Passion FF

No Concessions: Digital Disaster at the New York Film Festival

The New York Film Festival, which got underway last Friday, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. I’ve attended every year since 1994. I’ve seen dozens of movies there–some extraordinary, many good, some run-of-the-mill, a few terrible. I wondered where Brian De Palma’s Passion, screened on Saturday, would fit in.

I’m still wondering. In what was for me an unprecedented event in my decades of festivalgoing, the screening was cancelled. Why? Three words: Digital Cinema Package, or DCP.

What is DCP? It’s heralded as the future of cinema projection, but really it’s the present; chances are your local multiplex has gone DCP, as your local independently owned theater or repertory house struggles to find a way to pay for it as celluloid goes up in smoke. The brave new world of digital projection comes with pitfalls, however. Like, if the system malfunctions, and no one can get a grip on what went wrong, you’re fucked like the fucking Diaz brothers, as the Film Society of Lincoln Center learned the hard way last night.

If you follow the festival at all you’ve been reading a lot about how Richard Pena, its programming director, is bowing out after 25 years of distinguished service. “I bet he wishes he retired last year,” grumbled a fellow patron as we all exited Alice Tully Hall after more than an hour of waiting. It had been a trying day: apparently a DCP of a Mexican film shown in the afternoon, Here and There, was plagued by intermittent subtitles that were here and there for half an hour until the problem was fixed. That was nothing compared to this utter fiasco, however. Has a festival presentation ever been cancelled due to a mechanical glitch? Not in the film cans days that I can recall.

Poor Pena–he’s a good guy (I interviewed him for in 2001) and there he was, having to face not only a disappointed crowd but Brian De Palma, who’s not exactly Mary Sunshine. (I interviewed him for Cineaste about his last film, Redacted, which played without incident at the festival in 2007.) From my balcony seat I could see the filmmaker growing progressively more baleful, and when he was escorted from his box I knew we would not be seeing his movie. It can’t have been pretty backstage: “See this? I left my trademark safari jacket at home and put on a suit and tie for this thing! I was goddamned cheerful in my opening remarks, too!” 

Whatever the case, it was a humiliation. Pena, who had to keep coming onstage to deliver the worsening news, said that the DCP has been tested without incident minutes before showtime, but minus a code had somehow locked down. Minus someone who could fix the code that was it for the evening. That’s not the movies we knew and loved; that’s a plot contrivance on an episode of 24. Maybe they should rename Digital Cinema Package HAL, in honor of 2001‘s errant computer.

After a half hour or so of waiting Pena announced that audience members who couldn’t stay could get refunds at the boxoffice. Only 10-15% seemed to. Which was touching; we wanted to see the movie and were willing to put up with the inconvenience. (I watched the French-made Love Crime, the basis of Passion, the other night and wanted to know, like, what was up with the masks? And the chokehold?) But it was out of Pena’s hands, or De Palma’s hands, or any human hands. It was a glitch in the machine, a hiccup in the software. And with that the 50th anniversary of the New York Film Festival was tainted.

Watch this space for actual festival reviews, if technology doesn’t bungle further screenings. Too bad they can’t project film at a film festival anymore.

  • BobCashill

    Before the show started I had a CURB YOUR ENTHUSIAM-ish encounter with a well-dressed couple who basically stole coffee from a vendor. They misread a sign (the coffee they wanted was not free; other coffee was), got some cups, and helped themselves. (They could have afforded the $2.25 per cup; they just didn’t want to have to stand in line to get them.) When I pointed this out to the vendor (within earshot of the couple) he offered me a free cup, too; he didn’t want to be bothered. “Picky, picky!” the wife said to me. “See, you got a free cup of coffee, too.” “I didn’t want a free cup of coffee!” I retorted. “I wanted you to STOP BEING SO ENTITLED and pay!” She collapsed in a heap of sawdust, and I spent the next 75 minutes not seeing PASSION, not seeing the sold-out LOOPER at the nearby multiplex when it was cancelled, getting laughed at by my wife for “turning into Larry David more and more every day,” and staying up until 2:30am to write this.

