Does Withoutabox need a new package?
A Facebook page titled "Filmmakers and Festivals Against Withoutabox," which calls for a boycott of the company, now has more than 10,000 likes. That’s because while the 12-year-old film festival submission system is used by 400,000 filmmakers and more than 1,000 film festivals, it’s also facing increasing complaints from festival organizers and filmmakers that Withoutabox's technology is clunky and out-of-date, their movie viewer is substandard and claims to exclusivity are unfair.
Acquired in 2008 by IMDb.com, a division of Amazon.com, Withoutabox has become the industry's film-festival submission standard. Launched in 2000, it created a revolutionary new process: Instead of filmmakers sending DVD screeners to festivals one-by-one in the mail, they could use the site to enter their data once and submit to multiple festivals, with the films delivered digitally.
It’s a solution that worked for festivals, too. Today, most major festivals, including Sundance and Toronto, use Withoutabox for all their submission needs.
That amounts to a lot of information, and a lot of money, that passes through Withoutabox. Festivals must sign up for multi-year contracts to utilize the service and pay a range of 10-18% of their submission fees. (Receiving the lower rate requires an upfront payment of over $1,200.)
By most accounts, it's worth the price: Many festivals that use Withoutabox see an exponential rise in submissions and accompanying revenue, although the breakeven point seems to be around 500 submissions. There are also complaints that Withoutabox's charges drive up submission fees.
However, critics say the central problem with Withoutabox isn't the fees so much as the technology.
"The biggest issue is that their system is crappy," said a staffer at a prominent film festival that has worked with Withoutabox for many years. "It's built on the same code that they had in 2000. When I enter a search keyword, it sometimes takes two minutes to come up with a result.
“Last year, they told me they were completely redoing it," the staffer said, "but then they put that on hold. They have no incentive to improve their system, because they have no competition."
In an email response to these criticisms, Yasmine Hanani, head of Withoutabox, states that several updates to Withoutabox have been installed, including: "improving the load time of our pages; launching a new judging feature which allows festivals to rate submissions; adding a search box to every page of the festival account to make searching more convenient; making it easier for festivals to waive entry fees for filmmakers; and simplifying the process of using and uploading Secure Online Screeners (our digital film submission platform)."
But Austin Film Festival executive director Barbara Morgen takes particular issue with Withoutabox's new Secure Online Screeners platform, which launched in 2009.
"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."
"It is incredibly frustrating at times," agrees Atlanta Film Festival director Charles Judson, a longtime Withoutabox user. "It's not the most intuitive interface. If you're on staff and you're using it every day, it's easy, but if you’re not used to it, it's very easy to get frustrated and the search functions aren't always the most helpful."
Hanani counters that Withoutabox launched a series of system improvements to its festival search in 2011. "Our search results are delivered within seconds, assuming the user has a high-speed internet connection," she said.
Another significant complaint coming from festivals is Withoutabox's stranglehold on the business, which forces festivals to sign exclusivity agreements.
"Being able to have flexibility to have other systems would be really useful," said Judson. "I wish they would adopt a more Facebook model and partner with other organizations, like Vimeo," which many festivals say is their screening platform of choice.