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by Anthony Kaufman
May 3, 2012 3:03 PM
33 Comments
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Why Withoutabox Has 400,000 Indie Filmmakers, 1,000 Film Festivals -- and Frustrated Customers

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also facing increasing complaints from festival organizers and filmmakers that Withoutabox's technology is clunky and out-of-date, their movie viewer is substandard and claims to exclusivity are unfair.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.)

Critics say the central problem with Withoutabox isn't the fees so much as the technology.
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.

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33 Comments

  • DENNIS JACIW | December 8, 2013 12:02 PMReply

    Unless your production is a million plus and your camera is at least 150k us dollars....you will NOT be recognized by withoutabox.

  • Henry Tisdale | November 26, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    Check this out!
    http://withoutaboxsucks.com

  • Eric | August 14, 2013 2:23 PMReply

    WAB is such shit. I have submitted to so many film festival on there and only three have ever taken my work. 20 films about 5 to 10 festivals per short film. THREE accepted TWO films. They are very well rounded, technically acceptable movies. RIDICULOUS odds. Fuck WAB and all the festivals that list themselves there.

  • Roger Dalton | May 3, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    Any filmmaker that uses Withoutabox is a sucker. You have a much better chance of your film getting accepted if you submit direct. I have heard from my friend who runs a film festival that they resent Withoutbox and give films that submit direct a much closer look. It seems everyone hates withoutabox.

  • eric | August 14, 2013 2:21 PM

    That's dishonest on part of the festival. If they don't like WAB then they shouldn't list themselves on it.

  • Von Patson | April 30, 2013 2:43 AMReply

    Withoutabox is a complete scam and an illegal monopoly. They treat filmmakers (their customers) worse than any business I have ever seen. Unreal. Stay away from these crooks. Fred Kramer, Sara Nixon, Natasha Bishop. These are just a few of the names I have been able to discover of the vermin that work there.

  • Von Patson | April 30, 2013 2:43 AMReply

    Withoutabox is a complete scam and an illegal monopoly. They treat filmmakers (their customers) worse than any business I have ever seen. Unreal. Stay away from these crooks. Fred Kramer, Sara Nixon Natasha Bishop. These are just a few of the names I have been able to discover of the vermin that work there.

  • Dallas VideoFest | February 27, 2013 11:44 PMReply

    There customer service is just the worst, it takes days for them to get back to you to tell you they can't do anything. If anyone has an alternative they have had success with I would love to hear about it.

  • Michele | December 11, 2012 1:16 PMReply

    We've had 2 bad experiences with Withoutabox 2 years in a row. Last year, they "forgot" to send out our marketing emails we paid for. This year, they not only lost thousands of submissions for our festival and a bevy of others, they also "claimed" they sent out our marketing. "Claimed" because neither we nor our employees who are on WAB's email list received the ad. If that wasn't enough, our deadline date in the email ad was changed by WAB to the wrong date and, according to them, the same date our marketing emailed to their e-subscribers giving filmmakers no time for a call to action. They refuse to give us a refund for the erroneous ad they have yet to send us proof went out. I guess we'll see them in court. They obviously feel they're above the law, above any ethics whatsoever.

  • V | February 8, 2013 4:04 PM

    They "forgot" to send our marketing emails too! My big question is why can't I find filmmaker emails online? I find wonderful films online, newly completed, and I search and find out who made them but I can't find any contact information for them. It drives me nuts. I wish Withoutabox provided filmmaker search for festivals but I know that then we would all just bypass them so they will never do that.

  • steve | July 17, 2012 10:31 AMReply

    I think there are several alternatives for festivals and filmakers today to submit films and receive film submissions online. I'm a filmmaker and and I made good experience with reelport.com. I don't know how the festivals side is but the service and the technical system of submitting films to festivals is well developed. I broke up with withoutabox because of high fees and too much restrictions in submitting films to festivals. As a lot of festivals also give films a chance which do not match completely to the regulations.

  • Joe Jenkins | May 19, 2012 2:14 PMReply

    A great article and one which rings true for me right now as a festival organiser, as a film mkaer I've not used WAB.

    This got me thinking, as did the comments, and I just started work on a directory for film festivals, to be followed by one for film makers to list their films. The idea is that a festival can add their link to the directory, along with other information such as festival info, what is accepted, a link to their official website and a link to wherever they want people to make a submission. This can then be found by doing a search by film category, genre & niche.

    That all important question - yes it is a free service, our way of supporting indie festivals and film makers.

  • Kyle | May 11, 2012 2:20 PMReply

    Totally agree with this. I am both a filmmaker and a Web Developer, and when I first started using WAB (couple of years back) I was utterly disappointed in the quality of their site. They have a great idea, but it's not being executed to the full extent that it should be. Most recently even their HTTPS (secure pages) is broken because of insecure elements in the HTML source, even on the credit card pages (which is worrying, to say the least).

    When is comes to the Secure Online Screeners: Nothing but hell for me. Most of my uploads never complete because of bad coding server side, and the quality is dirt poor (even DVDs have a superior quality, which says a lot). Unfortunately some festivals demand them, but I try and send DVD/Blu-Ray screeners whenever I can as SOSs tend to be like e-mails - easily passed by.

    Also, newbies need to watch out - the site is drenched in fake festivals. Even with all my experience I even got scammed once. Their technical support is very responsive (if only one plus on their side) and I got my money back, but the festival has never been removed or investigated.

    As a filmmaker, we are as much forced to use it as the festivals. Almost all festivals only accept Withoutabox submissions, and even if they allow us to not use the service then non-US residence (such as myself) have an issue with payment.

    Generally the idea is sound, but I find myself hating the interface and tech behind it more and more every time I log in.

  • Tyrone D Murphy | May 11, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    We run the Universal Film and Festival Organization. We are currently developing a system to provide a simple and easy to use submission platform to the filmmaking community and film festivals. We should have an announcement by the end of the year.

    We currently have 130 film festivals supporting UFFO and best business practices for film festivals. We would concur with some of the comments about WAB. We met with Col Needham of IMDB/WAB last year at the offices of IMDB in Bristol UK and outline our concerns at how fraudulent festivals can set up overnight using WAB as its only window to the filmmaking world.

    It was made abundantly clear to me by Col Needham that WAB are not concerned about this

  • Matt Harrison | May 7, 2012 1:43 PMReply

    We are finding festivals hide behind Withoutabox. This is a long way from the old days when a filmmaker could actually talk with people at a festival. It's a potentially negative trend.

  • Robert | May 4, 2012 4:18 PMReply

    In business, this could be called a monopoly, which is illegal and could force withoutabox to close if they are sued by the right, agressive, lawyers, primarily due to the costs to defend the "monopoly" ..
    """
    "Specifically," she said, "we will no longer require exclusivity from any of our current (or future) festival partners through our standard submission partner agreement."

    Perhaps that's because Withoutabox doesn't need to demand exclusivity anymore. Few festivals are willing to give up Withoutabox because of its immense reach. But how much longer will that be the case?
    """"

    This is most likely not because they don't need to demand exclusivity any longer, but probably because they were "served" with legal papers that pointed out the law to them and "encouraged" them to change their practices or face legal problems. Amazon, which is bigger than it needs to be these days, and even with this size, can't afford to fight, especially in the public eye.

    If I were a programmer, which, sadly, I am not, I would like to see created a simple piece of software that would allow this:

    """
    "If we used our own in-house submission system and worked together with other festivals to promote each other and shared our own database of filmmakers, we might do as well as Withoutabox,” he said. “There's no innovation unless you challenge the goliaths."
    """
    ...and at the same time, offer a centralized "database" of every festival to list themselves on, making it easier for filmmakers to locate their festival(s) of choice, and submit directly to them, bypassing and avoiding what withoutabox created. This software (website) could easily allow multiple festival submissions in a single system .. similarities, to a very small degree, to withoutabox, but with a much more independent system for each festival .. It can be done, just takes someone with the cojones to stand up to withoutabox. Get a group of filmmakers, festivals, and programmers/web authors willing to come together and it could very well happen...

