2012 was a profound and often painful year in terms of the rapid technological change impacting the delivery and exhibition of independent film.
2012 was the year we wrapped our heads around the idea that there are virtually no more 35mm projectors in theatrical multiplexes, and that the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) has taken its throne as king – right alongside its wicked little stepchild, the BluRay.
2012 was the year it became clear that the delivery and exhibition formats we’ve been relying on for the last few years (especially HDCAMs) are no longer sufficient, and that in order to keep pace with the marketplace, we must now embrace the next round of digital evolution.
There are many filmmakers who will now want to stop reading, thinking “ughh, techie-nerd speak, that’s for my editor and post-supervisor to worry about.” You may believe you are first and foremost an artist and a storyteller, but in today’s world your paintbrushes are digital capturing devices, and your canvas is the wide array of digital delivery systems available to you. To shield yourself from the reality of how technological change will affect your final product is to face sobering and expensive complications later that will dramatically impact your ability to exhibit your film in today’s venues (including film festivals, theatres, and other public screening venues), as well as meet the needs of distributors and platforms worldwide.
And, so, for this New Year, I offer this “Guide to Exhibition & Delivery 2013,” a quasi-techie survival guide to the landscape of technological change in the foreseeable future, keeping in mind that this may all look very different again when we revisit this just a year from now…
What changed in 2012?
As 2012 began, major film festivals worldwide had largely coalesced around the HDCAM (despite slight but annoying differences in North American and European frame rates); and distributors and direct-to-consumer platforms were largely satisfied with HDCAM or Quicktime file-format deliveries, although varying platforms required different file specifications which could prove difficult for independent filmmakers to match (most notably iTunes). In addition, a large sector of the distribution landscape, including small film festivals, educational institutions (universities, museums, etc), and even small art house theaters remained content to screen on DVD and other standard-definition formats. The high-definition BluRay – with its beautiful image quality and powerful economic edge in terms of cost of production, shipping, and deck rental — was also emerging as an alternative to HDCAM, Digibeta, and DVD exhibition, despite the warnings by the techie/quality-control class that BluRays would be perilously unreliable in a live exhibition context.
But behind the scenes, the engine of the corporate machine driving studio film distribution was already fast at work driving top-down change. Finally, after years of financial impasse as to how to equip the theatrical network with digital projectors, the multinational Sony / Technicolor / Christie Digital / Cinedigms of the world had immersed themselves fully in the space and converted the North American multiplex system to a digital, file-based projection standard set by DCI LLC (a consortium of the major studios) – saving the studios immeasurably in print and shipping costs, as well as standardizing and upgrading image quality and providing additional security against piracy. This standardization as defined by the DCI studio consortium had already been growing in Europe for years before the North American market caught up, and became known worldwide as the DCP (Digital Cinema Package).
Once the largest technological and exhibition purveyors worldwide had made their move towards standardizing film exhibition, the writing was already on the wall, although it would take several more months to make its impact fully felt in the independent world.
What is a DCP?
A Digital Cinema Package (DCP) is a collection of digital files used to store and convey digital cinema audio, image, and data streams. General practice adopts a file structure that is organized into a number of Material eXchange Format (MXF) files, which are separately used to store audio and video streams, and auxiliary index files in XML format. The MXF files contain streams that are compressed, encoded, and (usually) encrypted, in order to reduce the huge amount of required storage and to protect from unauthorized use (if desired). The image part is JPEG 2000 compressed, whereas the audio part is linear PCM. The (optional) adopted encryption standard is AES 128 bit in CBC mode.
The most common DCP delivery method uses a specialty hard disk (most commonly the CRU DX115) designed specifically for digital cinema servers to ingest the files. These hard drives were originally designed for military use but have since been adopted by digital cinema for their hard wearing and reliable characteristics. The hard drives are usually formatted in the Linux EXT2 or EXT3 format as D-Cinema servers are typically Linux based and are required to have read support for these file systems.
Hard drive units are normally hired from a digital cinema encoding company, sometimes (in the case of studios pictures) in quantities of thousands. The drives are delivered via express courier to the exhibition site. Other, less common, methods adopt a full digital delivery, using either dedicated satellite links or high speed Internet connections.
In order to protect against the piracy fears that often surround digital distribution, DCP typically apply AES encryption to all MXF files. The encryption keys are generated and transmitted via a KDM (Key Delivery Message) to the projection site. KDMs are XML files containing encryption keys that can be used only by the destination device. A KDM is associated to each playlist and defines the start and stop times of validity for the projection of that particular feature.
As a result of all the standardized formatting and encryption features, the DCP offers a quality product generally considered to be superior to 35mm (while simultaneously conforming to the beloved 24 fps rate of 35mm), and a product that can theoretically be shared around the world with less variables and greater reliability than most formats (since 35mm) to date. Given the confusing array of formats facing filmmakers in recent years, there are many ways that the DCP revolution seems a singular advancement worth applauding, and at least on the surface, as a clear way forward for film exhibition and delivery for years to come.
So what’s wrong with that?… DCP survival for independents.
Before running out to master your film on DCP now, it is important to consider at least the following mitigating factors, 1) the utility of the format, 2) the price of DCP (including the hidden costs), and 3) the newness of the format and the inherent dangers associated with new formats, and 4) the ways that DCP will not save you from the usual headaches of delivery, and is in many ways an existential threat to independent film distribution as we currently know it.
With regards to the utility of DCP, remember that it is currently a cinema exhibition product, not a format that will be useful for delivery to distributors, consumer-facing platforms, DVD replicators etc. So, obviously you must be quite sure that you have actually made a theatrical film, and by this I mean theatrical in the broadest sense possible…i.e. will your film actually find life in cinematic venues including top film festivals etc. Following the industry at large, film festivals around the globe are in hyper-drive to convert to DCP as their preferred or even exclusive format. Going into the film festival circuit in 2013 and forward in any mainstream/meaningful way without a DCP…especially for narrative features….will be challenging to say the least (although likely still doable if you are willing to forfeit some bookings and some quality controls). But if you aren’t sure yet if your film will actually command significant public exhibition at major festivals and theatrical venues, you probably shouldn’t dive into the pool just yet.
Not surprisingly, the largest concern to independents is the issue of price. While nowhere near to the old cost of 35mm, DCP does represent a significant increase in mastering cost over HDCAM, Digibeta etc. In researching this article, most labs quoted me a rate of approx. $2,000 for a ninety minute feature, plus additional costs for the specialty hard drives and cables etc. that put the total closer to $2,500 +. As is the case with most digital products, however, it appears the costs are already headed downward as more and more independent labs get into the space, and it seems reasonable to assume that the price-conscious shopper should be able to find $1,500 and even $1,000 DCPs in the near future (especially with in-house lab deals working for specific distribution companies).
Following the initial mastering costs, the files can be replicated onto additional custom hard drives for prices in the range of $300 – $400, which is at least relatively commensurate with HDCAM replication. This replication process is controversial however — there is no doubt that one can decide to skirt this cost by transferring the files to standard over-the-counter hard drives that run in the range of $100 (we have already distributed one film theatrically and successfully using standard, low-price hard drives). But many labs and exhibitors will warn you against this, telling you that using non-custom hard drives and cables increase the chance that the server at the venue will not be able read the files, and therefore unable to ingest and project the film when it counts most.
In fact, to avoid these potential compatibility issues with differing hard drives, cables etc, some exhibitors (most notably Landmark) are requiring distributors and filmmakers to use specific labs who encode all their content, which perilously puts the modes of production in the hands of the few, and may ultimately keep the cost artificially high. And while indeed there are many reasons to fear compatibility issues between DCP and server (I have already heard of/attended numerous screenings cancelled or delayed in 2012 due to DCP compatibility issues), it is in fact this level of lab and exhibitor control over the product that makes me very nervous about the future of DCP in the independent distribution space.
The most dramatic example of the DCP “threat” to indie distribution is the emergence of the onerous VPF (Virtual Projection Fee) that is now being applied at many (if not most) mainstream theatrical venues (including art house chains like Landmark). The VPF is an $800 – $1,000 per screen fee that is added to the distributor or DIY filmmaker’s distribution costs, either leveraged against the film rental or added as a an additional cost to the four-wall. This fee may go down after 20 or so screens, or in a films 3rd or 4th week of adding cities, but otherwise it is largely a fixed fee tacked against the already low profits of most independent theatricals today.
The reason for the fee stems from the fact that the projection companies mentioned earlier (Sony, Christie Digital, etc.) in fact financed the introduction of the digital projectors into the theaters, so the VPF fees largely go towards the recoupment of their investments. But, even once these initial investments have been paid off, it is likely that the VPF will continue as a valuable money-maker for the tech companies, and is not likely to disappear any time soon. And in this age where the financial model of independent theatrical distribution hangs so perilously on a knife’s edge anyway, the VPF almost feels like a coup-de-grace dooming small theatrical releases from the get-go.
Another troublesome aspect of DCP distribution is the very encryption technology that was meant to make the product safer from piracy, but also adds an additional level of bureaucracy and cost that most independents cannot realistically afford. The encryption keys (known as KDMs) are controlled entirely by large labs like Technicolor, and are transferred directly from companies like Technicolor to specific theaters within specific venues for limited windows of time. Anyone who has been involved with the free-wheeling nature of independent distribution knows that relying on large labs for print trafficking and shepherding is expensive and time-consuming, and cuts deeply into already marginal profits. And if you are creating DCPs for film festival distribution, the very idea that a single theater in a far-flung locale must rely on a 3rd party lab to get a specific KDM code for its screenings seems akin to courting disaster to me. Indeed, I know several independent festivals that are not accepting DCPs at this point, simply because they refuse to subject themselves to the whims of the studio KDMs.
For the above reasons and more, I’ve encountered several Industry folks who have been so blunt as to tell me, “DCPs were invented to put independents out of business.”
While I’m not quite ready to go there, I will add that the most pernicious aspect of DCP introduction into the market in my opinion is the way that they are already creating a new two-tier distribution market between those larger festivals and venues that can afford DCP projection and those mid-sized and smaller than cannot and perhaps never will be (given the prohibitive cost of the projector technology). As such, DCP does not replace the HDCAMs, Digibetas etc of old, it is rather an additional format that independents must contend with – good in some situations, useless in others – and yet an additional cost to add to your contemporary distribution budget.
As a result of the emerging two-tiered system; with DCP for the better-funded venues and alternatives for the smaller, less-funded; there remains a gaping hole in the contemporary exhibition system which is increasingly filled by the most seductive and problematic format available to independent filmmakers today – and by that of course I mean the BluRay.
The bastard step-child, the BluRay.
Yes I used the word bastard deliberately and with purpose, because the BluRay is the most enticing and simultaneously cruel of the contemporary exhibition/delivery formats.
For independent filmmakers and exhibitors (including theaters, festivals, and other venues) alike, the BluRay seems at first glance an ideal option – inexpensive to produce and inexpensive to ship – to go along with inexpensive players and projectors that can be bought at consumer-level prices. And the quality of both image and sound is usually shockingly good – usually commensurate with the best HDCAM ever had to offer.
Back up DVD is often needed to replace a faulty BluRay.
As such, the economics of film exhibition have lead to an explosion of BluRay use in 2012, with the format beginning the year as an enticing alternative but quickly emerging as the mainstay of mid-to small size venues in both North America and Europe. But just as quickly as BluRay has emerged, a truism about today’s BluRay technology has become painfully clear – it exists at consumer-level pricing because it is not a professional product – and its failure rate in live exhibition context is dangerously (if not outright unacceptably) high.
Consider the following: In recent years prior to 2012, it was nearly unheard of that a booking at a theater or festival should need to be cancelled or delayed due to exhibition format failure…because formats like 35mm or BetaSP or Digibeta or HDCAM were nothing if not reliable. But suddenly in 2012, the cancelled screening, or the delay mid-screening, or the skipping and freezing of a disc mid-screening became commonplace. To our dismay, it has become normal in 2012 to stop a screening mid-stream for a few moments to switch to a back-up DVD to replace a faulty BluRay. In our haste to transform to the miracles that BluRays seemed to afford us, a variable of chaos and unreliability has been introduced…and as yet there are no easy answers to this conundrum anywhere in sight.
