“It’s so good to find a company that does exactly what it says, does it honestly and well. Withoutabox has an excellent, efficient system that my staff loves and our filmmakers appreciate.” Those were the kind words offered by former AFI Festival Director Christian Gaines that Withoutabox proudly touted on its website, but they double as foreshadowing of his new job. Last week, Gaines officially left his post at the American Film Institute, paving the way for his new job as Director of Festivals for Withoutabox, marking the latest example of the digitally-oriented film community reaching into the professional grab bag of the larger industry. As Gaines joins Withoutabox, the company is facing the threat of competition from a similar upstart service from B-Side, a would-be rival online film festival submission service.
For Withoutabox, the decision to hire Gaines suggests its desire to emulate the workings of a mainstream festival. “I will be responsible for overseeing Withoutabox’s film festivals business, including relations and business development on the global festival circuit,” Gaines told indieWIRE.
Since launching in 2001, Withoutabox has been virtually unmatched in its festival submission services, which enables filmmakers to pay a flat fee to have a single film submitted to hundreds of festivals. Earlier this year, the company was purchased by the Internet Movie Database (itself owned by Amazon), ultimately ramping up the cash flow and heightening its resources. Gaines’ new job signals an effort to get someone who is familiar with the filmmakers on the festival circuit to convince them that Withoutabox’s services have merit. For now, however, Gaines won’t elaborate on his plans. “Right now I don’t have information to share,” he said, “except to say that I have watched the state of Withoutabox change and improve literally month after month for eight years.”
That much is clear: Along with the Sundance Film Festival, AFI Fest was one of the first major American festivals to adopt Withoutabox’s services and accept festival submissions online. It also began using the company’s Audience platform in 2006. Gaines’ experience at AFI Fest and closeness to Withoutabox form an awareness of the role new technologies increasingly play in the careers of emerging filmmakers. As a result, Withoutabox gains a web-savvy festival veteran and Gaines gets to explore a slightly different path from his previous work. “I think it’s a great thing for Christian to go into this new area,” said Patricia Finneran, Festival Director for AFI Silverdocs, which Gaines helped launch in 2003. “For festival directors at the top of major festivals, there’s nowhere else. Unless Geoff Gilmore or Richard Pena is moving, where are you going to go?” Gaines echoed the sentiment. “After over twenty years of putting on individual film festivals, there is a kind of refreshing personal re-calibration in taking stock of and learning about the film festival world from a platform perspective,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to contribute to the trajectory of independent film in the coming years.”
At this point, however, Withoutabox won’t be alone in its chosen mode of contribution. While many larger festivals appreciate the service, some smaller festivals and filmmakers with shallow pockets have complained about its hefty submission fees, costs that apply to both sides of the deal. Filmmakers end up paying a lot of money to Withoutabox even if their films don’t get accepted anywhere, and the festivals must have submission fees of their own in order to use Withoutabox’s services. In true marketplace tradition, the holes of one operation are about to get filled by competition. B-Side, the Austin-based company responsible for online service such as processing audience response, building film festival websites and assisting filmmakers with online sales, recently announced its intention to launch Submissions 2.0, an engine similar to Withoutabox. The service is set to debut at the end of the month with 100 festivals on board.
As with Withoutabox, filmmakers will pay nothing to B-side to use the service, but pay festival submission fees directly. But in the case of B-Side, participating festivals pay half as much as they would for listing themselves on Withoutabox. B-Side founder and CEO Chris Hyams portrayed Submissions 2.0 as a correction to its future competitor. “It’s the job of the dating site to provide the best possible match for each individual,” he said. “The reality today for filmmakers and festival directors is that Withoutabox is a bad dating service. The more filmmakers submit, the more money Withoutabox makes — regardless of the quality of submission or the chance for its success.” To change that, Submissions 2.0 will let filmmakers and festival curators search the database of submissions — something Withoutabox doesn’t allow — to make the costs worthwhile. “Curation is a key aspect of many festival programs, but Withoutabox explicitly prevents programmers from searching for films, lest they lose out on the submission fee from an invited film,” Hyams said.
He also expressed particular objection to Withoutabox’s “discount” model, which he considers a disingenuous way to trick people into blindly accepting more costs. “It’s a convoluted scheme that squeezes even more money from both filmmakers and festivals, neither of whom have much to spare,” he said.
Gaines appeared unfazed by B-Side’s plans. “I’m not familiar with the product, because it hasn’t launched. I do know Withouabox has an impressive patented approach,” he said, referring to Filmsubmission, the process by which filmmakers can submit their works to festivals over the web. Gaines emphasized that the service, which currently applies to 800 festivals and competitions in 200 countries, costs nothing to use. (It’s the festival entry fees themselves, of which Withoutabox takes a cut, that require filmmakers to open their wallets.)
Regardless of its flaws, Gaines displayed confidence about mastering both the physical and online components of the festival world. “Neither experience is better, just different,” he said. “For filmmakers, film festivals have become, more and more, an ad hoc theatrical distribution infrastructure. Still in flux is how to formalize this distribution platform so that there is a financial upside to taking this route for producers and sales agents as well as a tie to audience feedback and thusly festival success.”
Gaines’ new job marks the second major movement of a festival programmer to the digital realm, following South by Southwest film festival producer Matt Dentler‘s new job with Cinetic Rights Management. Both cases signal major decisions being made in an effort to import aspects of the established film world into uncharted terrain. “The bottom line is that festival audiences crave quality cultural experiences,” Gaines noted, “And the challenge to the film festival community is to positively influence the changes that will occur as they mature over the next ten years.”