I've been doing some research for the second edition of my book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age. One area that I'm particularly keen on expanding is the developing reality and complexities in the film festival circuit these days. The past 18 years have been marked by a lot of changes for film festivals and indie filmmakers, particularly filmmakers making short films.
The story of how Withoutabox (WAB) went from a genuinely revolutionizing tool for indie filmmakers to slowly becoming almost unanimously hated by festivals and filmmakers alike is a powerful illustration of how much the internet is rapidly changing independent filmmaking as a whole and the importance of adapting quickly. Before Withoutabox was launched in 2000, filmmakers had to do extensive research on their own to collect a list of prospective festivals they may or may not qualify for and then fill out forms for each festival individually, often having to find someone to fill out such forms in the native language of the festival if submitting overseas. Then everything had to be mailed out with a check and a VHS copy of the film. If the film was accepted, the filmmaker was notified by mail, at which point they had to provide the festival with a 35mm film print for exhibition at the festival.
But when Withoutabox showed up, suddenly filmmakers had a one-stop-shop where they could enter their film’s information a single time and then submit to festivals all over the world. It was a major game-changer. But it didn’t take long for things to start turning sour. Right away, Withoutabox filed for a rather broad-reaching patent for their online festival database and submission service. By 2004, it was granted this patent whose summary read as follows:
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.
As quoted in “The Seismic Shift in the World of Film Festivals”
by Stephen Follows
This patent made it so that it was virtually impossible for anyone to create anything remotely resembling what WAB was offering so as to compete with it. And for years, no one did. I started submitting my first films to festivals in 2004. It was at this time that I became aware of Withoutabox. I created an account and dipped my toe tentatively into the waters of film festival submissions. My first short film I submitted to festivals was one I’d shot during my senior year of college. At 37-minutes, It was long for those pre-YouTube days. It never made it into any festivals. I continued making films and using WAB, as it was the only method available for most festivals.
In 2008, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), which itself had been bought out by Amazon a few years before, bought Withoutabox for $3 Million. What followed were years of stagnation and zero improvements on the same system that had been in place from day one as eventually every original member of the company left. There were a couple attempts to compete with Withoutabox by Submissions 2.0 and Indee.tv, but those were ultimately squashed by fear of Amazon’s team of lawyers, which was known for relentless protection of their patents. Click here for more on that.
Festivals were also held hostage by WAB’s insistence that to use their services at all they had to agree to exclusively use Withoutabox as their means of receiving submissions. Festivals that opted to sign up for other submissions services got strongly worded emails from WAB. Withoutabox also charged festivals astronomical fees to be listed at all, even if a festival was accepting free submissions, which resulted in most festivals having to increased their submission fees to remain viable, passing along the expense to filmmakers. In fact, things were so fishy that at one point the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into Withoutabox and it’s anti-competitive practices in demanding exclusivity from festivals. For more on this, please click here.
The one advantage to having Internet Movie Database own Withoutabox was that it suddenly became much easier for filmmakers like me to get our short films listed on IMDb simply by submitting to partner festivals. This was a welcome resume building aspect of the service, but already the site was feeling clunky and outdated having changed little in since its inception.
Finally, in 2009, a full five years after Vimeo had been launched an four years after YouTube began, Withouabox added a means by which filmmakers could upload their films to be submitted to festivals, their “Secure Online Screener” system. Prior to this, I was mailing DVDs to festivals just like everyone else. The introduction of the Secure Online Screener option seemed like good news. However, the quality was pitifully low, the system was buggy and often crashed while judges viewed films, and each submission cost filmmakers an additional $2.95 per festival. Barbara Morgen, executive director of the Austin Film Festival, had this to say about the Secure Online Screener service in 2012, "Last year, we had 1,000 online submissions, and I didn’t watch one film through that system that didn’t have a technology issue. It was constantly freezing. And that’s not the way to watch a film. And it’s not the way an emerging filmmaker should have their work shown." For more on this, click here.
