FilmFreeway

Disclosure: FilmFreeway is the exclusive sub­mis­sions plat­form for my short film screening series Shorts That Are Not Pants, but this inter­view was unso­li­cited and I received no com­pens­a­tion or advantage for con­ducting it.

In just over 18 months, Vancouver startup FilmFreeway has done some­thing that seemed impossible a few years ago: they’ve made a sig­ni­ficant dent in the market share of film industry giant Withoutabox (WAB), the biggest sub­mis­sion plat­form for film fest­ivals in the world. WAB is cur­rently used by all of the most important fest­ivals (Sundance, Cannes, TIFF), but maybe that’s soon to change.

WAB was founded as a startup itself back in 2000, but in 2008 was acquired by IMDb, another startup which had been acquired by Amazon in 1998. Since becoming an Amazon busi­ness unit, WAB has been the sub­ject of con­stant com­plaints from film­makers and fest­ivals for its cum­ber­some web inter­face and busi­ness prac­tices that some con­sider pred­atory. It seemed that David had become Goliath. In February 2014, another David came along, and has now attracted more than 2,500 fest­ivals (though none of the biggest ones, yet) to use its service.

I spoke to founder and Chief Technology Officer Zachary Jones about his company’s suc­cess and plans for the future.

James McNally (JM): Tell me how FilmFreeway got started. Had any of you had exper­i­ence in the world of film or film fest­ivals previously?

Zachary Jones (ZJ): We cre­ated FilmFreeway as a free and modern altern­ative to Withoutabox. At the time of our launch, WAB was char­ging $3 each for SD online screeners with extremely anti­quated tech­no­logy and vir­tu­ally no cus­tomer sup­port what­so­ever. We were the first to intro­duce free HD online screeners and WAB was forced to follow. WAB still charges film­makers $400 for “dis­count packs.” FilmFreeway never charges film­makers an added fee for our ser­vices. On a $20 entry, FilmFreeway is still more than 7 times cheaper than WAB from a fest­ival standpoint.The dif­fer­ence is night and day. A few of us had prior film exper­i­ence, but we’re mainly engin­eers and designers.

JM: Several chal­lengers to WAB have tried and failed to make a dent in their dom­in­ance. What makes you guys different?

ZJ: FilmFreeway has been suc­cessful because we have a very high quality product and we back it up with per­sonal cus­tomer sup­port and a fair busi­ness model. It’s still not pos­sible for a film­maker to get a sup­port rep­res­ent­ative from WAB on the phone and it often takes three days to get a reply from them via email. That’s just not acceptable.

JM: You’ve been quite cheeky in com­paring your offering with WAB in your mar­keting mater­ials. Are you wor­ried about WAB hit­ting back, either through mar­keting or through legal threats?

ZJ: No, we did our home­work before we entered this space. As long as FilmFreeway con­tinues to push WAB to reduce their pri­cing and improve their product, then we’ve done our jobs. When sub­mis­sions plat­forms com­pete, film­makers and fest­ivals win. Monopolies are illegal for a reason.

JM: WAB recently redesigned their inter­face, which you see as a reac­tion to your increase in market share. Are you wor­ried they might be able to adapt and steam­roll you with their fin­an­cial resources at some point?

ZJ: They had a 15-year head start and unlim­ited resources. If that wasn’t enough to win, copying our designs and fea­tures won’t do them much better.

JM: What have been some of the chal­lenges of your rapid growth so far?

ZJ: Hiring is always tricky because you want to make sure you get the best people that are the best fit for the cul­ture of the com­pany. We’re still a bit under­staffed but we’ve brought on some great new people to the team and we love coming to work each day to con­tinue to work on the best sub­mis­sions plat­form in the world.

JM: How close are you to get­ting one or more of the major film fest­ivals onboard? Is that some­thing you’re act­ively pursuing?

ZJ: We’ve already got 15 Academy-accredited fest­ivals on board and some of the biggest names in the industry including the Student Oscars, Slamdance, Palm Springs, Raindance, and many more. Every day new fest­ivals sign up. It’s an exciting time.

JM: After signing up more than 2,500 film fest­ivals in less than two years, you must have received a lot of feed­back and hun­dreds of fea­ture requests. What are some of the most sur­prising things fest­ivals and film­makers have told you?

