By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire May 3, 2012 at 3:3PM
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also facing increasing complaints from festival organizers and filmmakers that Withoutabox's technology is clunky and out-of-date, their movie viewer is substandard and claims to exclusivity are unfair.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.
Jon Gann, director of the DC Shorts Film Festival, has used Withoutabox for several years. He abandoned the service at one point, but "our submission numbers were down significantly. And I need to go where my numbers are, so we went back to Withoutabox. But I don't like to be beholden to a software that I think I could do better myself."
With that in mind, Gann had developed his own program for the film festival selection process. "We intend it to offer that to other festivals, but I'm concerned about getting a letter from Withoutabox that they'd sue us."
While Gann believes Withoutabox's process patent wouldn't hold up in court, the threat of an Amazon lawsuit is unnerving. In 2008, such legal concerns prevented Austin-based B-Side from launching a rival to Withoutabox called Submissions 2.0.
"The issue for most startup companies is not whether you're right," said B-Side founder Chris Hyams, who is now VP Product for job site Indeed.com. "The real issue is getting sued, because if you get sued, the legal costs could be the end of you."
Believing that Amazon "has a history of very aggressive patent enforcement," Hyams and his team decided to pull the plug on the service, even though they already had 100 festivals on board. "They all begged us to offer an alternative to Withoutabox," said Hyams.
Several sites have tried to mount an alternative to Withoutabox, with mixed results. Sites like FBIscreeners.com and Indee.tv appear to have gained some traction, but nowhere near the level of penetration as their biggest competitor.
Indee.tv's Sharan Reddy said the site has seen over 4,000 users utilize their online screener software. But only eight festivals have signed onto their wider festival submission system.
At one point, they had reached 18 festivals, but in emails Withoutabox threatened participating Indee.tv festivals to "deactivate all third party submission services in order to avoid disruption to your Withoutabox service." And 10 festivals dropped the new service.
Reddy calls Withoutabox's exclusivity claims "ridiculous." "The tech industry would NEVER stand for this," he said, in an email. "Imagine Hotmail threatening to block access to your emails if you tried Gmail. The tech world will chew them to bits. Amazon knows this, but somehow feel like they can get away with bullying small festivals outside the tech world. They have a lousy product and rather than work on building a better one they stoop to these exclusivity clauses."
However, Withoutabox may be loosening its restrictions. Beginning in June, according to Hanani, their standard submission partner agreement (up to a one-year term) will no longer require exclusivity.
"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?
Matt Marxteyn, director of Utah's Red Rock Film Festival, said he believes Withoutabox has rested on its popularity and that the internet has moved on, noting that his programming group meets on Facebook to judge submissions.
"With so many free social networking sites, there are so many options now for festivals,” he said. “It's a great service, but it's not the only one around."
And some festivals are feel they’ve exchanged convenience for autonomy. Morgen fondly remembers a time when "we did our own marketing, we could track our own marketing, and we reached a tremendous amount of filmmakers on our own," she said.
Gann believes festivals could band together to make Withoutabox less a controlling monopoly.
"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."