With or Withoutabox?

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.”

Related Links:


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:

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6 Responses to “With or Withoutabox?”

  1. Anonymous

    It seems that it’s been harder to get into festivals that use Withoutabox, because the festivals get so many more submissions than they used to. I wonder if this is going to be yet another hurdle for new and small budget filmmakers, and ultimately lead to even fewer truly indie venues. I feel like I spent a lot of money only to find out I had much less chance of acceptance than I would have in earlier years.

  2. Anonymous

    Well I am just starting to use it; I have been making documentaries since the 1970s – so obviously I can see some advantage in not having to fill out many many individual Film Festival submission forms.

    BUT on the down side I think it is faceless and impersonal and I sense it may be indirectly causing ALL film festivals to charge applicants submission fees (which adds up to a lot of $’s espc given the exchange rate of the $AUS re the $US and the Euro.)

    WITHOUT A BOX is starting to feel like GAMBLING: tick the box- pay by by credit card and BINGO – More DEBT!! and maybe one day the jackpot!!!! that elusive jackpot is a a snare and a delusion..like a gambler chasing the next pokie machine.

    I have my doubts about this system; when an indie filmmaker has self financed or independently financed a doco, and has no marketing budget, these Film Festival entry fees can be prohibitively expensive. One festival in Australia is charging $400 entry fee for documentaries!
    I am tending to apply to those Festivals that don’t charge fees – of which there are a few.

    I am encouraged by this great website FILM FESTIVAL SECRETS: http://filmfestivalsecrets.com/

    Jeni Thornley
    Documentary Filmmaker, Australia

  3. Anonymous

    Both fests and withoutabox rip off filmmakers. Fests use withoutabox and advertise on withoutabox to increase submissions. That increases cashflow, which is used to pay people and run the fest. Great. But then filmmakers who have no shot waste their money on the submission, because the fest claims “we just want the best films”, an intentionally vague and visionless call, aimed at getting the most people possible to pay the $45-$100 fee.

    And then the fest hires interns to give the overload of films 10-15 minute viewings. So the filmmaker gets screwed. We’re paying $40-$100 for ten minutes of some intern’s time. And what does the intern know about good films? What qualifies this twenty-two year old to judge a nuanced or “different” indie film? It’s absurd.

    These aren’t sour grapes- my films have played in fests across the country, and won awards for writing, directing, vision… I benefit from festivals. But I know how the system works, and it’s a rip-off to hardworking, inspired indie filmmakers everywhere. I see so many HORRIBLE, derivative, uninspired films at festivals that it’s a disgrace for them to have been selected. But given how the system is set up, it’s not a surprise.

  4. Anonymous

    What none of the festival directors, etc. above have mentioned is that while their submission volume has increased exponentially, how are they facilitating this onslaught of submissions?
    Sure, they are making more $$$ but now screening committees are bombarded and exhausted with more film to watch – regardless of quality.
    As a filmmaker, this idea of “increased submissions” bothers me. This obviously favors the festival (and WOB) but not the filmmaker. These same people complained when DV first hit (more films, less quality and now anyone can do it), so now that it’s easier to submit, it creates a larger pool of material to get lost in.

  5. Anonymous

    Speaking from the festival side of things, I can attest to the validity of the concerns that filmmakers have noted in previous responses to this article.

    Withoutabox is definitely not all it’s cracked up to be.

    The Withoutabox service was established with seemingly noble intentions, but the profit potential has since has turned it into just another example of corporate greed.

    Sara Nixon-Kirschner, Withoutabox’s manager of festivals, is quoted in the article as stating that their online submission service requires no upfront costs for festivals who use their basic plan. This is completely untrue.

    In fact, they charge a $500 account set-up fee. The fee is refundable only after a festival has accumulated $2400 in submission fees – and only after Withoutabox has collected nearly 20% in commissions! In addition, they require the purchase of a $750 marketing package, and if a festival doesn’t reach $2500 in fees in the first year they are required to purchase another $750 package.

    The end result is that if a festival wants to use the submission service they usually have no choice but to charge submission fees – if they already charge fees then they have to charge even more to make up for Withoutabox’s cut.

    Unfortunately, many festivals buy into this because it can become a major revenue stream. The more films that get submitted, the more money a fest brings in – to the detriment of filmmakers who become just another number in a vast sea of submissions.

    To make matters worse, shortly after this article was published, Withoutabox took active steps to squash any competition, in a niche in which they are already completely dominate. By adding a new requirement that festivals cannot use a competing service, they have effectively scared off anyone who might have posed a challenge.

    Just today I spoke to Chris Holland of B-Side Entertainment, whose own online submission service was mentioned in the article. Holland confirmed that because of this monopolistic move by Withouabox, B-Side’s service is dead in the water before ever getting beyond the beta stage.

    As the director of a medium-size festival for the past few years, I have actively boycotted the Withoutabox service. We solicit our own films and utilize our own online submission, and as a result we charge submission fees that are a small fraction of what similar fests charge. Unfortunately we find ourselves more and more in the minority.

    I would urge all indie filmmakers to not trust the future of their work to Withoutabox and try to avoid them when you can. In the mean time, let’s hope that someone manages to give them some real competition sometime soon.

    David E. W. Pruett
    Dark Carnival Film Festival

    P.S. I would very much like to see the author of the article do a follow up to address this recent development.

  6. naimas77

    What a waste of time. NO WHERE does it tell festival or contest people that it is going to cost money. They get you to sign up first. And really, a contest is not a festival and I really felt confused signing up and being told to tell about my festival. I don’t have a festival, I was having a contest. They are not the same.

    The sign up is very very very intrusive. They want names, addresses phone numbers, not just for me but for everyone who has anything to do with the contest or festival. They want phone numbers, websites, names, positions, etc. It is easier to get a loan than sign up for this thing. They say it takes a HALF HOUR to do it. First of all that is a long time. Second of all that is so they can get you involved and then tell you how much (hundreds and hundreds) of dollars that it is going to cost you.

    No thanks. The site was annoying enough to navigate. I can’t imagine paying to use them.