The filmless film festival

Ten years ago it was still unthinkable that a film festival could be held without analogue films. Today, the ratio of digital projections at feature film festivals is already between 60 to 80% of the programme – and growing! The switchover has happened even faster at short film festivals. Hardly any 35mm celluloid prints can be found in competitions these days, and what was once the classic carrier for independently produced short films, the 16mm film, has completely disappeared from the scene.

In particular short film festivals all over the world must therefore now adjust their programmes to the requirements of digital projection. This change has far-reaching consequences. Although digital films have already been around for quite some time, the switchover seems to have caught many festivals unawares. At least, that’s the impression one gets when looking at festival regulations and the entry fields on submission forms. Each festival seems to be pursuing its own strategy for dealing with the digital age. Filmmakers are of course equally affected by the unclear situation. In reply to the question of what the standard is for digital projection at festivals, the only possible answer is: There is none!

Double bind: film festivals and cinema
Film festivals need cinemas. Without movie theatres, film festivals have no suitable venues. The cost of installing projection technology, screens and auditoriums for the temporary screening of films in other buildings would be far too high. Festivals are therefore dependent on cinemas. But even cinemas are struggling these days with digital technology, and few are thoroughly equipped to handle the somewhat different needs of film festivals. This applies in particular to short film festivals.

Many cinemas have yet to go digital, and often the very theatres that have an ambience suitable for holding a festival are today facing major problems. Multiplex cinemas have made the most progress with digitization. They have a universal standard, namely the screening of Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs) in 4K resolution in accordance with the DCI norm. Unfortunately, this happens to be the format that is the least common in the short film sector at the moment.

Another problem is that most cinemas get rid of their 35mm projectors when they convert to digital – either due to space limitations or simply because they don’t need them anymore. Film festivals by contrast will still be using analogue films in supporting programmes or retrospectives for a long time to come. Festival cinemas must therefore be hybrid or must have additional equipment on hand for the respective festival period.

Even analogue videos cannot readily be screened at cinemas with digital projection equipment. The new digital projectors have completely different specifications regarding colour spaces, image format and frequencies – if they still have analogue interfaces at all.

But format problems are nothing new. For example, commercial cinemas have never been equipped with 16mm projectors. In the 1980s, video formats then came onto the scene, which likewise could not be screened in conventional cinemas without special technical provisions. Today, the wide variety of digital formats in circulation call for much more elaborate extra technical equipment. This is a major financial hurdle for many smaller festivals.

The ideal solution would be for film festivals and cultural film theatres to completely detach themselves from commercial cinema operations. This would however require sufficient funding to allow non-commercial, art-house cinemas to offer and maintain in parallel the hybrid projection and screening technologies common in the independent sector.
Divergent formats for film submissions versus festival screening

Before a film makes it to the big screen of a festival cinema, it must first be previewed and selected. Most short film festivals require a DVD or upload to a submission platform for this purpose – or at least the DVD has largely become standard as preview format. Some festivals also accept submissions on Blu-ray disc.

Very few film festivals still accept submissions in the form of analogue prints (with the exception of the short film competition at the Berlinale). Even Cannes now demands that short films be on DVD. Nearly all short film festivals allow DVDs in addition to digital submission.

DVDs are in the meantime a reliable preview format. This was not always the case. In the early days, it could be expected that every tenth preview DVD would not run correctly – usually because it wasn’t mastered correctly and occasionally for mechanical reasons such as scratches or incorrectly glued labels. DVD-ROMs with film files are troublesome for festival previews as they are not recognized by most hardware players and have to be played instead using software players on computers.
A third format for video libraries

All of the larger short film festivals offer industry visitors the opportunity to preview films at video libraries or film markets. Before the digital era, the films would be made available on VHS cassette or DVD. Because that means that there is only one copy of each title, leading to greater handling effort and queues, almost all festivals have changed over to making the films available on servers. This is relatively uncomplicated, if the films are already submitted digitally via a submission platform. If there are any preview DVDs, however, they must be converted. Because the reverse route, burning files on DVD, would require even more effort, the DVD is probably only a transitional format for short film festivals.

More and more festivals are therefore recommending strongly that entries be submitted not on DVD but rather via their digital partner platforms (Clermont-Ferrand and Sí£o Paulo, for example, whichwork with It is only a matter of time before the submission format is digital only. The norms and standards are defined by the respective submission platforms “” most of which offer compatibility conversion as a paid service. Submission platforms as well as festivals’ own upload servers usually limit file size (to 2 to 5 GB), which for longer films means making compromises with regard to compression.