In short, Withoutabox was not keeping up with the digital revolution. They failed to understand what was happening with online video streaming and social networking and seemed more interested in nickel-and-diming filmmakers for their subpar service. Some festivals opted to leverage these systems and work outside of WAB. Matt Marxteyn, director of Red Rock Film Festival in Utah, pointed out in a 2012 interview that, “With so many free social networking sites, there are so many options now for festivals. [WAB is] a great service, but it’s not the only one around.” The internet was changing things quickly, but WAB was slow to adapt. After all, what motivation to innovate is there when you believe yourself to be the only game in town?
While some were happy to use WAB, many festivals and filmmaker grew bitter. A Facebook page called, “Filmmakers and Festivals Against Withoutabox” was launched. In May of 2012, IndieWire wrote that Withoutabox was “facing increasing complaints from festival organizers and filmmakers that Withoutabox’s technology is clunky and out-of-date, their movie viewer is substandard and claims to exclusivity are unfair.”
Meanwhile, in the fall of 2013, the non-profit film production and distribution company I help run, Stories by the River, began accepting submissions for its first film festival, which took place in January of 2014. Knowing that it would cost us at least $1,200 just to get our festival listed on Withoutabox, we opted to circumvent WAB completely. After all, the only options at that time were pay WAB’s hefty fees or go it alone. So we set up an Eventbrite page and accepted submissions through it. We skipped physical media completely. Instead, we asked filmmakers looking to submit their films for consideration that they send us a Vimeo or YouTube link. The links could be public or private. Selected films were then asked to send us an HD file of their film we could download for projection at the festival. We used this system for the first two years of the Stories by the River Film Festival. But the film festival game was about to change dramatically.
In January of 2014, FilmFreeway launched with a completely different outlook on how to do film festival submissions in the digital age. They leveraged high quality online video streaming as means to streamline the submission process by allowing filmmaker to use their in-house system or Vimeo at no cost. The entire process was modern, fluid, and intuitive compared to Withoutabox, which was still largely the same website it had been upon launch fourteen years before. Even more crucially, FilmFreeway demanded no exclusivity from festivals and charged much lower administrative fees. This directly resulted in lower submission fees for many festivals, which ultimately benefited festivals and filmmakers. But how did FilmFreeway get around Withoutabox’s rather expansive patent? Simple, they’re in Canada. US patent laws have no jurisdiction in another country.
As a filmmaker submitting to festivals, I had long grown weary and frustrated with WAB. As soon as I learned of FilmFreeway, I jump aboard. While I was still using Withoutabox to some extent at the time, I made my first submission through FilmFreeway in April of 2014. Eventually, as more festivals joined FilmFreeway, my use of WAB dwindled. I made my last submission through Withoutabox on May 20, 2015. It seems I wasn’t alone.
By mid 2015, FilmFreeway matched Withoutabox in web traffic, according to an article on Stephen Follows Film Data and Education, which drew its information from Alexa (a company also owned by Amazon, interestingly enough). By the end of the year, FilmFreeway surpassed Withoutabox in traffic and has never looked back. Reluctantly, Withoutabox was finally forced to make changes. Their Secure Online Screener system was improved, adding support for HD video (years after it was already standard on other video streaming platforms) and made it free to filmmakers. Costs for festivals were lowered and exclusivity demands dropped. The site itself has also seen major improvements.
The story of Withoutabox and FilmFreeway illustrates the profound importance of competition in the market and the need for innovation in response to the rapidly changing digital landscape. What Withoutabox was when it launched in 2000 was truly revolutionizing. But it failed to keep up. It failed to pay attention to what was happening to online video distribution through sites like Vimeo and YouTube. Ultimately, greed got in the way of adaptability and improvement and Withoutabox suffered significantly. FilmFreeway now sits comfortably at the top of the festival submission game.
Meanwhile, savvy filmmakers and film festival organizers kept an eager eye out for something that might disrupt Withoutabox’s stranglehold on the festival market. FilmFreeway has proven to be the perfe