There are numerous factors that account for BluRay unreliability – too many in fact to list in their entirety in this posting. There are many compression issues – resulting in variable gigbyte-per-layer Blurays from 25GB per layer to dual layer to triple layer to quadruple layer discs etc. These are profoundly complicated by player-compatibilty issues – meaning that many BluRays that play perfectly in one player will not even load in another. There are also significant regional differences between BluRay formats – similar but even more complicated than the old PAL vs. NTSC coding schemes. Layer onto this the fact that BluRays are fragile and scratch easily and do not traffic well and are easily lost, and we have arrived upon a formula for delivery chaos, to say the least.
As of today, as we go to print on this post, an uneasy truce on the proper protocol of BluRay delivery seems to be emerging Industry wide…for the moment at least. If you are going to screen your film on BluRay, you must provide at least a DVD back-up in case something goes wrong. Ideally, you should provide 2 BluRays, each of which have been tested, and a DVD back up as well. You still might experience screenings where your film will be stopped mid-stream, and replaced by one of the back-ups, but at least you won’t likely face the humiliation of a fully cancelled screening.
It’s hard to call this progress….but for the moment this is the price we are paying for digital evolution. The irony is…if BluRays were just a little cheaper than they currently are (generally somewhere between $10 – $40 each following an initial $300 – $500 investment), we might all dispense with attempting to traffic them completely, and just provide pristine BluRays for each screening (with somewhat less propensity for failure). This might solve some of the trafficking and delicacy issues, but this does not seem realistic for most filmmakers just yet, especially as so many other factors still come to bear. To be clear, the issues of BluRay unreliability are far more complex than just scratches and trafficking issues, so providing pristine BluRays to each booking will not solve all the issues, and DVD backup will still be necessary for the foreseeable future.
The further irony here is that DVDs, long since seen as less reliable although in all other ways preferable over the old VHS format, have now become the stalwart back-up to the BluRay…for even the traditional 5% failure rate for the DVDR format have become models of reliability as compared with the mercurial nature of the contemporary BluRay. Thankfully, today’s DVDs rarely fail in a pinch…
Where do we go from here?
When finishing a film in early 2013, filmmakers are now faced with the question of what delivery formats to create to meet delivery and exhibition demands. However, given the volatility of the current delivery landscape, it may be actually best to NOT commit to any particular exhibition format, and instead finish your film in a digital (hard-drive) format that you can keep as a master at a trusted lab for future needs down the road. It is advisable to have your film in the most flexible format possible, until you are forced by circumstance to deliver a specific format for a specific purpose.
The most flexible and useful format to initiate most exhibition/delivery formats at the moment is the Apple ProRes 422 digital file. Apple ProRes is a line of intermediate codecs, which means they are intended for use during video editing, and not for practical end-user viewing. The benefit of an intermediate codec is that it retains higher quality than end-user codecs while still requiring much less expensive disk systems compared to uncompressed video. It is comparable to Avid’s DNxHD codec or CineForm who offer similar bitrates which are also intended to be used as intermediate codecs. ProRes 422 is a DCT based intra-frame-only codec and is therefore simpler to decode than distribution-oriented formats like H.264.
From your ProRes 422 file, you will be able to make any format you need for today’s distribution landscape….from DCPs and BluRays to HDCAMs and any digital files you may need for platform distribution worldwide. This makes it ideal as an intermediary format as you consider your next steps forward.
In 2013, the needs of your exhibition formats and delivery formats will likely be determined by how successful your film turns out to be. If your film turns out to be truly theatrical, you will likely need a combination of DCPs and HDCAMs and BluRays to meet the demands. But if your film turns out to have limited public exhibition applications, then perhaps a mix of BluRays, DVDs, and digital files may be all you need. Rather than make those decisions in advance, we recommend you pursue a delivery strategy that lets the marketplace make those decisions for you.
In 2013, these delivery strategies will be impacted by the rate of technological development, just as they were in 2012. For the time being, it seems to wisest to counsel that we not get ahead of ourselves, and deliver films as a ProRes 422 file available for quick turnaround at a trusted lab with multi-format output capacity. From there, we can be assured of the ability to take our opportunities whenever and wherever they may lead us.