No one likes a monopoly. Even an anti-capitalist like me knows that a lack of competition leads to higher prices as well as less freedom and innovation for everyone in the marketplace. That’s why the story of Withoutabox, the film festival submission system that is the undisputed standard for the indie film industry, caught my attention, and why I’ve reported on the company for this Indiewire story, “Why Withoutabox Has 400,000 Indie Filmmakers, 1,000 Film Festivals — and Frustrated Customers.”
The central issue with Withoutabox is, by most accounts, a technological one. Users complain that because of the lack of competition, there is little incentive to truly overhaul it. While I was assured by a company head that they’ve made improvements and continue to make improvements, several festival directors and staffers still have plenty of complaints.
As Austin Film Festival executive director Barbara Morgan told me, “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,” she said. “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. If filmmakers are using this service in significant numbers, Withoutabox should have the sufficient technology to support it.”
I should say that I was told repeatedly that Withoutabox aren’t bad people, and that there is a welcome level of transparency and efficiency at the company, particularly since it was purchased by Amazon.com subsidiary IMDB.com. But with greater corporate powers and controls also comes a greater bureaucracy. And perhaps the most annoying part of writing this story was that I was denied access to a Withoutabox staffer who I know to be a friend to the film industry and to Indiewire; instead, I was sent to a IMDB.com PR person, who then asked me to send questions to an executive by email. I guess that’s the way things work in the corporate world, but I know plenty of film festivals and filmmakers who welcome a more simpler and easygoing approach and time.
As Morgan said to me, “Before Withoutabox, it was easier to be a festival, we did our own marketing, we could track our own marketing, we reached a tremendous amount of filmmakers on our own. When we went the way of Withoutabox, that opened up all kinds of issues…. I guess the biggest issue with them is that we didn’t really need them, and then we had to pay for something that we didn’t really need.”