Smooth access to film files on servers requires fast network connections with high bandwidth. This can be problematic in non-urban locations if the network provider does not supply adequate service to outlying regions. Festival organizers, who often work in temporarily rented rooms, have to take this into consideration and conduct test runs. Instead of accessing the servers of the submission platforms, which are often outsourced somewhere else, e.g. at Amazon in the USA, some festivals are starting to provide copies on their own servers in local area networks instead.
Differing standards for digital film submissions

Only a few short film festivals indicate exact technical specifications for digital submissions, and these specs unfortunately differ from festival to festival – making things difficult for filmmakers! There are large overlaps only in the container formats accepted. MPEG4 is the common denominator at most festivals. Some festivals accept or even require MOV files, which are not playable at many other festivals or by digital cinema film servers. The most commonly required compression standard is the H.264 codec, followed by ProRes 422 HQ. A source of aggravation (for filmmakers) is that the recommended bit rates vary greatly. If the bit rate is too high for a particular device, playback may be jerky. A magic limit seems to be 2000 KBit/s. Smaller festivals usually require bit rates lower than 2000, while larger festivals (Berlinale, Rotterdam) recommend at least 2000 or 3000 KBit/s.

Requirements differ with regard to audio formats as well, which in the case of preview copies is not as serious a problem as compliance with the regulations for image format. What is critical, however, is the format of the subtitles and the question of whether subtitles may or may not be embedded (hard or softsubbing). As far as resolution is concerned, HD 1080 p is most common for previews.
Screening formats

In addition to analogue film formats, the video tape formats beta (analogue and digital), DV and HDCAM are still common. DV and HDCAM are on the decline, and are converted into files by some festivals.

The major short film festivals and most festivals in countries with a high degree of digitization (e.g. France, Norway, UK, USA) accept DCPs, but also film files, under certain conditions. Medium and small festivals are usually less precise or explicit regarding film files, from which it can be concluded that they use streaming media players. Some festivals accept Blu-ray discs as preview medium (e.g. Alcala de Henares, Krakow, Tampere). DVDs are in general not allowed for the competition programmes at the larger festivals. One exception is the Hamburg International Short Film Festival, which is incidentally also one of the few festivals to allow even MiniDV tapes.

As regards the accepted DCP formats, not many festivals offer any information about their specifications – as if there were no differences! Some festivals at least indicate the required codec (JPEG2000 for Cannes, for example). Only the Berlinale publishes its own data sheet with very detailed information on its projection technology. Rotterdam is likewise strict with regard to DCPs and notes its specifications directly in the regulations (DCI standard), even requiring a specific type of hard drive and a particular drive format (Linux Ext2/Ext3). Venice and the Sundance Festival also require the 4K DCI standard for DCPs.

The festivals that do not indicate the formats they can play will likely face problems at the preparation stage. Their projectionists will have to devote a great deal of effort to making sure all submitted formats can be screened.

Festivals that do not have film servers in every theatre – such as Clermont-Ferrand – require a film file in addition to each DCP for every film.

Short film festivals are fortunately spared the nightmares caused by encrypted movies with KDMs at feature film festivals.

Today, nearly all short film festivals accept film files as a screening medium. As with the standards for the preview films, Apple ProRes 422 HG or H.264 are almost always accepted for festival screenings.


Festival strategies for dealing with digital films

Back when video was introduced, film festivals already began encountering problems that could not be resolved by strict regulations alone. As with analogue film, festivals could theoretically have given filmmakers a choice of one or two formats as acceptable screening standard. But this would already have led in the days of analogue film and video to the undesirable effect of limiting the playing field to certain segments of participants, or even excluding entire countries. One method for solving the problem was to copy all videos in a competition programme onto a single carrier. This was practised for a time by the European Media Art Festival in Osnabrück, Germany, for example, which copied all the films in a programme onto a DV tape – enormously easing the workload for the projectionists!

Compilation is a particularly good solution for presenting short-film programmes with up to ten titles, and at worst just as many carrier media and formats, in a fluid programme block. However, the effort required in advance of the festival is then all the greater, which is not least also a cost factor.

Major festivals like the Berlinale convert and compress all of the video tape formats submitted into MXF files, checking and converting all the digital film files received in order to store them on large servers. The Rotterdam Film Festival takes a similar route, including with regard to the technology used. For the 2012 festival, all the tape-based films were for the first time converted to a uniform format and compressed as DCPs on central digital video servers.

Short film festivals that can’t afford the costs entailed by such processes likewise adopt different strategies for unifying the projection or at least reducing the number of carrier media and formats. More than full HD is however not possible.

The least expensive solution is to transfer the files received to a so-called streaming media player. The advantages are the low price (approx. 200 euros) and the great tolerance with respect to different container formats and codecs. The small boxes can even handle exotic formats such as MKV files – popular due to their multiple subtitling options – and deliver them without difficulty to digital projectors in full HD via a HDMI connection.

Disadvantages of this solution are the low hard-drive capacities, the low durability of the players’ housing and mechanics, as well as their tendency to overheat. The maximum possible bit rates are very low (less than a Blu-ray). Operating a streaming media player is not very convenient, but it does allow for the creation of playlists, a very useful tool for compiling short-film programmes. Another drawback is that the icons of the navigation menu are usually projected onto the screen when the film starts. This can be prevented through manipulation, a trick used by Interfilm Berlin and, borrowing from its example, the Hamburg Short Film Festival.

The second possibility is the use of computers – if necessary, even laptops. Here, however, the operating system normally limits the type of hard drive from which copies can be made and which file formats can be played. Moreover, the quality depends on the power of the graphics card. The use of MacBooks has become common (e.g. as alternative playback device at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen). As Apple is however increasingly opting to support only its own standards, these computers have to be given a helping hand by way of third-party software and plug-ins.

Most digital film servers are downward-compatible and can also play film files far below the DCI standard. But the selection of container formats and codecs is severely limited. The codecs JPEG2000 and MPEG4 are typically possible, as well as the containers mp4 and AVI. The achievable bit rates are nearly unlimited, though.
Tips for film festival organizers

The technical specifications for digital projection at the festival venue should be published as part of the submission regulations. This includes information on the data carriers that are accepted and how they should be formatted, the playable container formats and codecs, minimum and maximum image resolution, minimum and maximum bit rates, the audio system, and an indication of which playback devices are available.

Earlier submission dates (than for film/video) should be set for digital files of films that will be shown during the festival. All digital files should be checked on the equipment on which they are going to be played and converted for compatibility if necessary. For this purpose, much more personnel should be planned for film copy management than used to be necessary – instead of muscle power, IT skills are what’s needed today.

Compiling all digital films for a particular screening programme on a single data carrier and entering them in a playlist on the playback system can prevent stress and facilitate smooth projection during the festival. Too many playback systems deployed in parallel are liable to cause problems during a screening. The choice of a single playback system is ideal, but this requires all files to first be converted into the relevant standard.
Tips for filmmakers

Since there is no digital standard format, it might be necessary to make a dedicated preview copy for each festival screening.

DCPs can be mastered using a do-it-yourself method, but this is not recommended for the time being. A great deal of technical knowledge is required and processing times are very long when using standard computers. The costs for professional software are high and only worth it when the application is to be used on a large scale. The application easyDCP Creator from the Fraunhofer Institute, which is today in widespread use in Germany, costs more than 2,000 euros. A large portion of the price is due to the license for the commercial codec JPEG2000.

Open source programs are still in development and accordingly complicated to use, particularly because they have only rudimentary graphic user interfaces, if any at all. Controlling processes via command line requires additional computer language skills.

But the biggest problem of all is quality control after creating a DCP. Although playback software for computers is available for 2K DCPs (not for 4K), it costs an additional 1,000 euros or more and can’t replace a test on a film server at the cinema. DCPs in 2K resolution are sufficient for short films, because the 4K systems in large cinemas are downward-compatible, and many smaller theatres have servers and projectors that can’t play more than 2K anyway.

A good alternative is theoretically the production of a Blu-ray disc, if accepted as screening format by the festival in question. The films can then be projected in full HD 1920x1080p, which is sufficient in particular on smaller screens. Using the corresponding software, mastering and burning are inexpensive and uncomplicated, or can even be done directly from the editing program. The discs are in addition easy to handle in terms of playback, archiving, shipping, etc. There is one problem with Blu-rays, in fact: they do not reliably deliver the same picture and colour quality on every projector.

When creating film files for playback on computers or media players, it is important to first find out the festival’s specifications (see above) and to comply with them. As with DCPs, it’s a good idea to do a realistic test of the finished product – using at the least a digital projector and preferably at a cinema. Good luck!

Typical specification information

Do-it-yourself links

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