How to Deliver Your Film to a Festival (2022 Edition)
In 2018, I wrote a version of this article1 that treated the exhibition dominance of Digital Cinema Packages (DCP) as a historic certainty. Technology had advanced enough where the cost and/or ability to create a DCP were no longer considered a burden for independent filmmakers. As always with historic certainty, history happened: The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed the widespread adoption of virtual film festivals. Separately, the call for justice and equality led to the widespread adoption of accessibility features for films. These concurrent developments, combined with the decline of the theatrical market and technological obsolescence, have created an environment that can be fraught for filmmakers.
Early in the pandemic, as freelance festival gig after gig evaporated, a friend told me that I should be focused on what comes after: building a new film culture. Unfortunately, the margins of the festival world seem to be getting narrower every day, theatrical attendance is down across the board and it seems harder and harder to get audiences into auditoriums to watch anything that isn’t a superhero-adjacent tentpole. Additionally, 2022 marks the 10-year anniversary of the widespread adoption of digital cinema. Digital cinema projectors were estimated to have a 10-year lifespan, and the programs that helped operators pay to change over to then-new digital projectors—such as Virtual Print Fees—are now nonexistent. Thousands of projectors will fail over the next several years, and operators unable to afford new projectors will find themselves with few alternatives. I’ve worked at several in-person festivals in the past year where equipment maintenance has caused issues. Most of the festival and venue operators seem to recognize this problem, but the costs involved in replacing equipment are prohibitive for organizations facing budget shortfalls.
The festival landscape is in an interregnum between what came before and an uncertain future. Festival workers across the United States were radicalized after Sundance issued a statement of solidarity with IATSE. Seasonal contract workers often are treated as replaceable commodities despite festival organizers’ progressive virtue signaling and obsession with optics as an acceptable substitute for reality. The increasingly heightened contradictions between the two has widened a gap that’s increasingly undisguisable. Many seasoned festival workers have left for more stable employment opportunities, including the tech staff who maintain equipment and ensure smooth operations for festivals. I know of several organizations that have replaced entire experienced tech teams with inexperienced and undertrained employees. Their reputations will be sullied once they become more well known for botching film screenings than for their inventive programming or opportunities for filmmakers.
What does this mean for you, the filmmaker? Not much! You still need to get your films in front of audiences, and festivals are still your best chance of finding an audience short of splitting your film into TikToks. There are a number of ways to ensure that your film is played with some sort of quality control, and that starts with assembling a festival-ready kit that consists of:
— A DCP with closed captions and audio description for visually impaired audiences and, for the hearing impaired, a mono audio track.
— Two or three CRU or USB 3.0 Drives formatted as Linux EXT 3 that only has your DCP on it.
— A DCP uploaded to a cloud-based service such as Dropbox, Cinesend, Aspera or Google Drive. Many festivals are open to receiving downloads of DCPs.
— A backup high-quality 1080p Apple ProRes 422 file that can be put onto an ExFat-formatted drive and also hosted on a cloud-based service.
— A high-quality 1080p H264 .MP4 file with stereo sound designed for playback in online festivals and a small high-quality backup file that the festival can use.
— A couple of Blu-ray discs.
You should have a Blu-ray backup and a hard drive with every single DCP and file-based format on your person when going to your festival screening. Knock on wood, you’ll never have to use it, but you may end up saving your own screening. A lot of festivals will push back on requests for a tech check, but if you have any concerns, you are within your rights to ask for one. I would try to ask for a check some time before your screening, not right before they’re supposed to seat the house.
As always, I offer this caveat emptor: 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.
What about 16 or 35mm? If you can afford to strike prints, I would reach out to the festival in question and see whether its facility has the ability to do film playback. There seems to be a burgeoning celluloid revival intended to lure audiences back into theaters because, 10 years after the widespread adoption of DCP, people have begun to realize what they’ve lost. Experimental-minded festivals like Prismatic Ground are excited to play 16mm prints. Some recommended labs for making prints include Cinelab, Colorlab, CPC, Fotokem and Video and Film Solutions. There are also independent artist-run film labs, such as Negativeland in Brooklyn. For a full listing of artist labs, Film Lab is an incredible resource. Always send a digital backup for any analog prints in case of emergency situations. You’re also within your rights to verify that the team handling the prints are certified with AMIA (Association of Moving Image Archivists) or otherwise well-trained/union projectionists.