    Thanks IndieWire for bringing this out to the attention of many filmmakers that were unaware of withoutabox's ridiculous practices...

  • Robert | May 4, 2012 4:23 PM

    On a last note .. This could be done with minimal fees for either the filmmaker or the festival (prefer a small fee for the filmmaker and zero fee for the festival since they spend enough to give a forum for films to be shown and awarded, which helps promote a film) .. the fee covering operating costs for hosting and maintaining such a system would be enough .. and NO contract for long term service...

  • Marcia Gladwell | May 4, 2012 2:09 PMReply

    Glad to see IndieWire call out these crooks!

  • Jim | May 4, 2012 2:08 PMReply

    The real problem with Withoutabox is their unfair and monopolistic business practices, not just their terrible software.

  • Tim | May 4, 2012 1:59 PMReply

    Finally we get some news about this terrible and corrupt organization. Boycott withoutabox!

  • Barney Oldfield | May 4, 2012 11:36 AMReply

    Withoutabox has been a great service to NewFilmmakers. We started the series when we were at film school and have been able to keep it going over fourteen years and give many filmmakers their first festival screening because of the service.

  • Jim McQuaid | May 4, 2012 10:09 AMReply

    I refuse to use the Online Screener not because of quality (which I assume is poor) but because I actually read the "terms & conditions." While you can argue what WAB/IMDB/Amazon might "really do" it appears to me that a film uploaded for online screening can essentially be reproduced, edited, resold at will by Amazon.

  • Greg | May 4, 2012 10:07 AMReply

    Well said, Anthony. I've used WAB as both a filmmaker and a festival screener. The interface is woefully unintuitive (and ridiculously slow), even with the "improvements." The online screener facility is a great idea poorly executed, and now terribly out of date. So much effort goes into making a film for submission, it's sad that the only game in town displays the film for festival selection so poorly. At this point the smart move would be to abandon internal development on the screener and open it up to outside providers - Vimeo would be great. Please keep reporting on festival(s) that are trying to break the monopoly.

  • Sj | May 4, 2012 3:03 AMReply

    Amazon has been reaching too far for years, until this article I did not know that it owned Withoutabox as well. Let me guess, frustrating interface, difficult to contact a human being, customer satisfaction close to zero, but it has that curious myth of apparent convenience so people cling to it for reasons they don't fully understand. As a publisher, I had endless problems with Amazon itself, but because it is huge, to reach an audience you have to deal. Same with ebooks and Kindle. If you don't sell through Amazon and provide your work in kindle pub format, you're getting nowhere. By the way Amazon own IMDb too, which is presumably why two years after it became impossible to add new festival wins unless the Festival was previously registered, that is still the case. I have been waiting seven months to add a win to a film that I have been helping promote. Amazon may be big, but that does not make it the best option.

  • Sharan | May 4, 2012 2:29 AMReply

    Very nice post, Anthony.

    Having lost several of our clients due to Withoutabox's stringent enforcement of the exclusivity clause in their contract, it was nice to see this quote from Hanani, embracing legitimate competition:

    "Beginning in June, according to Hanani, their standard submission partner agreement (up to a one-year term) will no longer require exclusivity."

    However, if the intention is to do away with the clause in a month's time, why go about policing it with intent fervor? We're hoping its not an empty promise.

  • Brad | May 4, 2012 12:43 AMReply

    Screw festivals. If you aren't playing what's on the radio, you aren't getting in anyway. The withoutabox system was clunky and unclear and frustrating, particularly the fact that when I tried to use it the person doing the submission can't be the same person as the director, which was me. So I had to create an account for a third party and so on. Terrible.


    Here's my movie, for free, online, and tell me its not festival quality:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjLWrxRlmXE

  • Alexis | May 3, 2012 8:41 PMReply

    I am curious why OpenFilm wasn't referred to in this piece. I have seen festivals that market on both sites. I would be curious if they have had any issues the others mention.

  • Michael Ryan | May 3, 2012 8:20 PMReply

    The YoungCuts Film Festival stopped using Withoutabox this year for a variety of reasons. Amongst others, there were some new tax forms that they wanted us to fill out that were incompatible with Canadian not-for-profits like ours.

