With or Withoutabox?
A look at how the festival tool Withoutabox has changed the way festival directors and filmmakers handle submissions.November 10th, 2008 | Jen Swanson
Film Festivals. Whether it’s Sundance or Cannes, or something more obscure, the phrase conjures images of red carpets, artsy auteurs, and late night parties… for fans. But to filmmakers, and the often-unpaid program coordinators, film festivals are linked to getting organized, getting seen, and selling either your film, or enough tickets to do it all again next year. In other words, it’s work, by the most efficient means possible.
Enter Withoutabox, Inc., the eight-year-old Los Angeles-based company that provides online tools to streamline the film submission and selection process. “We work with 200,000 filmmakers in 200 countries worldwide,” says David Straus, Withoutabox CEO and co-founder. By logging on to Withoutabox, a filmmaker can enter one project profile into a central database and submit online to nearly 750 festivals. In turn, festivals that subscribe to Withoutabox can see an increased number of entries, sometimes two or three times as many as they did pre-Withoutabox, as well as a simplified way to receive once-dizzying amounts of content online.
“Withoutabox has changed the landscape of how films and festivals connect,” says Jeff Abramson, vice president of film for Gen Art, an arts and entertainment organization that showcases films by emerging North American filmmakers. Gen Art was one of the first festivals to accept submissions online through Withoutabox, and in the first year doubled its number of entries to almost 1,000 films.
“I used to produce short films, so did the makers of Withoutabox. They created this tool because they were frustrated,” says Abramson, who requires all unknown filmmakers to submit using Withoutabox. “It’s just easier for everyone. Filmmakers who aren’t using the service are doing themselves a disservice.”
Yet it’s not that simple, according to Michelle Fino, founder and director of the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival. At first, Withoutabox made life easier by helping her team streamline the general submissions process and generate more submissions.
“In the beginning, it felt collaborative,” says Fino, “but then it started to seem like Withoutabox was charging more and more just to make more money.” When Fino started using Withoutabox in 2005, the second year of her festival, she recalls that the company charged nine percent per entry. For 2008, Withoutabox gave Fino a rate of 18 percent then lowered it to 15 because, she says, “I’ve been with them for so long.” While Fino notes that Withoutabox’s staff is fantastic and very hands-on, she’s not sure how high the rates will climb, and that’s led her to explore competitive services, something she never would have done before.
“We’ve noticed Withoutabox’s costs have gone up,” says Adam Roffman, program director of the Independent Film Festival of Boston (IFFB), “and there are some services that we just don’t find worth the money. Still, Roffman has subscribed to Withoutabox for more than four years and considers the service to be a good investment. Festival submissions nearly doubled in IFFB’s first year using it.
Roffman says Withoutabox also helped his advertising budget: “We used to have to advertise our calls for submissions in all the magazines, as well as online.” Now IFFB’s call for entries and submission deadlines are posted on Withoutabox’s site, which is constantly referenced by filmmakers, exactly the target he’s trying to reach.
Roffman reports another unexpected benefit to managing submissions online: reduced clutter. “All filmmakers want their film to stand out, so they’d send us extra posters and marketing materials, which wastes their money and takes up space. We [used to] be surrounded in mountains of paper.”
Doug Guthrie, board president for Northampton International Film Festival (NIFF), almost had to cancel this year’s festival due to budget constraints. According to Guthrie, Northampton’s festival was getting too big for the community to sustain, with paid staff, paid public relations, and huge advertising costs. In order to make this year’s festival happen, NIFF had to scale back on a number of expenses, and that included cutting Withoutabox as NIFF transitioned back to curating its own films.
Guthrie is happy with the final selections, hand-picked by film programmers, but plans to resume using Withoutabox as soon as budgets allow. “If you’re going commit to it, you’re going to see more films,” he says. Plus, he adds that doing things the old-fashioned way takes a lot of time. “Withoutabox could have saved us two weeks, or 80 hours worth, of work. Easy.”
Likewise, filmmakers use Withoutabox to save time. “The [submissions] process takes forever,” says Ryan Gielen, director of The Graduates, which sold out its screening at the Rhode Island Film Festival, where Gielen received the Directorial Discovery Award for the full-length feature.
Filmmakers aren’t charged anything to use Withoutabox, but instead pay submission fees directly to the festival. On average, festivals charge filmmakers about $45 per film, says Gielen. He compares the process to shopping at Amazon.com. “Once I’ve created a profile, I scroll through the festivals to add them to my shopping cart,” he says. “When I get to checkout, I can see all the festivals in my cart before I make the final purchase.” Withoutabox then totals the fees and asks Gielen to confirm before charging his credit card, which is kept on file for future transactions. (Filmmakers may also purchase “discount” cards for an additional $5 savings per submission, although after paying the membership fee, savings are minimal).
Coincidentally, Withoutabox was purchased by Amazon’s Internet Movie Database (IMDb) in January of this year. According to David Straus, joining the ranks of one of today’s biggest corporations will create more visibility for filmmakers and festivals. But some festival directors wonder if that doesn’t send Withoutabox further down the road of exclusivity.
