Last Friday, IMDb announced it would close Withoutabox (WAB), with submission services disabled September 16, 2019. It’s the end of an era: In 2000, WAB brought the internet to the film festival submissions process and revolutionized it forever. Suddenly, filmmakers could find and apply to festivals around the world from a single website. The innovation was embraced not only by filmmakers — who no longer had to search for eligibility requirements or mail DVDs — but also film festivals. Although festivals had to pay upward of 18 percent of their admission fees to WAB, they saved on administration costs and, most importantly, saw an increase in the number of submissions. IMDb, a subsidiary of Amazon, bought the company in 2008.
Withoutabox also had a patent-protected monopoly. Filed in 2001, US patent US6829612 gave WAB intellectual protections for an “internet-based film festival digital entry and back office services suite model” for 20 years. Combined with Amazon’s legal resources, the patent was enough to scare off competitors.
However, that monopoly led to complacency, and to WAB resentment inside the indie film community. In 2014, that opened the door for a four-person Canadian start-up, FilmFreeway, to steal at least half of its business. “We saw an opportunity to potentially disrupt a monopoly,” wrote FilmFreeway’s Andrew Michael, director of business development, in a recent email interview. “We knew that filmmakers and festivals had grown extremely frustrated and even resentful of the Withoutabox user experience, pricing model, and total lack of customer support.”
Users expressed frustration with WAB for years. There was a call to boycott the company in 2012 in the face of rising submissions costs and product issues, including a secure streaming video feature that festival directors said was virtually unusable. This created a market opportunity for competitors, but WAB held off Indee.tv, FBIscreeners, and Submissions 2.0 with the threat of patent litigation while telling festivals that WAB would drop them for using alternate services. While many questioned if WAB’s patent could hold up in court, no one wanted to take on Amazon’s deep pockets to find out.
“We were aware that, prior to FilmFreeway, WAB had used their patent to bully several would-be competitors out of the market,” wrote Michael. “Withoutabox failed to secure a patent for their software in Canada, so while they could theoretically prevent their US customers from using FilmFreeway, they could not prevent us from operating legally in Canada.”
Before FilmFreeway wrote a single line of code, it consulted with a leading patent law firm to ensure the programming didn’t infringe on WAB’s patent. Even so, Michael said they were prepared for the very real possibility that Amazon could decide to drown the start-up in legal costs. WAB, which the Federal Trade Commission investigated in early 2014 for unfair trade practices, decided to not go on the offensive.
In two years, it saw a significant portion of its business go to the Canadian upstart. Michael points to the Amazon-owned Alexa.com website ranking service, which in 2015 showed FilmFreeway passed WAB in its number of clicks. This month, Alexa ranked FilmFreeway three times higher than WAB, both domestically (#5,649 vs. #14,530) and globally (#15,060 vs. #45,425).
In response, WAB invested in its tech, trying to compete with FilmFreeway’s user-friendly interface while using its financial resources to capture major festivals with exclusive deals. Exclusivity wasn’t cheap, requiring pricey festival sponsorships, free advertising on WAB and IMDb, IMDbPro coverage of the festival, and free marketing.
Michael wrote: “We are told that the reason Withoutabox is closing slowly over the next year, instead of shuttering immediately is so they can fulfill their contractual obligations to festivals for the remainder of these agreements, as many of these festivals are receiving annual payments from WAB ranging from tens of thousands to more than $100,000 per year, as well as other perks through IMDb.”
A spokesperson for IMDb told IndieWire that the company does not “share details of our relationships with customers.”
While WAB improved, its reputation in the indie film world did not. Beyond the cost of trying to compete with FilmFreeway, IMDb didn’t see WAB’s market share drastically increase. Over the next year, as WAB exits the market, FilmFreeway said formerly WAB-exclusive festivals plan to open their doors to his company.
“There are several more top-tier festivals that will be announcing partnerships with FilmFreeway in the coming weeks,” wrote Michael. “However, Withoutabox’s exclusive agreements with these festivals contain a confidentiality clause that restricts festivals from disclosing the terms or even the existence of these agreements. For this reason, festivals have asked us not to discuss these matters publicly until their contracts expire and they are ready to open their call for entries on FilmFreeway.”
Cinequest and Fantasia Film Festivals both recently started accepting submissions from Film Freeway. IndieWire has also learned that one major film festival will announce its switch to Film Freeway later this week.
IndieWire also learned that potential start-ups, backed by “major players,” have explored entering the film festival submission space. There is still a question surrounding WAB’s patent, which is set to expire in June 2022. IndieWire asked IMDb if they planned to enforce the patent over the coming year, or explore selling it, as it remains the company’s one real remaining asset. Representatives for the company declined to comment, but observers wonder what value the soon-to-be-expired patent has without the financial resources of a company willing to enforce it.
In the short term, at least in North America, FilmFreeway finds itself in the unusual position of being the new monopoly. Michael said the focus of his 20-person company will continue to be on the tech — updating its code daily — and improving user experience. Recently, the company started offering festivals the ability to sell tickets on FilmFreeway with no fees, and is getting ready to create a free-of-charge DCP creation tool for customers.
This week, FilmFreeway plans to announce a price reduction. Michael also promised the company will not use its position to force festivals into exclusive arrangements.
“This strategy of paying festivals to use WAB exclusively proved to be shortsighted and unsustainable,” wrote Michael. “While we love it when festivals choose to use FilmFreeway exclusively, we never require exclusivity and we never will. Festivals should have complete autonomy as to how they run their events and the services they choose to help them reach filmmakers. We don’t believe in the approach that WAB used to lock up festivals exclusively with secret contracts. We’ve always believed that if we provide festivals with a high quality product, personal customer care, and a world-class user experience they will continue to happily utilize FilmFreeway to facilitate and manage their submissions.”