Interview: Zachary Jones (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:

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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