    “Vot a day!”–Udo Kier, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (74)

  • BobCashill

    Now that I’ve slept on the matter, the larger point, of course, is that if this could happen at the NYFF, which has excellent personnel, it could happen anywhere–and I’m sure it does. Celluloid breaks, you fix it the best you can and move on; DCP locks up, and you’ve got a brick that James Bond couldn’t fix. A deplorable situation.

  • Paul Bunnell

    At the KANSAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL you can see The Ghastly Love of Johnny X on 35mm film — and avoid the possibility of a digital disaster!

  • Alice M.

    yes, “technology” is at fault. not crappy technology, nor DRM requiring codes before films will play, but “technology”.

    my laptop and the incubators at the local hospital apologise for the delay.

  • mbs

    There are irreversible mechanical problems that could prevent a timely return to service with film projection as well. In both cases the answer is redundant/backup systems. The problem with those is that, regardless of the technology, having an extra anything costs more, and to be fully redundant you need at least two of everything…

  • BobCashill

    Agreed. So far as I could tell the Festival had no backup plan for anything last night.

  • Guest

    I accept their apologies. What an incisive point you made…surely you had something better to do with your time?

  • romeedee

    Sounds like this could have been avoided if someone staffed at the event was properly trained in the use of the equipment.Tech goes wonky, but human error is just as likely & frequent of an occurence. Mark it up as a lesson learned.

  • romeedee

    I think that she was being sarcastic about technology being inherently bad.

  • BobCashill

    Pena is said to have joked this morning that DCP is best suited to play one movie for three weeks, not three movies in one day.

  • Martha P. Nochimson

    Bob, you were lucky not to have seen Passion. It is slick, movie trash. Funny, at the press screenings, we had the movie but not De Palma. When it was time for the press conference we were told that he had left his home in a taxi for the Walter Reade but now they didn’t know where he was. He never arrived. A fitting coda to his awful travesty updating of the worst Bette Davis movie you can imagine.

  • Brandy

    Urgent to Cashill: There is a ‘boxoffice’ in your article. Might wanna take care of that.

  • BobCashill

    Well, LOVE CRIME was no great shakes, but I was curious to see what he done with the material. The NYFF has added a screening next Sat morning, not that I can go. I wonder if De Palma will show up for that?

  • Athens Ciné
  • Edward Havens

    Overblown hyperbole from someone with an axe to grind.

    A disaster is when a tsunami kills 230,000 people.
    A movie that can’t be projected because of a technical glitch is a minor inconvenience.

  • BobCashill

    I’m grinding no axe; I was there, I saw what I saw (or didn’t see), and wrote an essay about it. It was certainly a disaster for the festival, which to the best of my knowledge hasn’t had to cancel a screening in years. (I can assure you it released a “tsunami” of complaints.) Arguing about the use of “disaster,” “boxoffice,” and “technology” is nitpicky in the extreme.

  • tad swann

    While I am no great fan of DCP, I have to admit that there are plenty of things that can—and have—gone wrong with films projected on film. The most severe include burnt-out bulbs, broken motors or gears and platter wraps. Any of those could result in a cancelled screening. Of course, they can all be fixed too, given enough time and know-how. A DCP code that is invalid or a corrupt file simply doesn’t work and no amount of tinkering will fix them.

  • Ole Bob

    A ten year old kid with a tablet computer could have picked the lock on the DCP. Pity there were none attending the screening….

  • Digital_King

    Sounds like the KDM (key) expired before the show.

  • Edward Havens

    The inability to screen a Brian DePalma movie at a film festival, Bob, is not a disaster in any form or definition of the word, regardless of what you might think, and I will “nitpick” the use of the word, whether you like it or not, until such time as small-minded “writers” such as yourself continue to use such overused, overblown hyperbole to describe an incident that was disappointing at best.

    I’ve been to a number of NYFF screenings at Alice Tully Hall and Walter Reade Theatre, and there have been minor glitches at several of those screenings that caused delays, and even once the cancellation of a screening of a short film that was supposed to be presented before the main feature. Was that last incident disappointing? Sure. Were there complaints? Sure. Was it a disaster? Not in the least. And every single one of those screenings that had issues were with 35mm film.

    Ragging on digital cinema is the cool thing for “cinephiles” to do these days, to complain endlessly about every minor issue, while ignoring the 100+ years of issues 35mm film caused many a heartache and heartbreak of cinema goers and cinema operators. Sure, this situation with DePalma’s movie at the festival could have been easily avoided by a projectionist dedicated to the proper presentation of the movie regardless of the circumstances of how it was presented. One who could have noticed the KDM needed to present the movie may have been expiring before the presentation was supposed to begin.

    But I will bet you this: I bet this will not happen again at the New York Film Festival. I’ll bet they, and other film festival operators as well as the distributors/sales agents of films playing at film festivals, will take a cold hard look at how KDMs are handled for film festivals, and realize that short KDM windows for film festival presentations are not the way to go.

    Going deeper in to the story so readers could better understand the full meaning behind what happened at the film festival, would have been far more rewarding and preferable than the slanted, biased story presented here.

  • eSage

    No, I think she was making a sarcastic comment in that it’s not the technology, but the people who operate it without sufficient training or comprehension. To lock out a projector because of some code glitch smacks of poor planning and organization, not bad technology.

  • Alex Cox

    DCPs are, in my experience, disastrous technology. They are cheap harddrives laden with DCRM crapware. For some reason they play only at 24 fps so a picture shot on video in PAL or NTSC formats requires a standards conversion. New York was lucky: two years ago I screened a DCP at the Venice Film Festival: it blacked out every ten minutes or so, for about a minute. When I went to the booth and spoke to the projectionist he told me, “Oh, don’t worry, that’s been happening with all the DCPs!”

  • BobCashill

    Well, Edward, in the absence of any other non-tweeted coverage of this mishap (is that a better word for you? I doubt you’ll find anyone at FSLC who wouldn’t call this a disaster) I’d like to think that this “slanted, biased story” will play its small role in preventing this from occuring again. Based on Alex Cox’s comment elsewhere, I’m not so sure it will, but it’s a marker. (It would have been “small-minded” of me to ignore it.) The Cineaste Symposium (I linked to an excerpt) is an outstanding piece that goes deeper into the subject, and is highly recommended (despite my “bias” as a staff member).

  • BobCashill

    From the front lines of the debate, thanks.

  • heidipie

    or as zero mostel said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall in a hole and die.”

  • Edward Havens

    Typical internet writer’s arrogant response. I, Bob Cashill, am right no matter what. You, whomever you are, are wrong no matter what and I cannot possibly learn anything new from another person’s point of view. You may very well know exactly what you are talking about, dealing with digital projection and the issues surrounding it every single day, but because I am Bob Cashill, internet writer, I instantly denounce anything you, whomever you are, may have to say if it counters my worldview.

    You are entitled to your opinion, of course, but maybe, just maybe, people who work the front lines of exhibition might be able to help you expand your worldview, if you open your mind. You just might discover something new, which may make you a smarter and more well-rounded writer.

  • BobCashill

    Edward, with all due respect, I think it’s time to close the book on this. It’s puzzling that someone who serves on the governing commitee of the OFCS should have such disdain for “Internet writers” (I have a long history in print, too) but instead of carrying on in this vein perhaps we can talk about it over drinks at the next NY mixer. My treat.

  • Edward Havens

    Bob, I both moved away from New York CIty and resigned from the OFCS years ago, but that is neither here nor there.

