Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Theatrical Distribution: 35mm Print or Digital Cinema?

If you happen to be one of the filmmakers lucky enough to find a way of self-distributing your film theatrically, the first task you'll need to address is the method of delivery.  How will you get your film to the theater so it can be projected on the screen.

For many years, filmmakers only had one option: strike a 35mm film print.  This involved having your audio converted to an optical track, then syncing it with the original film negative and striking a positive screening print.  The cost for these services vary depending on who you speak with, but it's safe to say that in the end, you can expect to pay between $1,100.00 and $2,100.00 per print.

If your film was actually shot and edited on film, and you aren't planning on doing a digital intermediary (which is essentially a fancy way to say that the film was scanned into a computer for editing and color correction), then creating 35mm prints may still be the most cost effective way to deliver your project to theaters.

But what if you elected to perform a digital intermediary, or your project originated in another format such as HD, HDV, or DV?

If you still want to deliver your project on film, the only option is to output your digital or video master using a laser or CRT film recorder.  Currently, this will cost you anywhere from $400.00 to $450.00 per minute —  an average 90 minute film will cost upwards of $40,000.00.  In some cases, the price may include lab fees to develop the negative and strike one "answer print" (a.k.a "work print" or "screening print" depending on what it's being used for... they are essentially all the same thing) but every facility has their own policy.

At this point, you will have a negative, but you will still need an optical sound track (extra fee), and if you want your film projected in Dolby Surround, you will have to have Dolby Labs create the optical track... a cost of around $5,000.00 including licensing fees for use of dolby technology.

If it sounds like it's starting to get a bit expensive... it is.  We still have to add in the cost of each print.  If you intend to project your movie on ten screens, expect to add another $15,000 to your budget.  Here's what the costs look like to get your digital project into theaters:

Output to Film $40,000.00
Dolby Optical Track $   5,000.00
Strike 10 Prints $20,000.00

Total Cost: $65,000.00

Obviously, this is not practical for most small independent films, unless you happen to be one of the lucky few with a decent budget who planned for this expense during pre-production.  Fortunately for the rest of us, developments in digital technology are promising to open theatrical doors to independent filmmakers by way of digital cinema.

If you're not that familiar with digital cinema, not to worry.  It's actually quite easy to understand.  In simple terms, it's like e-mailing a Quicktime movie to a friend, then streaming it to a projector from your friends computer.  Sounds simple right?  Well, it is... sort of.

What actually gets sent is called a Digital Cinema Package or DCP — a set of encrypted files containing of all of your audio tracks (one per channel) and a JPEG-2000 encoded video track.  The DCP can be sent to theaters on a set of DVD's or transferred electronically, depending on who is originating the DCP and the capability of the theater.

Until recently, the costs for creating a DCP was not very different from the cost of printing a digital master to film... around $400 per minute.  The conversion required a series of rather expensive hardware components that would encode the files and save them in a format defined by the Digital Cinema Initiative, a standards committee of various studios and manufacturers.  A DCI compliant DCP can be played on any DCI compliant system worldwide.

One early pioneer and manufacturer of encoding equipment is a company called QuVIS, which stands for Quality Visual Information Systems.  QuVIS has been on the forefront of the digital cinema revolution since 1999 when the company teamed up with Disney for the first commercial digital cinema release with the box office smash, "Toy Story 2."  The initial release was played back from QuVIS' first generation server.  Since then, over a dozen Disney releases have been played back using QuVis equipment, including "Cars", "Chicken Little" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

This year, QuVis has taken it one step farther and become every independent filmmaker's new best friend.  They've eliminated the hardware completely and developed "QuVIS Wraptor", a software plug in for Final Cut Studio which allows any Final Cut user to create DCI compliant DCPs.  The cost for this?  Under $700.

The resulting DCP can literally be burned onto DVD's and shipped to theaters, or placed on an FTP server for direct download by the theaters.  It's what independent filmmakers have been dreaming about for a long time... the ability to create high quality digital distribution files right from their desktop computers.

But there is a bit of bad news.

As of today, not that many theaters that are equipped with digital projection systems, though the number is growing daily.  Plus, the digital theaters that are up and running are under high demand from the major studios, which means the odds are slim that a theater will allow you to screen digitally even if they agree to book your film.  That is, unless you are willing to show them some cash.

According to an October 2, 2008 article in the L.A. Times, five Hollywood studios pledged their support for a $1 Billion plan to help theater chains throughout the country offset the $70,000 per screen cost required to convert from 35mm to digital projection.  This assistance will come in the form of a "Virtual Print Fee" of $800 to $1,000 per film, per screen.

Theaters have argued (rightfully so) that since the studios are saving an estimated $2,000 per print by distributing digitally, a portion of those savings should go to help theaters pay for the cost of installing the new digital projection equipment.  The plan calls for these fees to be paid out over the next eight to ten years.  Presumably, once the projection equipment is paid for in full, these fees would no longer be assessed.

So despite the fact that Digital Distribution is now a very real, and inexpensive option for distributing independent feature films, there are still a few hurdles which need to be overcome before independent filmmakers are truly on the same playing field with the majors.  In the meantime, filmmakers can take advantage of QuVIS' new offering and create fully compliant DCPs for distribution to film festivals hosted at DCI compliant theaters.

Greg Steiner


Check out our latest project at http://www.bumpingoffburt.com


  1. Say, does each print go to a regional zone under which all theatres duplicate it digitally from??.. Wondered so because I'm from India, we alone have more than 13000 screens; and a film here, which takes out 2000 prints for a Worldwide release, is said to have made a record!.. Who buys these prints then??.. How is it that the remotest of towns and their theatres get the movie on its release date??..

  2. A separate print is required for each screen, so if 10 screen cineplex wants to show the movie on two screens simultaneously they would require two separate prints. These prints are created and paid for by the film's distributor

    Since each film is handled on a case-by-case basis by the distributor, there is no one single way to distribute a film across a wide geographic area. Often the majority of the prints end up in major metropolitan areas where the greatest number of people live, thereby providing the highest potential ticket sales. However, prints are often set aside for more rural areas as well. The bigger the distributor and distribution budget, the more penetration you will have over a wide geographic area.

    Smaller films with small print and advertising (P&A) budgets will occasionally release "in select cities", which essentially equates to only the major metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles. If the film does well, the distributor can create additional prints and release "nationwide" or "everywhere".

    Digital distribution has added another factor in that often the "prints" are transferred electronically from the distributor directly to the theater, though on occasion they are still delivered on computer hard drives, or a series of recordable media like DVD-R.

  3. Great info not found pretty much everywhere else - easy to understand and implement. Thank you.

  4. Hi Greg,

    We appreciate your support for Wraptor 1.0. I wanted to let you know that we’ve just released Wraptor 2.0 with more features and faster processing. The price is still the same, but the product does a lot more. You can get a free trial and see what you think. http://www.quvis.com/

    We’re also releasing a DCP Player this year. You’ll be able to see your DCP without leaving your studio. Sign up here to be notified about the release http://www.quvis.com/coming-soon/

    If you have any questions please send me an email. I can be reached at mweaver@quvis.com.

    Mary Weaver
    Administrator, QuVIS