ZJ: The sup­port we’ve received from film­makers and fest­ivals has been over­whelming. We never ima­gined we’d be embraced by the com­munity in the way that we have. We’re humbled and incred­ibly grateful for the sup­port. We’ve cre­ated a page on our site where we embed the won­derful feed­back we receive from fest­ivals and film­makers on Twitter here: https://filmfreeway.com/pages/love.

JM: Can you give us any clues about upcoming features?

ZJ: We’re very excited about some new fea­tures we’re working on that will provide addi­tional tools and resources for film­makers to fur­ther pro­mote their work online and max­imize the vis­ib­ility of their films.

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As I was about to pub­lish this today, it was announced that Charlotte Cook would be leaving her post as Director of Programming for Hot Docs after four fest­ivals. I want to wish her well per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally, and I’m looking for­ward to what the next few months has in store for my favourite local film festival.

For the very first time, I’ve com­piled a spe­cial edi­tion of the CAST Awards, just based on what people saw during Hot Docs. Here are the CAST Top 10 based on the votes of 13 sub­mitted bal­lots. Voters ranked up to 10 films on their ballot from top to bottom, with first choices receiving 10 points, second choices 9, etc. The Points column lists the total score for each film, Mentions indic­ates how many voters included it in their Top Ten, Average is the average point score, and Firsts shows how many voters chose it as their favourite TIFF film.

In the case of points ties, the film with the higher number of first-place votes is listed first, then by highest average score. Because our sample size is quite small, these “rank­ings” don’t actu­ally mean much, but I thought it would give a good idea of what this par­tic­ular group of fest­ival­goers enjoyed this year. I’m curious to see how many of these show up in our reg­ular year-end CAST ballot and how they do.

Raiders! - Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen
Listen to Me Marlon - Stevan RileyHelp Us Find Sunil Tripathi - Neal Broffman
The Barkley Marathons - Annika Iltis and Timothy James KaneBest of Enemies - Robert Gordon and Morgan NevilleThe Amina Profile - Sophie Deraspe
The Queen of Silence - Agnieszka  ZwiefkaThe Wolfpack - Crystal MoselleThe Nightmare - Rodney AscherT-Rex - Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari
FILM TITLE
POINTS
MENTIONS
AVERAGE
FIRSTS
1. Raiders! 35 6 5.83 1
2. Listen to Me, Marlon 34 6 5.67 1
3. Help Us Find Sunil Trapathi 30 4 7.5 0
4. The Barkley Marathons 29 4 7.25 1
5. Best of Enemies 28 5 5.6 2
6. The Amina Profile 28 4 7.0 0
7. The Queen of Silence 25 3 8.33 0
8. The Wolfpack 24 5 4.8 0
9. The Nightmare 21 3 7.0 0
10. T-Rex 21 3 7.0 0

Participants:

Here is a PDF with each person’s ballot and the full col­lated res­ults, with a few more inter­esting stats included.

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On behalf of the other mem­bers of the CAST junta, I’m very pleased to announce the res­ults of the 5th edi­tion of the CAST Awards. I received 38 com­pleted bal­lots from film lovers in the Greater Toronto Area. Here are the CAST Top 25 voted from among all films that had a the­at­rical or fest­ival release in Toronto during 2014. Voters ranked up to 10 films on their ballot from top to bottom, with first choices receiving 10 points, second choices 9, etc. The Points column lists the total score for each film, the Mentions column indic­ates the number of bal­lots it appeared on, and the First column indic­ates the total number of voters who chose the film as their top choice. We are very proud of the group of critics we’ve gathered, even though I’ve described us else­where as “a ragtag group of semi-professional film blog­gers, pod­casters, tweeters and Lightbox lobby loiterers.” 142 dif­ferent films received at least one men­tion this year, although 81 of those received only one mention.