    (Nice to know that we were not the only ones that had issues.)

    We've been around since 2001. Every year, we present "Great Short Films by the World's Best Young Filmmakers"

    We have had to be a little bit more agressive in our marketing to young filmmakers, but we are on track for our usual numbers. We usually watch just over 1000 films from more than 30 countries to pick our Top 100 short films.

    If you are a festival that is looking for great short films by young filmmakers and are having difficulty because of Withoutabox, get in touch or you can subscribe on our site to watch more than 150 films that we are considering for this year.
    http://www.youngcuts.com/static/festival_audience_subscription_payment

    If you are a young filmmaker (29 and under) with a great short film, we would love to see it before June 15th! http://www.youngcuts.com/static/how_to_submit_to_the_2012_youngcuts_film_festival

    Thanks,
    Michael Ryan,
    FestIval Director
    YoungCuts Film Festival
    www.facebook.com/youngcuts
    Mike@YoungCuts.com
    514-285-4591

  • Andrew | May 3, 2012 8:05 PMReply

    It's a very efficient way to SEND a film out to multiple festivals. But, it's incredibly frustrating that their Secure Online Screener format is so small and clunky. Not they way I want festivals viewing my work. I really wish you could just connect to say a password protected Vimeo link (which some festivals allow, but not the WAB ones).

    Also - I know submissions have been way up across the board this year, and the ease of submitted via WAB has, I think, been directly related to this. I feel it's harder to get programmers to notice you (if you're not known to them, or weren't recommended by someone). Part of me wants to have to go back to sending out all my individuals screeners so that at least the ones filmmakers apply to won't be impulse buys on the way to the register.

    As far as crappy festivals on WAB, do your research! It's no one's fault but you're own if you submit somewhere and get buyers remorse - although I have to say - it did happen to me once.

  • bguest | May 3, 2012 5:55 PMReply

    The big festivals are the only ones that matter...if they think wab is better than getting dvds in the mail then it can't be that bad...try google for your silly "festival searches"...films freeze on wab?...yeah, and dvds skip, cable/satellite go out occasionally and people talk in the theater...there is no perfect viewing experience.

  • Migdia Chinea | May 3, 2012 5:51 PMReply

    I don't submit through Withoutabox. I think mass mailings take away respect for your film and I respect my work too much, and my work is too good, for that short thrift. Secondly, they don't screen the festivals and there are lots of scammers out there. Whenever a giant corporation takes over a submission process of creative material, there are bound to be serious problems.

  • Chris Holland | May 3, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    Great article, Anthony. Festivals have had a love/hate relationship with WAB for years. Other than those emails enforcing the exclusivity clause, though, I don't think Withoutabox isn't behaving in a particularly evil way. The people who work there are generally terrific and the service is the backbone of the film judging process. Unfortunately, WAB is a cog in the great Amazon/IMDb machine. Amazon is perfectly content to let that cog continue spinning as it has always spun, feeding other parts of Amazon's business. And without competition to threaten the way that cog spins, there is very little incentive to devote development resources to improving WAB's software, service, or pricing.

    A few more thoughts about this article here: http://fest1.com/74481/

  • Edward Copeland | May 3, 2012 4:04 PMReply

    If it's connected to the Inaccurate Movie Database, it shouldn't be a surprise, since hardly a day goes by that I don't either discover myself or learn of more errors; their system for reporting errors has been delayed because they were supposedly waiting to fill a job post of someone who left nearly two years ago; and, most suspiciously, for new people who want to register to leave comments, add reviews, etc., they ask them for phone numbers AND credit card numbers, which they SWEAR they will never use. I'm sure some 13-year-old movie buff somewhere looking somethng up or starting his own review blog has handy asccess to a credit card if he'd be stupid enough to give it to them in the first place. It's high time someone builds a free movie database that's accurate to challenge these incompetent wackos (hint hint Indiewire -- Maltin does stuff for you. How about digitizing his annual movie guide as a start?)