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How to Deliver Your Film to a Festival (2018 Edition)

A portable projectionist cart intended for festival use with a DCP server, HDCAM player and Blu-ray Player

Back in 2015, I wrote an article for Filmmaker on the best practices for delivering an exhibition copy of your film to festivals. In the ensuing two and a half, almost three years, I’ve received a lot of positive feedback, including a few panicked emails from filmmakers submitting their films to a festivals I worked at.

Now in 2018, my editors have asked me to update it. Why the update now? Allow me the use of a clumsy and imperfect technical reference to Moore’s law that computing power doubles every eighteen months and the same has happened to available filmmaking technology. Additionally, there are internet commenters who exclaim that the information provided is out of date. Check the date of the article: If it’s more than two years out of date, there is hopefully an update that’s been published.  

Format. Codec. Audio. DCP. You’ve worked on your movie now for some time and have been eagerly waiting for acceptance emails from festivals. One lands in your inbox, and you excitedly read through the letter until, when you get to the festival’s technical requirements, you develop a sense of dread. The tersely worded communication from the technical director would put you to sleep if it didn’t terrify you.

But don’t panic. Instead, phone your editor, and read this guide. Caveat emptor, though: If a festival asks for anything that contradicts this guide, do exactly what they say. This applies even more if the festival is asking for a specific digital file format that isn’t a DCP. 

First, you probably don’t have a costly 35mm print unless you’re Paul Thomas Anderson or someone of his ilk. There has been something of a 35mm revival in the last couple of years, but that is mostly outside of the festival world. There are, however, experimental and other short filmmakers who use 16mm film as part of their artistic practice, and there are festivals — such as Ann Arbor, Media City and New York Film Festival’s Projections program — that still project 16mm. If you are such a filmmaker, it never hurts to email the technical director (known as TD from now on) to see if there is any chance of specialty film formats being projected. It also doesn’t hurt if, when submitting your film, you mention that you have specific film formats that you’d like to present; your request might catch the eye of an adventurous programmer. But you should also send the requisite digital backups the festival asks for, because you never know what will happen.

Second: HDCam is dead. What was maybe the greatest format for festival releasing has bit the dust. Conversion and mastering of tapes was expensive (further increased by factory closures following tsunamis related to the 2011 Japanese earthquake that caused the Fukashima disater) and the playback decks cost as much as an souped-up Honda Accord.  

DCP (Digital Cinema Package) has become the primary format for most festivals. The near universal transition at every theater has made the format ubiquitous. You should definitely contract a professional posthouse, such as Deluxe Technicolor. If your film’s budget is at least $100,000, save yourself a headache and budget between $2,500 and $5,000 for a DCP. There are other DCP services that will make a DCP for prices ranging from $750 to $1,500. The quality of service that I have witnessed from these services range from very good to horrific —mostly hard drives that won’t start when you get them or delays getting films to festivals. Some festivals have sponsorship agreements with posthouses that will either convert a film for free or for a deeply discounted price. If you don’t have a DCP, ask the TD if there are any options for a free or discounted DCP conversion. Buyer beware, though: I had a filmmaker tell me a horror story about a DCP that a festival made for her through one of the festival partners (who was on the board of the festival) for a couple hundred dollars. The day before the screening, she was informed that the DCP didn’t work and she needed to pay another couple hundred dollars to make a new DCP if she wanted to screen. This is what we call fucking bullshit. You already paid your submission fee — don’t let festivals nickel and dime you further.

There are also plugins and software that range in price from free (DCP-o-matic) to tens of thousands of dollars (DVS Clipster). Some editing software packages are also starting to include DCP export options. I’ve had very limited success with them. The most reliable program I’ve used to make DCPs is free. OpenDCP is a great program to use if you can export out TIFF or JPEG 2000 frames for your film and the necessary 24-bit audio that digital cinema requires.

Do not use the Wraptor DCP Creation Plugin found in Adobe Premiere Pro. DCPs made with this plugin create DCPs that cannot be universally played on all cinema projection servers. Save yourself time and headache. 

If you’re making your own DCP using one of the above methods, you will need to physically package the file correctly. For a feature-length film, most festivals will want a CRU drive, which consists of a SATA III internal hard drive placed in a DX115 DataPort caddy. This will allow your film to ingest using the fastest possible method and will only set you back $150 or so. You could also send a USB 3.0 or USB 3.0 thumb drive, but they will take much longer to load onto the DCP server and many festivals will not accept USB drives. This is 2018: Please do not send USB 2.0 drives. They’re slow. Please also make sure that your drives do not need a separate power source or else you will anger many TDs and projectionists.  The drive also needs to be formatted Linux Extended 2 or 3. FAT32 is also an accepted DCP format, but you have a 4GB file size limit. Windows NTFS is also widely supported but not universally accepted. No OS X or exFAT formatted drives are recognized by DCP servers.