Boyhood - Richard Linklater
The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes AndersonWhiplash - Damian Chazelle
Nightcrawler - Dan GilroyUnder the Skin - Jonathan GlazerBirdman - Alejandro González Iñárritu
Gone Girl - David FincherMommy - Xavier DolanInherent Vice - Paul Thomas AndersonForce Majeure - Ruben Östlund

FILM TITLE
POINTS
MENTIONS
FIRST
1. Boyhood 138 19 7
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel 136 21 6
3. Whiplash 93 14 2
4. Nightcrawler 88 15 0
5. Under the Skin 76 10 3
6. Birdman 76 10 1
7. Gone Girl 74 14 1
8. Mommy 60 8 4
9. Inherent Vice 52 10 0
10. Force Majeure 47 11 1
11. The LEGO Movie 43 8 2
12. Wild 41 7 1
13. Horse Money 34 4 2
14. Interstellar 32 4 1
15. Enemy 32 5 0
16. Snowpiercer 29 6 0
17. Only Lovers Left Alive 28 6 0
18. The Overnighters 27 7 0
19. Mr. Turner 25 4 0
20. Citizenfour 25 5 0
21. Leviathan 23 4 0
21. Foxcatcher 23 4 0
23. What We Do In The Shadows 22 4 1
24. Dear White People 21 3 0
25. The Immigrant 21 4 0
25. Winter Sleep 21 4 0


Participants:

Here is a PDF with each person’s ballot and the col­lated res­ults, with a few more inter­esting stats included.

And here is a very nice list on Letterboxd of the entire list of films, roughly ranked.
And for those still reading, here is my very own CAST ballot, with my top ten from 2014.

My CAST Ballot

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. Inherent Vice
  3. Actress
  4. Nightcrawler
  5. Under the Skin
  6. The Overnighters
  7. Mommy
  8. We Are The Best!
  9. Song of the Sea
  10. Rich Hill

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Hu Wei (Butter Lamp)
UPDATE (January 15, 2015): Butter Lamp has been nom­in­ated for an Academy Award in the cat­egory of Best Live-Action Short. Best of luck to Hu Wei and the rest of his team!

One of the most impressive short films I saw during my visit to the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival last January was Hu Wei’s La lampe au beurre de yak (Butter Lamp). In fact, I wasn’t the only one impressed; the film won the Grand Prix. I was tre­mend­ously pleased, there­fore, to be able to bring it to Shorts That Are Not Pants this past October. The film has scooped up a slew of other awards as well, and it seems destined to become a short film classic. Director Hu Wei gra­ciously answered a few ques­tions about the film recently.

Where did the idea for the film come from?

The idea has existed for a long time, but it was not until 2008 at the FIAC Paris when I saw Michael Nash’s pho­to­graph “Warsaw 1946,” that I finally decided to write the script. In this pho­to­graph, a pho­to­grapher uses a back­drop with some rural scenery to mask the war ruins while shooting a por­trait for a woman, in Warsaw in November of 1946. This dif­fer­en­ti­ation of space presented in one pho­to­graph has really impressed me and I think that is sort of a common agree­ment between Western cul­ture and Eastern. After that I fin­ished the screen­play of Butter Lamp.

Where was the film shot?

In the Tibetan region, in Sichuan, China.

Is the film a doc­u­mentary, or was some of it scripted?

This film is entirely scripted.

The use of per­spective is very clever in the film — we see only what the camera lens sees. What were the reasons for this?

We are unable to per­ceive the com­plete world; not even in reality. I wish to create a rel­at­ively enclosed space in the film; every one of the back­drops rep­res­ents a Utopia of some sort. I was trying to con­struct a “happy” atmo­sphere at the begin­ning of the film; as time goes by and each of the back­drop unfolds, and till we are brought back to the real world, the dif­fer­ence between the dream worlds and the reality is finally revealed.

Still from Butter Lamp

Were your Tibetan actors all nomadic, like the char­ac­ters they play? Where did you find them?

The actors who appeared in the film are all local Tibetan nomads. We went into the moun­tains, vis­iting one vil­lage after another in search of the actors.

How do you feel the Tibetan nomads relate to the woman in Michael Nash’s photograph?

I think that for the Tibetans, the woman is the pho­to­graph, they are all just people who have dreams.

Did you encounter any dif­fi­culties while filming? How were they overcome?

First of all, it is a short film and in China there is no spe­cific filming permit [avail­able] for shorts. As a result, we had many troubles during filming because we did not have a filming permit; espe­cially for a pro­duc­tion team con­sisting of for­eign mem­bers [Editor’s Note: the film was a co-production with France]. Secondly, the entire filming pro­cess was con­ducted on the plateau of over 4,000 meters alti­tude, and that cre­ated both phys­ical and mental chal­lenges for most of the crew mem­bers from the flat­lands. And lastly we had prob­lems com­mu­nic­ating with the Tibetans, they were nomads and non-professional actors and that was another bar­rier we exper­i­enced. It was time that over­came all the difficulties.

