of FilmFreeway's cheeky marketing campaigns:
The challenger’s “festivals we serve” counter relies on images of ecstatic audiences and other forms of celebration - pretty straightforward. (Who doesn't love hot air balloons?)
Then there are some digs at WAB for being stodgy and/or oppressive.
Things really get entertaining when the Canadian company starts taking shots at the aging technology and controversial business practices that have persisted in large part because WAB has had no serious competitors.
I have to admit my favorite image of all is this one, which casts WAB as a miserable beige box PC (running Netscape!) with a CRT monitor against FilmFreeway’s sleek widescreen iMac.
Finally, there is the Love page, where FilmFreeway indulges a bit in the hyperbolic adulation coming its way from grateful festivals and filmmakers.
So you’re probably wondering: what is the response from Withoutabox? The fact that WAB hasn’t posted to its Twitter or Facebook accounts since early 2013 probably tells you all you need to know. Many of the conversations I’ve seen online about the shakeup seem to start from the premise that FilmFreeway has already won and that it has “saved” indie film. (Whatever that means.) It’s way too early to count WAB out, and I would love to see the company rally some of that Amazon tech talent (and cash) behind a neglected system that, if you’ve made it all the way down this far in this article, you probably have to use every single day.
It’s unlikely that Amazon/IMDb/WAB will let the festival submissions business go without a fight. That’s a fight we should all welcome, provided it’s fought on the field of features and service rather than industry influence and lawsuits. If WAB improves its service, festivals and filmmakers will reap the benefits. I do wonder how much resistance the company’s institutional inertia will offer, and how much WAB’s massive business advantage (it still has the vast majority of top tier festivals exclusively in its stable) will be able to protect it against this aggressive competitor.
Of course, there’s always the Borg option – WAB could simply throw a ton of money at FilmFreeway in an attempt to acquire it. I’m sure the indie film community would like to believe that FilmFreeway isn’t for sale, but we won’t know for sure until such an offer gets made.
Whatever happens, it won’t be boring.
That’s the first time I’ve been able to say that about the state of film festival submissions… well, ever.
Whether you love it or hate it, you're going to have to use Withoutabox this festival season and for seasons to come, so you might as well know how best to use it to your advantage. Download my free tip sheet, "6 Simple But Critical Tips for Using Withoutabox."
Obligatory disclosure: although I have business dealings with both Withoutabox and FilmFreeway, I don’t know anyone who works there personally (at least not anymore) and I don’t have a financial stake in either company. Also, this is all just “analysis” (opinions) from the sidelines based on what I’ve seen and heard over the years. Precious little research was done, so if I got anything wrong please let me know and I’ll correct it. Thanks.