Review 3: Submitting to Film Festivals (Withoutabox vs FilmFreeway)

Four years ago now, my friend Gerard and I ran a small but ultimately successful Kickstarter for a martial arts short film called Reel. Though we filmed the bulk of it in late 2014, it wasn’t finished until… a month ago. There are a lot of reasons for this that don’t matter here, but the point is that it weighed on my mind for literally the entirety of the intervening time and if I hadn’t finally finished it, I probably never could have gotten this whole YouTube thing off the ground.

But I digress. The movie is actually pretty good, something that I think shocked just about everyone involved. If it gets into a festival, I’m going to review it here. It would be a largely positive review.

Because of that, we decided that it may actually be worth sending out to film festivals. In my years as a film critic, I went to a lot of festivals and saw some of my favorite movies ever and also my most hated. There are certain projects that just, like, why? So bad. Sometimes the New York Times loves a film that you absolutely hate and you just can’t even.

And when you see those movies, you can be fairly sure that your movie is good enough to show somewhere, but obviously it’s more complicated than that.

It’s complicated because the job of a festival programmer is complicated. The selection of a film isn’t based just on its merits – it must function as part of a cohesive whole that is the festival’s ideal. And this is even more true when it comes to shorts, since they have to work as part of programs or a lead-in to a feature.

Which leads to a lot of tough decisions.

Your film might be the perfect length for its story but too long for the shorts block. You might execute your thematic intent perfectly but no one else submitted anything to complement it.

I know that Reel is at least as good as some of the films that will play at the New York Film Festival, but I also know that the festival doesn’t show movies like it and therefore couldn’t accept it if they wanted to. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to know what you’re submitting to and why you’re submitting there specifically. If you don’t, well, that submission fee ain’t coming back.

On the other hand, there’s something kind of nice about the shorts-specific complexities, because you can tell yourself that a rejection was not an indictment of your work but of everyone else’s – and there’s a non-zero chance you’ll be right.

In 2018, it’s easy (if not exactly cheap) to submit your movie to dozens or hundreds of festivals with a few button presses. Sure, some festivals, like Cannes or Telluride, have dedicated platforms, but the bulk of festivals of all shapes and sizes are accessible via one or both of two platforms: Withoutabox and/or FilmFreeway.

Each service does the exact same thing – connects your film with festivals, but the experience of using each is different in key ways. FilmFreeway offers much more robust tools for filtering through the enormous list of participating festivals – all right from the home page. Aside from sliders and radio buttons on the left sidebar allowing you to select for customizable entry fee ranges or event types or film categories and there’s a wider variety of sorting tools, including popularity and user ratings.

For those numbed by the sheer volume of options, there are a handful of curated lists, including 33 of the “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee” from Moviemaker’s list – one that I’ve used in the past as a way to narrow down my submission decisions.

Withoutabox, too, has filtering tools – if you dig into the “Festival Search” page – though they’re not as wide-ranging as FilmFreeway’s. It also has some easily accessible lists, including “Hot List” – for highly popular options – and “Deal Time” – for those with lower-priced entry, but it lacks the ability to sort by that popularity and has no user reviews; both have quick links to their Oscar-qualifying festivals.

But what Withoutabox has that FilmFreeway does not is a parent company with a household name: Amazon. Withoutabox, then, shares an owner with IMDb, meaning there are some integrations between those services that doesn’t exist elsewhere. The project page you create for your film can automatically become an IMDb page. Considering how user-unfriendly the IMDb interface is, it’s a major step up. Additionally, there is a button right up there in the corner of Withoutabox telling you that you can have your film put on Amazon’s Prime Video Direct if you want to self-distribute your work.

These are nice.

Since the last time I used it, FilmFreeway has introduced a profile system that they bill as “Like IMDbPro, except it’s free,” but let’s be real: No. FilmFreeway’s profile system is an IMDb competitor in the same way that YikYak was a Twitter Competitor.

RIP YikYak.

Withoutabox is the OG here, and with that status has come complacency. And fair enough: you don’t need the most efficient browsing system when you offer exclusive access to Sundance, Slamdance, Tribeca, Fantasia, etc.

To take on Withoutabox, then, FilmFreeway would need the sleeker interface and more modern feel. And it has that. Every aspect of the service feels more thoughtfully designed. Certainly, they’ve got a complex going on, considering their dedicated page of tweets from people favorably FilmFreeway against its competition.

Maybe if I tweet out this review, I will get added to their page. Probably not. It’s a bit much.

You can decide which subject is the “it” in that scenario, and you’ll probably be right.

But the flip side of Withoutabox’s hold on the big names is that its selection of smaller festivals is less impressive.

For example, my last short played at the Women Texas Film Festival in 2016 – shot after Reel, but finished much earlier. Maybe I’m a little biased, but it’s a great festival, and it’s only on FilmFreeway.

I asked Justina Walford, the festival’s creative director and most impressive person I have ever met, why that is, and she told me it was a combination of complexity, cost, and ultimately just need: enough people use FilmFreeway to fill their slate with quality productions, so why even bother with its competitor?

But this means that a filmmaker will inevitably have to use both: Withoutabox for the big names… and FilmFreeway for everything else. Because for the festivals that use both – Austin, Fantastic Fest (also in Austin), Female Eye, etc. – there is no reason whatsoever to go with the dinosaur.

But regardless of the platform, it’s unequivocally the case that getting your work in front of programmers is more-or-less infinitely easier than it once was. With a single video file (maybe even a Vimeo link), you can get your work seen by programmers all over the world. And though both FilmFreeway and Withoutabox seem to take issue with the fact that Reel has two directors, they take a lot of the frustration out of information gathering. You know you have the stuff that you need, because there are boxes that you’ve gotta fill or else you can’t submit. It’s easy. It’s nice.

And then, of course, you can obsessively check the status of all of your various submissions from the comfort of a single dashboard (or… two).

These platforms take the stress out of submission itself, FilmFreeway more than its competitor, which frees up time that you can use to… stress out about where those submissions are at.

So stressful.  

Seven-Point-Zero out of Ten