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Song of the Sea
Song of the Sea opens Friday December 19th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. See it on the biggest screen possible.

Song of the Sea (Director: Tomm Moore): As a huge fan of Tomm Moore’s pre­vious film, The Secret of Kells, I was eagerly looking for­ward to seeing Song of the Sea. And I do mean seeing, since Moore’s work as an anim­ator is grounded in a lush yet spare drawing style that is simply gor­geous to look at. And true to form, every frame of the new film is as visu­ally stun­ning as a painting. What I wasn’t pre­pared for was how much of an emo­tional wallop the film packs.

Though I’m a true lover of cinema, there are times when I’m grateful that I don’t have to make my living writing about films. This is def­in­itely one of those times. Instead of bashing out my 300 words trying to slot this into some cat­egories (anim­a­tion, family films) and per­haps musing about its poten­tial box office num­bers before moving on the next week to whatever the media fire­hose belches forth, I can take my time a little. I can write about this film simply because it mat­ters to me, and I can write about it in whatever way that I can express that.

I’ll begin by pointing out that Moore and his pro­duc­tion com­pany, Cartoon Saloon, have been working on Song of the Sea for more than five years, on a budget a frac­tion of what a com­pany like Pixar would have avail­able. Without dis­par­aging any other anim­ated fea­ture films out there, this cer­tainly speaks to the level of craft and love for the medium that Moore and his col­leagues share. Operating out­side of the Hollywood industry, Cartoon Saloon is more like an Irish ver­sion of the late, great Studio Ghibli.

The film begins with a few lines from W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child,” a poem which has par­tic­ular meaning for me, a trans­planted Irishman. I chose it to be a part of my father’s memorial ser­vice a few years ago, and I’ve always found The Waterboys’ song based on it to be incred­ibly moving. It’s the story of a child being lured away from “a world full of weeping” by faeries.

It’s won­derful to see Moore return to the Irish myth­o­logy which The Secret of Kells brought to life so mem­or­ably. This time it’s a story about selkies, creatures who exist as seals in the water but as humans on dry land. Sometimes they take human spouses, but these unions often end tra­gic­ally when the selkies return to their true home, the sea.

Song of the Sea

On the night that young Saoirse is born, her mother Bronach dis­ap­pears, leaving hus­band Conor the light­house keeper heart­broken and son Ben bitter and angry at his baby sister. As she grows up, she remains mute and Ben con­tinues to reject her. One night she dis­covers a spe­cial coat and wades into the sea where she is trans­formed into a seal and swims hap­pily with a group of her own kind. But when her vis­iting grand­mother finds her washed up on shore, she takes both Saoirse and Ben to live in the city, away from the dangers of the sea and their dis­tracted father.

Being away from the sea and her spe­cial coat weakens Saoirse and Ben begins to show more sym­pathy for her. As well, he quickly dis­covers that all of the stories about faeries and witches that his mother told him before she dis­ap­peared are true. Soon the sib­lings are caught up in a life and death struggle to save Saoirse’s life and to restore a whole pop­u­la­tion of faery creatures who have been turned to stone by the witch Macha.

The emo­tional core of the film is lit­er­ally about having an emo­tional core. The “vil­lain” (who is really just unable to cope with her own pain) tries to lure Ben by asking him to forget his pain and bottle up (again, quite lit­er­ally) his feel­ings in jars. But this well-meaning coping strategy has turned all of the faeries into stone, including Macha’s beloved son, the giant Mac Lir. In her mis­guided desire to rescue him from heart­break, Macha instead stole her own son’s lifeblood. There’s a very clever pairing of human and faery char­ac­ters in the story as well, which makes the myth­ical stories much more immediate.

The mes­sage of feeling your feel­ings, even when they’re painful, was not lost on me. I’ve gone through more than my fair share of per­sonal tra­gedies this year. I cry much more easily now. I spent more than half of the film a quiv­ering, sniff­ling wreck, and it felt won­derful. Although this is a film that deserves a huge audi­ence, in many ways it felt like Tomm Moore made it just for me. And that is the highest praise I can bestow.



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