A quick note on DCP copy protection, known as KDM (Key Delivery Message): Don’t do it. That goes doubly if anyone other than Technicolor/Deluxe made your DCP. For first time and emerging filmmakers, this is an unnecessary step unless a distributor has already paid you a large amount of money for your film. KDMs are both time and projector specific. Distributors have sent me keys for the wrong time zone or for the wrong projectors. Homemade keys have been corrupt or haven’t unlocked in time. If you do need to send a key with your film, coordinate an extra key for the TD so they can test the film or, even better, provide a key that is unlocked for the duration of the festival.

There are smaller regional and local festival that also screen digital files, such as mp4 and .mov files. Many will stream them from actual computers or a specialty device such as a media player, a Ki Pro device, Q Lab Software or Playback Pro Software. Files are the ultimate digital film DIY formats as every nonlinear editing system, or NLE, can export exhibition deliverables.

A digital file will have three major components: the container, or wrapper format (how the file is wrapped for delivery); the video codec; and the audio codec. The two most popular wrapper formats are .mp4 and .mov. Both formats are very similar, but there are some differences. Mp4 is an international standard format, while Apple developed the .mov format. It is generally easier for Windows and Linux computers to create .mp4 files because installing the additional, albeit free, software needed to make .mov files isn’t required. Computers running Apple’s OS X can make .mp4 and .mov files without having to install any additional software.

A codec is how video and audio data is encoded or decoded for playback or editing. The H.264 format was designed to encode high-quality video and audio content for streaming playback over the Internet. However, the same video that looks great on YouTube won’t look great on a large movie screen because web video is usually “lossy compressed,” meaning that it uses inexact approximations in order to create smaller file sizes that can stream easier on the internet. When you blow these files up and project them on cinema-sized screens, imperfections will sometimes be noticed.

Another popular codec is the Apple ProRes format, which is designed as a intermediate format for post-production work. A lot of the criticism I’ve received for the previous version of the article was for advocating for this format. Playback Pro and Ki Pro devices work best with the ProRes 422 codec in a .mov wrapper. Not every festival will use Playback Pro or Ki Pro files, which is why you should always defer to what the technical specifications for the festival asks for.    

 If you are editing off a non-Apple NLE or a Windows computer, you can download codecs to enable the creation of .mov ProRes files. If you’re on a Windows computer, the best alternative is the Avid DNxHD codec. The codec is free and widely used, but you should ask a festival’s TD before sending an Avid file. You should also check your export settings in Avid, since the defaults are set to export as a non-square pixel aspect ratio.

The digital file should also be at 1920 x 1080 resolution (shorthand 1080p). If you shot your film on a 4K ALEXA, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to downscale for .mov file playback. If you shot your film in native 16X9 HD, the image will take up the entire screen. If you used a cinema aspect ratio of flat (1.85) or scope (2.35), you’re going to have various degrees of letterboxing.

As for audio, if you have a stereo mix, your best bet is a 24-bit PCM .wav file at 48kHz. If you have surround channels, the default standard is six channels of 24-bit PCM mono .wav files. If the festival is accepting multi-channel sound audio files, check with the TD for a preferred audio mapping.

If you don’t submit that exact format the festival asks for, two things will happen: either the TD will have to convert the film themselves (thus earning you their scorn), or they will demand that you send a new file ASAP. Save everyone the trouble, and follow their instructions.

How do you physically send your file to a festival? You can physically mail a hard drive or a flash drive, which the festival will mail back to you or ship out to your next festival. This is a handy reminder to not tear open the packaging your hard and flash drives come in. The best way to send a film is in a padded Pelican brand case. You can secure the case with mounting ties, slap on a shipping label and send it where it needs to go. Or, just deliver your film via the internet. As internet speeds get faster and faster, online file delivery has become more and more popular, especially if you have to send a film to a foreign nation. However, expecting a festival to download a full-size ProRes feature may place an undue burden on them. If there is an emergency and the festival is halfway across the world, consider having an H.264 file as a last resort. Another handy emergency backup is allowing festivals to download your Vimeo screener.

Some festivals also allow you to send your file electronically. As a TD, the only method I accept is Dropbox, since I can add files to my account and they download in the background. I have had untold failed downloads from services such as YouSendIt. Dropbox now also has a great feature where filmmakers can upload files directly to your drive. There are other festivals that won’t accept Dropbox. Assume if a delivery method is barred there’s a reason for it. 

Unlike the other formats, DCP can also project cinema aspect ratios such as 1.85 and 2.35 without having to pillar or letterbox the image. Some theaters even support 4K playback, so you can justify that ALEXA rental to your producers. If you have a gee-whiz kiss-kiss-bang-bang sort of film, you want to screen on DCP. But no matter which method you use to make a DCP (or what method you choose to format your film), you need to test your movie in a theater before sending it out to festivals. Become friends with the owner of your local independent theater or rent any one of the numerous screening rooms that are found throughout New York, LA and Chicago.

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