Organizers such as Tom Carruthers, executive director of the Connecticut Film Festival, would welcome some competition. “Withoutabox is a good clearinghouse because it’s a known entity,” says Carruthers, who still requires new filmmakers to submit through Withoutabox. But Carruthers has concerns about the speed of Withoutabox’s downloads, its formatting and, in his experience, its lackluster customer support. “Withoutabox got so big that it’s impossible to connect to anyone there,” says Carruthers. “It’s like they’re asking someone to go head to head with them.”
One of the emerging competitors is B-Side, an Austin-based company that builds interactive websites for film festivals to increase buzz and encourage audience interaction, described by Gielen as “the Facebook of indie film.” B-Side’s online submissions service, Submissions 2.0, has just launched in beta form, and, according to Variety (see article here) will be structured like Withoutabox to allow filmmakers to use its service for free, while charging festivals almost half of Withoutabox’s price. (B-Side did not respond to multiple requests for confirmation.)
There is, not surprisingly, a great deal of anticipation surrounding Submissions 2.0, as festival organizers and filmmakers wait to see whether or not it will perform better or differently than its predecessor. “Emulation is the sincerest form of flattery,” says George T. Marshall, Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF) executive director/CEO, of the relationship between Withoutabox and B-Side. He notes that competition often breeds a better product.
“It’s always good to have an alternative,” says IFFB’s Roffman. “A competitor may give Withoutabox a reason to lower its prices.” He continues, “I’ve met with the guys at B-side. They’re very creative and have got some great ideas. They’re doing a lot of things right.”
Gen Art’s Abramson defends Withoutabox’s rising costs: “In the beginning, Withoutabox may have been cheaper because it was still proving its value. Now they know what they’re worth.” He would challenge other festival producers to make the same amount of money without using Withoutabox. “Before Withoutabox, we needed dedicated people on staff to go through the festival submissions. Now we can have one less employee, so I’m happy to pay the fee,” he says.
Sara Nixon-Kirschner, Withoutabox’s manager of festivals explains that festivals select their pricing at the beginning of each season. “They choose between a nine percent package or an 18 percent package. The 18 percent package has no upfront costs; it’s strictly a pay-for-performance structure. The nine percent rate requires an upfront payment of $1,200; this option is often selected by the larger festivals.” Nixon-Kirschner affirms that all festivals have the same two options regardless of size, specialty, or history, adding that “some festivals may still be migrating from earlier pricing structures or long-term deals we’ve had in place with them, but the vast majority currently fall into one of these two plans.”
Marshall reports that RIIFF subscribes to the nine percent package. Festivals are required to commit to one of four Withoutabox marketing packages, starting at $750 for new members. RIIFF purchases the top-tier plan for $1,800 annually, which includes an exclusive email blast as well as inclusion in the group’s call for entries and deadline announcements.
“We see 100-200 submissions come in after each email blast,” says Marshall of his decision to pay for the marketing. So far, his decisions have paid off. In 2002, its first year using Withoutabox, RIIFF attracted 206 online submissions, in addition to the 1,000 hard copy submissions sent directly by filmmakers. In 2003, RIIFF processed 486 submissions using Withoutabox. Of the 3,000+ submissions to this year’s RIIFF, 1,648 were submitted through Withoutabox.
“Very early on, we were acknowledged by Chris Gore, and I don’t know him from Adam,” says Marshall, referring to the author of The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide, who named RIIFF one of the top 10 film festivals in the United States in 2003. RIIFF is the only New England festival that serves as a qualifier for the Academy Awards in the short film category, one of RIIFF’s final selections, Tanghi Argentini, received an Oscar nomination last year. “Withoutabox helped facilitate that,” says Marshall.
Kelly Williams, film program director at the Austin Film Festival, looks at Withoutabox and B-Side as two completely different tools. He says, “It’s not an either/or. It’s two separate things.” Williams uses Withoutabox to handle new submissions, and B-Side for its interactive web-page building services to promote festival selections and to encourage audience participation during the actual festival. “Every festival handles things its own way, which makes it hard to find a unified piece of equipment,” he says.
The Austin Film Festival started using B-Side in 2005. Williams says it tripled their traffic, and encouraged return web visits so that audience members could talk about the movies they’d seen. “B-Side provides an interactive film guide and online community. You can add films easily and log in to see what people are saying about the film, which is helpful in gauging attendance and finding appropriate venues. It’s a community builder, and a great way to build awareness.”
Williams looks forward to seeing what Submissions 2.0 can offer, but says the Austin Film Festival will continue to work with both companies in tandem. “We want to reach as many people as possible.”
If he’s worried, David Straus isn’t letting on. When asked who he felt Withoutabox’s biggest competition might be, a tight-lipped Straus paused before answering, “Ourselves, as we continue to build more and more value.”
The CT Film Festival
Gen Art Film Festival
Austin Film Festival
Rhode Island International Film Festival
Northamption International Film Festival
Newburyport Documentary Film Festival
Independent Film Festival of Boston
The Graduates official website
And official fan page: