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Techniques for Independent Production
The challenges of creating Digital Cinema and other narrative forms.


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Old March 1st, 2010, 04:09 PM   #1
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Tips for digital delivery of your finished work

After working many years editing film festivals and preparing video for digital distribution, I've seen every mistake when it comes to delivering finished works to festivals and other non-broadcast outlets. This last festival I compiled had just enough pointless delivery mistakes to inspire me to post this modest guide.

TAPE MASTERS - Always try to have several tape masters of your work in several formats. Try for the best format you can afford as the ultimate master be it DVCam, DigiBeta, HDCam, DVCProHD or HDCamSR. Never consider a DVD or a BluRay as a master. They are for distribution but not masters unless it's absolutely unavoidable. BetaSP should no longer be considered for masters.

DIGITAL BACKUP - Always back up your master edit as a single self-contained video file on a hard drive at the very least in the codec you edited it in. This file can be used to make a new tape master at a later date or sent to an encoding house for digital cinema. If your project is a short you can burn the file to a data DVD if the festival can use it.

16:9 PROJECTS - If your project is in 16:9 make sure that it's available in at least anamorphic SD 16:9 in addition to letterbox. Most screening houses are 16:9 now and they don't have the ability to zoom in on letterboxed SD video especially in a mixed program. I can't tell you how many times I end up using the DVD screener of a short instead of the DigiBeta only because the DigiBeta is letterboxed and the producer never made 16:9 versions and the digital files are now unavailable. A number of smart producers now include anamorphic and letterboxed versions of their shorts on the same distribution tapes.

PAL/NTSC/24p - While everyone can pretty much transcode these formats these days, you might find it best to provide your own transcode that you have seen and approved. This is especially important for shorts as these are frequently edited together into a larger program that usually defaults to the local TV standard. Features can be safely left in their original formats unless there are specific screening requirements.

SUBTITLES - If you are distributing internationally strongly consider making hard subbed versions of your film. Once again often I end up using screener DVDs because that is the only place to find appropriate subtitles.

DVDs and BLURAY - BluRay is not yet a workable distribution format so unless the festival specifically requests BluRay, don't send it. When making a DVD screener, there's always the chance that it might end up being the actual copy used at the screening. Use the highest quality setting your DVD burning programs allow (best settings, 2-pass, etc.). Never create a letterboxed version of a 16:9 project for DVD distribution. All DVD players do an excellent job of letterboxing 16:9 content if needed.

DOWNLOADABLE VERSIONS - If possible, make available downloadable high quality versions of your project. This is in case your tape is damaged or lost in shipping. Shorts are easy to do this with, features may present a size problem. HD projects can be in h.264 but be sure that the encoded files are up to your standards. Some images just don't encode well to h.264.

AUDIO - If possible do a final mix with a quality sound system (not headphones or cheap desk monitors) just so certain sound effects or vocal tracks are not too loud or soft. Every screening theater has a different sound system and physical shape so it's hard to predict what might suddenly become too loud but a careful once over should reduce any possible sound abnormalities. I can't tell you how many shorts I've had to adjust the title/credit music as it was much louder than the rest of the film.

CREDITS - Everyone deserves their credit but I encountered two egregious problems over the years. One problem, the credits are way too small to see especially after being transcoded from PAL to NTSC or visa-versa or up-resed from SD. Remember that HD is a lower resolution than film so while it might give your digital project that movie look it might just end up a murky mess of unreadable words. Consider a larger font or even better make a separate timeline for your PAL/NTSC, HD/SD transcodes minus the credits and redo the credits in that format there. All pro TV shows do this for international distribution. The second problem is more of an aesthetic programming issue. I can't tell you how many 5 minute or less shorts I've seen that have 20% or more of the running time taken up by a slow boring credit roll. While this might be fine when the film stands alone you can't imagine what this does to the audience during a program of collected shorts. For shorts try to keep the credits under 10% of the total running time and no longer than 1 minute and 15 seconds unless you are doing something creative with the credits. I've seen some great credit rolls that continue to entertain the audience just with a set of photos or drawings.

Good luck with your projects. Being prepared makes everyone's life easier and makes sure that your hard work looks good on the screen.
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Last edited by William Hohauser; March 2nd, 2010 at 12:20 PM. Reason: Forgot an important tip!
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Old March 1st, 2010, 07:17 PM   #2
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Thank you William, great tips. How I wish I'd been able to read this 3 years ago!
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Old March 2nd, 2010, 12:24 PM   #3
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You are welcome. I forgot something so it has been updated.
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Old March 10th, 2010, 11:37 AM   #4
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I have a couple of questions about how film festivals function. I've been in a few international festivals without paying a cent, or even officially submitting my work. And yet I've never been accepted to a festival from paying the $50 or so in fees. It really makes me wonder if festivals actually watch everything that's submitted. Back then festivals required you submit through withoutabox.com, which just seems like a faster and less personal way for them to get your money.
Is getting into a festival all about who you know/meet and chance situations? Or do they actually watch all of the submitted work? Also would you recommend other materials to send along with the screener?
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Old March 11th, 2010, 01:49 PM   #5
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As both a short submitter, technical/editor person and once a best of festival judge for different festivals (but never a producer so I can't help anyone get in) I have some experience but for what you want to know I only know what's been told to me.

Festivals are hard, time consuming things to put on. In the US the festival promoters usually have to raise their own money, watch the films, arrange and pay for screening facilities for the final festival. Depending where the festival is, a theater with hundreds of seats can be thousands of dollars per screening up front. The rest of the world you'll find more state funded festivals that don't change an entry fee. Yes, it's a way to make "easy" money but the festival producers I've met do try to make a hard effort to screen everything that comes in. And by everything I mean hundreds of entries, even to small specialized festivals. I never worked on any festival where it was a who-you-know-to-get-in situation. Although already famous film makers do have a better chance but that's true everywhere.

Now here's a few unguaranteed tips to get you film considered:

1) Make sure the written description is short but interesting. Example: "A lonely teenage girl loses her beloved twin brother in an accident. Suddenly a new boy shows up at her school that looks just like him. Can the new boy be his ghost?" If you were sending this to a festival that specializes in teen films, they might find that interesting enough to watch the whole thing.

2) Include some evocative still images with the description. Not just head shots but something that gives a quick feeling for the whole piece. Funny stuff for comedies, action set-ups for exciting films, romantic for...etc.

3) The first two minutes of your submission are very important. It's going to decide whether it stays in the DVD player or gets ejected. Now this might be very unfair for some works but that is where the stills and description are important. If your film looks really cheap and amateurish and nothing interesting happens in the first 30 seconds, you might be out of luck. I've seen terribly made films get in because the topic and the actors were so interesting.

4) Timing and chance are a big factor. Great films sent close to the deadline have a lower chance of getting in unless the rest of the festival entries really stink that year.
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Old March 11th, 2010, 03:53 PM   #6
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Aric,

I think getting into festivals at this point is almost entirely about who you know. Even the San Diego Film Festival, where my last feature premiered, had over 2000 entries and there isn't really an effective to sort and chose between that many films. Sundance has over twice that number of submissions. So, if there is a local festival where you can develop ties to the staff, by all means, do so.

With our next feature, I'm skipping the festival route entirely and putting money towards four walling and a PR campaign. I'll build an audience and then talk to distributors.
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Old March 11th, 2010, 07:51 PM   #7
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You are right about the number of submissions to any festival. And the sheer amount of work is going to make the process unfair. Frequently unpaid interns are shoved a pile of DVDs and given a set of guidelines to whittle down the pile for the 1st round of judges. How well is that going to work?

As a judge (once) for the finals at a medium sized festival I was astounded how a couple of my fellow judges were just ready to throw all the grand prizes to professional submissions over the better work of students or unknowns. I fought for one brilliant but rough piece of student animation against a standard Disney offering which shouldn't have been in the festival in first place (it was supposed to be a regional submission festival, far away from Hollywood). In the end I got the student a consolation prize (software and a computer gift certificate) and managed to get the other judges to award the category grand prize to another film.

There's probably no real solution to festivals but sometimes it the only way to get noticed.
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Old March 11th, 2010, 11:40 PM   #8
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I'm no authority, but I have a little fest experience. I've been really bad about submitting most of my shorts to multiple fests, but withoutabox makes it SO much easier now. I believe you can even upload your entire screener film to their servers, for a fee, thus keeping you from having to ship ANYTHING to each fest (unless accepted of course).

Anyway, with my last short, I decided to "do it right" and enter at least 40 fests. Now it's around 50 'cause I won a few awards and regretted I hadn't entered larger festivals (I aimed as low as I could just to see if I could get in anywhere. . .and I did). My last one was Slamdance, a fairly prominent festival. I beat out around 5000 entries to get in, in a program that featured around 22 features and 65 shorts over 8 days. Being connected definitely helps, but I now KNOW you can get into one of these larger fests without any insider contacts, 'cause I did. My film was 24 minutes (shortened, at the request of a programmer, to 17), shot on miniDV, with unknown actors. No special hook that made it "amazing" (e.g. the sharks in Open Water). Slamdance was my biggest, but I've been in 14 or 15 other fests besides that with this short. I plan to submit to a few more then look at online distributors.

I've heard horror stories about fests, after a certain point, simply taking the submission fees and discarding the movies without looking at them, but I hope it's not the norm.

From what I understand, NO FEST in the US will fly you out or put you up in a hotel if you're accepted, not even the illustrious Sundance (in fact, you can't even watch the other films at SD for free. . .you have to buy tickets just like the pleebs!), but some European fests and fests held in other places outside the US do.
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