The Last Mile and Your Film

When telecom companies talk about the development cost for networks, the term “the last mile” is used to describe the final leg of getting a signal from the nearest distribution point to your house. This is the costliest per-unit expense, compared with the rest of the network. Independent film producers have a similar issue when they try to sell their title to a distributor. That’s because most distribution deals require some firm deliverables that often impact independents with a serious financial hit at the last stage of the production.


The RED camera has whetted many a wannabe’s appetite for feature-level 4K post on the desktop. It’s amazing to read the number of forum posts by people appalled at the cost of things like 2K DIs, not to mention real work at the 4K level. Often there are laughable responses, such as, “Oh don’t worry about that. The distributor will pay for it.” Give me a break! I’m not here to burst any bubbles, but quite frankly all distributors will present you with a list of things that are expected of you. If you don’t have these, you will be expected to produce them and the additional cost comes out of YOUR pocket. So the distributor only “pays for it” in the sense that your cost to produce additional deliverables comes off the top of any payments made to you to acquire the film or show.


Unfortunately many deals simply don’t pay a lot of money. Getting your film on HBO or to have a 20-country international distribution deal probably won’t make a big dent in paying back the investors. The following is a description of some of the costs you can expect to pay before a distributor is going to handle your film.


Film finishing


Let’s assume you shot on 35mm negative and edited to a standard def videotape master using letterboxed, one-light film transfers. This looked great and helped you sell the film, but now your distributor wants film elements and a theatrical release print. This will dictate a traditional film finish, including negative cutting, opticals, timed answer prints and film sound. If you kept proper track of all the film keycode numbers during the edit and generated film lists, then an experienced negative cutter will be able to match your electronic cut without difficulty. Cutting negative typically costs about $7/cut, so a standard 90 minute feature with about 1,000 picture edits will cost about $7,000 just for negative cutting services. In addition, all visual and motion effects, opening titles and closing credits have to be created as film opticals, which are intercut with the camera negative. If it’s a single-strand cut – meaning all shots are on one reel instead of checkerboarded onto A/B-rolls – then fades and dissolves count as effects. $10,000 is a good starting point for a minimum number of effects and titles.


Next, your cut negative must be color-timed (same as color correction or color grading) at a lab to create a timed answer print. Sometimes this takes more than one attempt to get right, so it’s best to work a deal for multi-pass timing. A lab will give you a certain number of answer prints for a fixed rate if you purchase multi-pass timing. Finally your audio mix must be transferred and optically printed so that you end up with sync sound on your film prints. If you require more that a handful of prints, there may be additional line item expenses for interpositives and internegatives. Depending on the sort of deals you can work with labs and other suppliers, basic film finishing will can run between $40,000 and $100,000.


Digital intermediates


High-resolution electronic post has ushered in the DI alternative to film finishing. Starting at the same point as our previous example, you will have to return to the camera negative. Instead of cutting negative, selected takes are scanned (at 2K or 4K resolution) as files or transferred to HD videotape. The video (or files) will be assembled (“conformed”) to match your Edit Decision List and color graded. There are no opticals, since effects can be handled digitally and all audio tracks can be married to the same master along with the picture. The color corrected, synced output will then be mastered to high-def videotape or as files that are sent on to be recorded back to film. This process can cost anywhere between $50,000 and $150,000.


Some projects stop at an HD master, if the intent is the video market; but, you may still need film materials for a theatrical release. Contrary to popular belief, digital cinema projection is not the norm and probably won’t be anytime soon. To get a 35mm release print, your master will need to be recorded back to 35mm negative for printing. Although you may have done very elaborate color grading for your HD master, there is no real guarantee that this look is going to perfectly translate to film. So make sure you budget some lab color timing to trim up the video corrections to match the film world.  It’s not as expensive as a full film finish, but expect to pay $40,000 to $80,000 on top of the HD or DI finishing charges you have already incurred. So it’s pretty easy to see why digital finishing on a Hollywood blockbuster typically starts at around $250,000.


High definition mastering


Many indie filmmakers shoot with digital cameras or shoot film and get inexpensive transfers to an HD format. All further post is digital, using low cost tools instead of full blown DI gear. The intent may be video or film, but if film, then this would be considered a “poor man’s DI”. With the right tools and monitoring in the hands of an experienced editor/colorist, many directors using this approach can get a result similar to a true DI. Desktop tools like Apple Color, Avid Symphony or even the built-in correction capabilities of Apple Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro/After Effects have been used with great success in producing good looking masters that were printed to film.


If you ended up with a locked cut based on SD downconversions of your HD camera masters, then it still isn’t a free ride back to the HD master. You still need to assemble the HD version of the cut (“conforming”, “online editing”, “uprezzing”) and perform a color grading pass. Often the uprez process involves making sure an offline edit done with 29.97 content is still frame-accurate and in sync when you go back to a 23.98 (24fps) timeline. A 90 minute feature typically takes 1-2 weeks to properly turn around an offline edit into a color-graded HD master. This work should be done in a professional facility with the right decks and monitoring capabilities. A low cost facility is going to charge $150-$450/hour for the suite with a qualified editor/colorist. In other words, if you get a deal at $300/hour, then you might pay $24,000 (plus stock and taxes) for that high-quality, color-corrected HD master, but people have also been known to get a good product for under $10,000, as well.




