FilmFreeway talks a big game. Founded in 2014, the film festival submissions platform has never been anything less than transparent about its designs on the industry that, until then, had been dominated by Withoutabox.

Withoutabox itself had a history of disruption: With its arrival in 2000, it had effectively digitized the process of festival submissions, which had until then been done through DVDs. Over the years, the website (acquired by IMDb, itself owned by Amazon, in 2008) came to enjoy a virtual monopoly over festival submissions, but faced much criticism from moviemakers who complained of excessive fees and poor technology.

Enter FilmFreeway, a site that loudly advertised its free submission model and, in three years, has stolen the mantle of top submissions platform from the incumbent by generating waves of (sometimes aggressive: see FilmFreeway’s “comparison” page, full of fan tweets dissing Withoutabox) indie support.

FilmFreeway co-founder Zachary Jones spoke with MovieMaker on what makes a seamless, user-friendly submission experience, some of the platform’s defining features, the evolution of the service thus far, his long-term strategy for edging out competitors and more.

MovieMaker Magazine (MM): FilmFreeway has quickly gone from upstart, or disrupter, to a mainstream platform for festival submissions, effectively rivaling Withoutabox. What was the first spark of the idea behind FilmFreeway?

Zachary Jones, Co-Founder, FilmFreeway (ZJ): We set out to build a submission platform so compelling that it would revolutionize the industry. For 15 years, Withoutabox operated a monopoly with dreadful, outdated technology, an insufferable user experience and a downright predatory business model. As time went on, their prices continued to increase but their site only seemed to get worse. Filmmakers were paying $3 per entry for standard definition online screeners. Standard def in 2014! And festivals were paying nearly 20 percent commissions, which forced them to artificially raise their entry fees to compensate. The entire industry was suffering at the hands of an inept and greedy corporate bully. And the indie community really deserved so much better. So we decided to build a radically better, faster, more modern and fairly priced alternative. Enter FilmFreeway, and the rest is history.

We launched in 2014 with a service that was entirely free for submitters, offering free HD online screeners and the ability to link with our partners at Vimeo. We also did away with sign-up fees and slashed festival commissions and marketing fees by more than half. Filmmakers and festivals flocked to FilmFreeway in droves. By June 2015, FilmFreeway had surpassed Withoutabox in global web traffic and that gap has continued to widen ever since. Now [traffic measurement site] shows that we get more than double the visitors they do!

Today FilmFreeway is far and away the number-one submission platform in the world across all top metrics, including global web traffic, total festivals, Oscar-accredited festivals and daily active users. We’re very proud to serve many of the world’s leading festivals and media companies, such as HBO, the Student Academy Awards, NBC/Universal, Tribeca Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival, Raindance and many more. Currently more than 400,000 filmmakers use FilmFreeway to submit to more than 5,000 of the world’s best film festivals and contests, including 43 Oscar-qualifying festivals.

A FilmFreeway graphic lists some festivals using the submissions platform

MM: What was imperative for FilmFreeway to get right from day one?

ZJ: Discovering and submitting to film festivals should be easy, intuitive and fast, so technology and user experience were key for us. Every aspect of the FilmFreeway user experience, from creating your project profile, to uploading your video, to submitting to festivals, was meticulously thought out and tested until user flow was seamless. With FilmFreeway, it’s possible to create a beautiful project profile in just a few minutes and begin submitting to festivals even while your HD video is still uploading. If you compare FilmFreeway to anything else in the market, there’s just nothing that even comes close.

MM: Tell us about some major challenges that FilmFreeway has faced throughout its evolution.

ZJ: When you become number one, the challenges are only amplified, as users come to expect nothing less than excellence. The important thing is that we never rest on our laurels and continue to improve by listening carefully to our users and building the tools and features that they want. We’re acutely aware that we have a target on our back from every competing service that would love to take our place, and we’re certainly up to the challenge.

There’s no secret to our strategy. It’s really quite simple. Provide the the best product in the world, improve it by 10 percent every single week, and back it up with world class customer support. As long as we keep doing that we know that we’ll always have the support of the indie film community.

MM: What features of FilmFreeway are most popular among users, and why?

ZJ: It all boils down to simplicity and ease of use. Filmmakers love how easy it is to discover and submit to festivals with just a few clicks. Once a filmmaker has set up a project on FilmFreeway, submitting to festivals is as easy as adding your favorite festivals to your shopping cart and checking out all in one go. Another difference maker is the level of VIP customer support that we offer to every one of our users. Our average response time to a customer service email is under 10 minutes. We even respond to emails at night and over the weekends. And we’re the only site of our kind that has a toll-free number where customers can call and speak with a real human being that will be happy to help them however we can. Filmmakers and festivals notice this level of care, and it makes all the difference.

MM: With so many festivals out there in the world, what are some ways that filmmakers can make better choices about what to submit to?

ZJ: One of the favorite ways filmmakers discover great festivals is through our special curated sections. And one of the most popular sections is “MovieMaker‘s 50 Film Festivals Worth The Entry Fee.” Festivals are thrilled to be featured here and filmmakers know they’re in for a great experience if they’re lucky enough to be selected for these awesome events. We also have sections for “Academy Award-Accredited Festivals” and “Most Popular,” as well as sections for other special niches like Virtual Reality. There are lots of helpful filters on our “Browse Festivals” page that make it easy for filmmakers to find a festival that’s a perfect fit for their particular project.

A screenshot of a filmmaker’s dashboard on FilmFreeway

MM: As for film festivals themselves, how can they be better at presenting themselves on the site?

ZJ: The more information, the better. And don’t forget the photos! The best thing a festival can do to increase submissions to their event is to include as much information about the festival as possible, add beautiful photos from past events, and thoroughly describe the structure of the festival and the filmmaker experience. When filmmakers have a clear understanding of exactly what a festival entails, they are much more likely to enter their work.

MM: What’s a misconception filmmakers have about either using FilmFreeway or submitting to festivals in general?

ZJ: Sometimes submitting to festivals boils down to a numbers game. It can be easy to get discouraged if your film isn’t selected for a particular festival. The good news is that there are so many festivals out there in the world—there’s a festival specializing in just about every genre or sub-genre you can think of. If you look around and do your due diligence, it’s really quite easy to find a festival that is actively searching for the exact type of programming content you’ve created.

That’s probably the most fulfilling part of what we do, connecting artists and storytellers with the events and audiences that will be moved and entertained by their work. More than 350,000 entries submitted through FilmFreeway have been chosen as official selections by festivals all around the world.

MM: What are some goals for the future?

ZJ: We just launched a major new feature that’s been in development since last year: ticket sales. We’ve built the best ticketing solution in the industry and we priced it cheaper than Eventbrite. Now festivals can sell tickets to their events right from their listings on FilmFreeway. It’s only been live a few weeks and it’s already been widely adopted by festivals.  Basically, we created a one-stop-shop with everything a festival needs to accept submissions, sell tickets, promote and manage their events, all at the lowest prices in the industry. We’ve got some more exciting features in the works currently that we can’t wait to show everyone. MM

Learn more about FilmFreeway here.