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."