On the other end of experimental filmmaking, 3D projection seems to have been largely abandoned as venues switch to laser projectors. The 3D work by major filmmakers like Ken Jacobs and Bruce Nauman will be shut out of theatrical venues and relegated to galleries that can afford to equip and maintain 3D equipment.
Should you contract a post-production house to make your DCPs? Probably, but if you’re asking that question, you need to also ask yourself why you didn’t bring a post-production supervisor onto your team during pre-production—it’s always important to think about post as early as possible in your production process. Even if you are a low-budget filmmaker, it’s important to forge these connections. In New York and L.A. there are the usual big players, like Technicolor and Fotokem, but also boutique options like Irving Harvey and SimpleDCP. A lot of these post houses will work with you remotely. If you want to encrypt your film (so you can limit the time and place where the film plays), you should definitely enlist the support of a post-production facility that has 24-hour support. For the vast majority of filmmakers, however, encrypting your DCP with a KDM is unnecessary and makes your life, and those of the festival organizers, much harder.
DCP-o-matic is a great free program to create DCPs. If you use it for your film, please make sure to read the manual, test your DCP in a theater before sending it to a festival and also tip main author Carl Hetherington, who is unusually responsive to emails and has made everyone’s life much easier. The Wraptor plug-in for Premiere Pro initially created DCPs that were unplayable on GDC cinema servers upon release. Since then, it has improved substantially but still lacks the proper naming convention for DCPs and makes tech people generally paranoid about DCPs failing. It’s always better to export a high-quality exhibition copy from Premiere and use DCP-o-matic for the creation of your DCP.
Virtual festivals will need an H264 file, which you’ll already have because you’ve likely already uploaded a similar file to Vimeo for festival consideration. The usual standard for a 1080p file is an .MP4 H264 file between 10 and 20 Mbps (megabits per second) with stereo sound. Most virtual festival platforms do not support 4K or surround sound, so don’t even bother trying to upload that. (You can find more details on that aspect in the 2020 virtual festival guide.)
There are questions about the long-term relevance of virtual festivals. As a filmmaker, you are within your rights to limit the number of total streams and geolock your film to a specific region or city. I also believe you are fully within your rights to ask festivals to only screen your film in person. A lot of the benefits of screening at a film festival (networking, building community, personal satisfaction and the mutual stoking of egos) aren’t there with streaming festivals. Many festivals just see streaming as an extra way to raise revenue because, unless they choose to not overextend their staff, there aren’t really a lot of hard costs.
A positive development of the pandemic world is the widespread adoption of closed captioning and audio description for festival titles. In the past, festivals shrugged at NEA grant mandates that required festival films be accessible. Now, there are many festivals requiring that all films have at least closed captions and highly suggest a hearing-impaired audio channel and vision-impaired audio descriptions. There are many websites, such as Rev, that can quickly and cheaply ($1.50/min) created a timed caption file for your film. You should always double check your captions and proof them afterward, but it really does take care of the heavy lifting for a reasonable cost. There are some who suggest all films should be open-captioned to be able to ensure the maximum possible accessibility. While I agree this would greatly increase access, I do think it would have a net negative effect on the experience of watching a film. I’ve had many filmmakers shrug at me, saying the responsibility of providing accessibility files rests on distributors and until they find distribution, this isn’t their concern. I disagree and think this disregard comes off as lazy because the implementation is easy and relatively inexpensive.
The assisted-listening audio track is a mono audio track of your file that’s usually played back on headphones to help hard-of-hearing people with enhanced dialogue audio. The real costly and heavy lifting is the audio description track, where a narrator describes what is on screen. Because this narration is really more of what I’d consider to be an art than a science, it can get pretty expensive. Matchbox Cineclub has experience creating descriptive audio and subtitles for conventional and avant-garde films.
Film distributors made a deliberate choice more than a decade ago to force the shift to digital cinema. There was a widespread network of projectionists and support technicians, most of whom left the industry or retired because the entire projection booth had been automated, and their jobs were considered expendable. As long as parts continued to be manufactured, 35mm projectors had a lifespan measured in decades. The planned obsolescence of digital cinema projectors and associated technologies like 3D is a slowly ticking time bomb. Larger festivals like Sundance have insulated themselves from this issue by purchasing an immense array of projection equipment that regional festivals can’t afford. Most are ignoring this looming, slow-motion crisis. Filmmakers can choose to be proactive and be prepared to connect with audiences no matter the circumstances.
1. Most of the information in that initial article is still good and relevant if you want an in-depth explainer on DCPs, Codecs, etc.↩