To kick off the discussion, this is a helicopter view of some issues that I've collected from conversations with festival techs.
There are many kinds of film festivals held around the world, but they all have similar traits.
1) Rarely are they held in a facility that is exclusive for the festival.
2) Rarely are they held in one facility.
3) Rarely is there one set of equipment of same manufacture and similar vintage.
4) Rarely does all equipment have the latest software (or does all software work everywhere.)
5) Rarely are there more technical people on-site than needed for the situations-at-hand.
6) Rarely will all the DCPs load and/or play through without some technical intervention.
7) Rarely does the technical team get to play all the productions with the creatives.
8) Rarely do the QC previews get done in the room they’ll finally be played in.
9) Rarely will all other rooms load/play even when the preview room loaded/played.
10) Rarely does the Festival’s Material Requirements Form include a line that shows which DCP-Validation tool was used.
Here is a look at some of the ‘whys’ for these situations.
1. Even the most spectacular of Film Festival spectacles, for example the Festival de Cannes held at the Palais des Congress in Cannes France – where there are no other movies played the rest of the year – is not a perfect situation. There are no other movies played because there is no equipment for the rest of the year. All the equipment is brought in for the Festival from one featured manufacturer and one installation crew adjuncts the staff organized and brought in from all over the country by the CST. QC runs are held 10 days in advance and woe to the group who miss their QC spot.
2. In many festivals around the world, the movies and documentaries have to be played at several cinema facilities in the host city. The contracts with these facilities will typically specify that the equipment is brought up to the latest specification, that the software and firmware are the latest versions and that the technical staff of the festival have the right to put new software and firmware as required. [Is this HTML comedy tag working?]
3. In reality, the equipment vintage will vary from cinema to cinema, even projection room to projection room, as will the software and firmware. But the equipment works, as witnessed by the fact that the facility is playing commercial movies several times a day to a paying audience. Typically the facility will play their normal schedule for part of the day and turn over the auditoriums to the festival. The facility owner doesn’t really care if they have the latest, they just want a working system when regular movie patrons appear.
4. It is an anachronism to think that every software changes will cause at least one problem with one set of equipment that will need to be debugged. But it isn’t untrue to believe that changing the firmware/software in a projector/server system might allow a new DCP to work but cause a previously working movie to not play. It is not anecdotal that many systems of similar type and vintage will work with a particular set of firmware and software, but one or two systems will need to be beat into submission…or emails sent to manufacturers begging them to get together and figure out the problem(s).
5. Given that these things are true, and that bigger events will have dozens of cinema facilities with dozens of equipment combinations in play, the best solution would be the laughable notion that the festival will hire extra technical support staff beyond the needs of whatever emergencies might present themselves. Fate, of course, subscribes an inverse proportion rule that puts less resources (money to hire techs) at festivals with the most likelihood of odd variations of client submissions (submit your ‘tape’ in any of these several formats or make a DCP yourself perhaps!) Actually, every festival, large or small, gets last minute submissions in odd formats. There is never enough tech support and there is never enough time. Most emphatic tech complaint: even after heroic efforts to make a movie or documentary avoid a black screen, coordinating the creative for final QC sign-off is a time consuming battle.
6. Of course, the great majority of DCPs will show up working, and the creative will be on-time for the QC run. There are also DCPs that show up working on most equipment, but through no fault of the creative there is some inexplicable reason that the DCP works on one set of equipment but not another. This happens – very rarely – even with regular cinema movies. On the other hand, through no fault of the tech team, perhaps through some fault of festival communication or more often, the artist thinks they can magically defy laws of physics and equipment standards. It is not odd for creatives to show up with odd variations of tape format and/or disk formats that are clearly in violation of the rules, yet they are willing to risk their investment at the final link in the chain of their production.
7. If the tech team sets up some triage mechanism for problems – which lack of time and resources inevitably leads to – the most likely way to make certain that a production is placed on the bottom of the list (Black Screen Trending) is to not show up for QC, to ignore messages about problems, to not send security keys in advance (or power lunch with them in your pocket), and to not fill out the forms that may indicate the technical origin of the material. With enough time and clues – and the security keys if used – a black screen might be avoided, even if the creative is disrespecting their fellow festival teammates.
8. One constant in the 15 year transition from film to digital exhibition has been constant transition. Professionals at the DCP-Creation houses have had to keep dozens of variations of equipment on hand to test the possible combinations of hardware/software/firmware in the field and now, the variations of InterOp and SMPTE-compliant DCPs. One constant in festivals is that the hardware/software/firmware in the auditorium chosen to run QC checks will be in some way different than the hardware/software/firmware in the auditorium chosen for your production. The QC auditorium will sometimes be found lacking, so festival specific hardware will be directly attached (networked management systems and libraries on RAID systems) and updates will be applied that don’t get directly attached or completed in other auditoriums. And after all that, the properly QC'd material will be sent to another auditorium and it won't work.
9. Getting your home-made DCP validated in one facility (Hey, the guy who made my DCP tested it at his local theater…) and expecting it to work in all projection rooms of all the film festival multiplexes is not as logical as getting the DCP made and validated at a more vastly qualified and experienced DCP-Creation facility recommended by the festival since all the Technology corollaries of Murphy’s Law
apply. In a perfect world: Daring is less respected than professionalism.
10. A checklist that the Creative fills out to validate that their material complies with the Festival’s Material Requirements should have a line that shows which DCP-Verification Program the Creative used.