When the picture is locked, the color is timed and the sound is mixed, every filmmaker’s favorite process begins: festival deliverables. Whether you’re headed to Venice, Toronto or Telluride or maybe you’re getting the jump on Sundance, ‘tis the season for prepping the screening copy of your film.
We spoke with Amiel Morris, Film Traffic Manager for the Los Angeles Film Festival, AFI Fest and Palm Springs International Film Festival, among others, and he gave us eight steps every filmmaker needs to take as they prepare their films for festivals.
Make a DCP, but don’t do it yourself
In his 15 years coordinating print traffic for major festivals, Morris has seen formats change from almost entirely 35mm film to almost entirely digital. He said most of that shift has taken place in the last three years. At this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, only one 35mm print was screened.
While HDCAM tapes had their moment, the DCP—or Digital Cinema Package, with its superior picture quality and relatively low cost—has quickly gained supremacy as the primary screening format for theatrical releases. And that’s what most festivals require.
Morris said DCP-specific labs charge between $5 and $20 per minute of movie to make a DCP. He said many filmmakers are often tempted by free online programs that teach them how to make a DCP themselves. Morris recommends against such programs.
“We had a disaster two years ago where the filmmakers insisted on doing it themselves,” said Morris. “They made a rough version of a cut they didn’t want to show a few days early to see if it worked, and it worked at the theater. But on the day of the screening, they delivered a second version and it would not play. And it was a big fiasco. They had to show a Blu-ray and it took a long time to prepare.”
Make sure the drive is formatted correctly
Another problem that Morris sees frequently—and which also stems from filmmakers making their own DCPs—is that films are delivered on drives that are improperly formatted.
“A hard drive for DCP must be either formatted to Linux EXT 2 or EXT 3 or Microsoft NTFS,” said Morris. “And a problem that occurred several times this year and last year is that the hard drive itself was formatted to Mac because so many filmmakers have Macs.”
Morris said DCPs must also be packaged so that they are DCI-compliant [http://www.dcimovies.com/specification/index.html], another reason to leave the DCP-making to a professional.
Quality check; it’s worth it
At one festival this past year, a glitch in the DCP at a particular moment about 11 minutes into a film caused the sound to go out of synch. Morris said the festival’s technical staff had done their routine quality check of the film, watching brief moments at the beginning, middle and end of the picture, but skipped over the specific moment where the glitch arose.
The filmmakers ordered a switch to a Blu-ray backup, but the technical team had to connect a new player and the projector wasn’t optimized to work with Blu-ray. One channel of sound dropped out, and there was a buzz that required extensive troubleshooting.
“It was an embarrassment,” said Morris. “And there was a lot of pressure in the booth. It was problematic to do that one on the fly. There’s three people yelling at you and the audience is waiting for it to be fixed.”
Morris said it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to deliver content that performs well all the way through.
“A lot of the times [filmmakers] leave the lab with their product when they haven’t actually played the thing through. Because that would mean they have to pay for another whole session to watch the film output.”
Morris said it would be great if the technical staff of each festival had the time to watch every film end-to-end before each screening, but the narrow window of access to theater, combined with the volume of films each festival screens, prevents that possibility.
Keep it simple: deliver only one version if possible and label it well
Another problem that Morris saw this past year was a non-English language short film playing without subtitles for an English-speaking audience. In this case, Morris said it was a projection error, since there were two clearly-labeled versions (one with subtitles, one without) on the drive. But it serves as a good reminder to filmmakers that any time they can eliminate confusion, they should.
Make sure the files are named correctly. (Again, DCI has a standard. [http://www.dcimovies.com/specification/index.html]) Deliver only one version, if possible. And, when sending DVDs or Blu-rays to festivals outside your native territory, remember to check if their video standard is PAL or NTSC. Not all festival screens are equipped with all-region players.
Meet festivals’ deadlines
Morris said that at this past LA Film Fest, the festival required a screenable copy of the film 48 hours prior and refused to accept any film the day of the screening. “Something they deliver may not play,” said Morris. “And we need that two days to get a corrected version.”
Morris said most festivals require filmmakers to deliver their final versions far longer in advance and they all have reasons for their demands. If you want your film to play to its optimum potential, don’t test them.
Prepare multiple backups
Each festival has their own requirements for what they’ll accept in terms of a backup screener, and their own set of reasons why. To be safe, Morris said it’s good to have HDCAM, Blu-ray, and Quicktime files of your project ready to send at a moment’s notice.
To encrypt or not to encrypt
DCPs have the possibility of being encrypted or non-encrypted. Encryption prevents unauthorized screening of the film, and is the standard practice for Hollywood studio films. But Morris said he sees two major downsides to encrypting your film for festival use.
“One, sometimes the lab needs to charge you for making the key, and often times festivals have several screens, all on different servers that would all require their own keys. And if they’re charging $15-25 every key, then someone’s paying 100 extra dollars just to screen the film.” Morris said AFI Fest is one of the many festivals that refuse to pay filmmakers’ KDM (Key Delivery Message) fees.
The second problem with encryption, according to Morris, is that the keys don’t always work. “Often they are made for the wrong server. Or sometimes the theater will have an update and didn’t even know to record that their server number had changed and that the key needed to be remade for the new server.”
For these reasons, Morris recommends making a non-encrypted DCP. “It’s a security and copyright issue for [the filmmakers], but the fact is film festivals are not interested in copying somebody’s film. They are dependent on the filmmakers, and the people working film festival projection rooms have no time and no interest in making a copy.”
Be ready to forgive; errors can always happen
Even though it’s their job not to, film festival technical staff members sometimes make mistakes.
“It can always happen at a film festival because there’s just so much content,” said Morris. “These people often start two days prior to screenings and they just start going, and if they’re really good at their job, they catch these things, but sometimes they make an error.”
Morris said the goal is always perfect presentation, but when the overwhelming quantity of films is combined with limited advance access to screening facilities and the fickle nature of technology, mistakes can happen.
“There are always two or three [screenings] that are really problematic,” said Morris. “When you’re in that booth and you know there’s a problem onscreen, it’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. But if everyone on the filmmaker side is doing their best, and the festival is trying their best to get it tested in time and prepared, then you should have a successful screening.”
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger