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How to Deliver Your Film to a Festival

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

Note (May 2018): the updated version of this article can be found here.

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 (glad we could finally meet) 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.

First, you probably don’t have a costly 35mm print unless you’re Paul Thomas Anderson or someone of his ilk. If, however, you are independently wealthy, and you did strike a print, congratulations, but it probably won’t screen. Due to the digital cinema transition, most theaters pushed their 35mm projectors to the side or removed them completely. The only 35mm projectors left are reel-to-reel projectors, and they’re rare outside New York, L.A. and Chicago. Independent filmmaking and exhibition have gone mostly digital.

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. 

Until recently, the grande dame of festival formats was HDCAM, along with its standard definition cousin, Digibeta. There are many projectionists who still consider HDCAM to be the most stable format, and many larger festivals, such as Tribeca, have the infrastructure and the budgets to do temporary installs of HDCAM decks. But to buy, HDCAM decks cost as much as a semester of film school tuition — over $30,000. Daily rentals can start at $500 and easily hit $1,000 if the deck also needs to play back Digibeta. Most HDCAM venues will only support LTRT stereo mixes, but there will be some that support Dolby for 5.1 surround sound. If you can afford it and the festival accepts it, HDCAM — which remains a great archival format — is still an excellent option for getting your films to festivals.

More and more festivals today are accepting digital files, such as mp4 and .mov files. Many will stream them from actual computers or a specialty device such as a media player or a Ki Pro. 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 be noticed.

Two popular codecs for proper video playback are Apple ProRes format and Avid DNxHD codec. Both also create lossy compressed video, but usually of much higher quality that holds up on a large cinema screen. For proper projection, the most widely used and accessible is the Apple ProRes 422 family of codecs. If the festival is screening off files, they’ll probably want an Apple ProRes .mov file. 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, which creates a .mov file. 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.

Is your final file at 720p or even at standard resolution? Open up your NLE, create a 1080p sequence, upscale your file to 1080P and export a fresh copy for exhibition. Somewhere in the exhibition chain, it’s going to be transcoded to a higher-resolution HD format, if not by the festival, then by the projection equipment. Thus, it’s best to do it yourself so you have a better idea of what your film looks like on the big screen. If upscaling your film, you may want to redo your titles/subtitles just so they look crisp and not potentially pixelated.

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 surround sound audio files, check with the TD for a preferred audio map.

Depending on what equipment a festival is using, they may ask for different file formats or codecs. One of the more popular festival playback methods is through a Ki Pro recorder, which can also be used for high-quality video playback of QuickTime files. The Ki Pro also has a reputation for being very picky, and many festivals will specifically ask for the following precise specs: “Apple ProRes 422 (HQ recommend), 1920 x 1080, 48 kHz 24-bit audio, .mov wrapper.”

If you don’t submit that exact format, two things will happen: either the TD will have to covert 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.

As for sending your digital file to the 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.

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.

Blu-ray is another relatively cheap DIY option, but many festivals question their playback stability. Because it’s a consumer format, it gives projectionists and TDs heart palpitations when used as a primary exhibition format. Crashes and faulty disks can come anywhere, and many festivals will only accept Blu-rays as a backup option. Filmmakers should always send backup Blu-rays or DVDs and, if visiting the festival, keep one on their person.

Today, the DCP (Digital Cinema Package) has become the primary format for many festivals. The near universal transition at every theater has made the format ubiquitous. DeWitt Davis, TD of Miami International Film Festival and the Montclair Film Festival, writes in an email, “Both festivals I TD are switching to all or principally DCP. Miami made the decision to only accept DCPs last year or the year before. This year Montclair only had one theater that they were showing HDCAM in. Everything else had to be DCP.”

While complicated to make on your own, “home-brewed” DCPs are possible, and there are many tutorials on the Internet explaining how. If you have the money, though, you should definitely contact a professional posthouse, such as Deluxe Technicolor (who just merged their Digital Cinema divisions in April 2015). 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. (Full disclosure: I run a side business making DCPs for clients who are mostly based out of Louisiana.) 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). 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 their 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.

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. 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. There have been many a festival nightmare with copy protection, which is time sensitive 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.

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.

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 through New York, L.A. and Chicago.

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