    This is about the difference between thinking you understand something because you’ve read a bunch of stuff about it and understanding something because you work with it every single day.
    And it’s starting to become about your need to deflect instead of directly respond. So I will try one last time… how much have you worked with digital cinema? How much hands-on knowledge do you have working with the kinds of systems used at Lincoln Center to project movies? When one is writing about a specific technical issue, it helps to have an understanding of said issue. Otherwise, you get people like me questioning you, because your points sound blissfully ignorant.

    Your article isn’t going to change anything, at the New York Film Festival or elsewhere, in part because those changes were most likely already in the process of happening before you had a chance to type “No Concessions” in to whatever you use to write.

    And while I respect Alex Cox tremendously (I was planning on going to a screening of Repo Man and Straight to Hell Returns at the Pacific Film Archive this past Friday, before my uncle’s passing changed my plans), the problem he had at the Venice Film Festival was two years ago, and in terms of digital projection equipment, is like going from Mac OS 9.0.2 to Mac OS 10.8.2. And, like with all computerized equipment, occasionally requires updating and rebooting. In six years of working with digital projection, starting with one screen in 2006 and now working with 14 screens today, my digital equipment has screened over 50,000 shows, and had caused some kind of failure that caused me to cancel a show maybe two dozen times. Inconvenient to the audience, yes, but I’ll gladly accept 0.048% fail rate if it means 99.952% of my shows go off without a hitch, without dust and scratches and soundtrack pops and cement splices and all the other weird crap that can and does happen with 35mm film.

    Next time you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me know, and I will personally give you a stem to stern master class on how digital projection works, from delivery and ingestion of content and KDMs to focusing a bulb to ensure maximum light output.

  • BobCashill

    I was there when I saw digital cinema go down in flames at a gala premiere at a prestigious film festival, and wrote about it. Clearly it touched a nerve, as Roger Ebert tweeted it to his bazillion followers (in a tweet much more sharply worded than anything I wrote), and here we are, days later. Go bug him. Thanks for your support in keeping this post alive and best of luck with your digital installations.

  • kevix

    if someone had a DVD or BLUray disc of the film, it has no fancy DRM to stop you from projecting it, not super-secret locks to stop a film from playing on the equipment you pay-for with big bucks and own. A $40 device would have at least shown it sans the super hi-fi fancy sound. And that is all many good movies need to be enjoyed. And some popcorn.

  • kevix

    also Edward Havens is full of himself, asserting all his privilege about someone telling a simple story that he witnessed. We don’t need to be Harvard-educated neurosurgeons to comment on medical stories or need to consult one to take an aspirin.

  • GG

    @Bob. It’s pointless to argue with these digital people because they constantly rave that digital is perfect in every way, and whenever it messes up (like this screening), it’s not because of the technology (which is perfect in their eyes), but the people working it. Digitial is infallible and omnipotent to them; it does no wrong. So whenever someone criticises it, they go crazy.

  • Edward Havens

    Sorry, GG. I never said digital is perfect in every way, nor did I say it was infallible. What I have been asking for was context that was not provided in this article. What was the root problem that caused the movie not to show? I still don’t know, and apparently neither does Bob, and for Bob to criticize an incident he does not have the full facts of of its cause is simply poor reporting.

  • Brian Camp

    Note to filmmakers: bring a DVD of your film–and a laptop–to every festival showing your film–just in case!

  • rationalist

    “without dust and scratches and soundtrack pops and cement splices” – all preferable to the thin, blocky, artificial look of digital projection, which audiences can readily replicate in their home with a blu-ray player. DCP may be cheap, but it is killing the medium of cinema.

  • romeedee

    That’s what I implied, Oppenheimer.

  • eSage

    Oh, sorry, I didn’t get that you were referencing people from your implication of her implication.

  • Alice M.

    I was making a sarcastic comment about a) the neo-Luddism I heard in the piece and b) people who use at best unreliable technology to enforce a poorly-functioning system of intellectual property rights.