Video is only half the battle. The sure sign of a low-budget production is the attention to detail in sound. Audio post for a feature involves dialogue clean-up and editing, ADR/looping (replacing bad location recordings), sound effects editing, Foley (live sound effects) recording and editing, music scoring and a final mix. Many indie directors try to do this all by themselves “in the box”. If you want better sound, then have a specialist tackle this and allocate as much budget for sound post as possible. Two weeks to a month isn’t unreasonable for just a clean-up pass on the work you’ve done yourself. If you are starting from scratch, then budget several weeks (to months) for EACH of the categories listed above, AFTER the picture is locked. Typical rates (with an audio editor/mixer) are going to be in the $150/hour range for most small studio operations.


Distributors typically require mixes to be completed in “stems” and include “fully filled international” versions. Mixing in stems means that the final dialogue, sound effects and music tracks are broken out into separate mixed stereo or surround tracks. For stereo, this would be six tracks – three sets of L+R tracks for dialogue, effects and music. In a proper mix, you should be able to combine the stems at a unity setting for all tracks and end up with a composite mix that sounds normal. Some distributors ask for a domestic mix and M&E (music and effects) tracks – i.e. with and without dialogue in the mix. By mixing in stems, it is easy to combine the tracks in different ways to meet the deliverable requirements.


Stems are easy to achieve simply by how you organize your mix, but “fully filled international” tracks require more work. This is also called “150% Foley”. These terms mean that any production effects recorded on location and heard under dialogue lines, like a door closing or a cup being set on the table, must also be re-recorded as Foley effects. When the dialogue tracks are muted during foreign language audio production, the appropriate sound effects will now still exist and can be mixed back into the new foreign mix.




One of your biggest headaches can be the music. It is always best to use original music or license royalty free cues. If at all possible, NEVER use popular music. Editors often use temp music during the creative edit and the director and producers fall in love with these selections. So much so, that no one can bear to part with the temp music and it has to be purchased. This becomes very expensive if the tracks are commercial pop tunes. One innovative alternative is to purchase music from an unsigned, independent band and incorporate that into your production. TV shows and films have been doing that for a while now. IF you are dealing directly with the owners of the music, then you can inexpensively add some unique music touches to your project.


Some music companies (both record labels and production music houses) offer reduced license fees for film festival presentation rights. Once you cut a distribution deal, however, it literally becomes time to pay the piper – often accompanied by sticker shock. Be sure that you properly cover the copyright and the ownership of music publishing rights with your music resources. The owner of the music publishing rights often earns residual income independent of film sales, based on broadcast fees paid into funds by associations like BMI and ASCAP. Many producers will encourage composers to retain these rights as a way of negotiating lower up-front music production fees for the film. With the right film, such a deal can be quite lucrative for the composer. When you sell a film to a distribution, you will have to make sure you are covered for any additional broadcast licensing fees. Not every broadcast outlet pays into these funds. If not, you may be required to pay additional fees for broadcasting rights.


Video deliverables


Having a single HD master is not sufficient to satisfy most distributors. If you have a 1080p/23.98 master on HD-D5, HDCAM or HDCAM-SR tape, you will probably also need a 1080i/59.94 (interlaced with pulldown inserted) air master, since no network broadcasts 24fps content as native 24p. You will also need various NTSC and PAL Digital Betacam copies. Often you’ll need six SD masters – one of each standard in letterbox 16×9, center-cut (cropped) 4×3 and full height anamorphic (squeezed) 4×3 configurations. Standards conversion (such as for PAL) and any extra post work to pan-and-scan the 4×3 copies comes out of your pocket. Distributors will also want “textless” masters or at least textless elements. If you have opening titles and closing credits over picture, you will need to provide those portions of the movie without any titles or text to facilitate replacement of the text in another language or font.


Depending on the distributor, the master must be supplied in the specified format (HD-D5, HDCAM or HDCAM-SR) and your audio tracks will need to be broken out in a certain configuration. Some simply want a stereo mix and a stereo M&E, while others want eight or more tracks in various combinations. Others require separate audio master tapes, such as a DA-88, to accompany the video masters.


As if this long list weren’t enough, most distribution deals ask for literally boxes of substantiating information, covering talent and music contracts/clearances, script, the editor’s notes and the editing project files. If you don’t have these handy and must generate or organize them after the fact, manpower (time and money) will need to be applied. This might also include legal fees if you have an attorney involved to represent you. Part of any final expense is “error and omissions” insurance. That’s an insurance policy designed to covered the production should someone decide to sue because of something that was unknown, not properly researched or forgotten. Examples might include similar scripts by other authors, people in shots that weren’t cleared and so on. You will have to show evidence that you have such a policy or must buy it to satisfy most distributors.


All the items I’ve mentioned are reasonable costs involved in every production, but are easily overlooked or simply not known by the first-time filmmaker. Starting your next production knowing which items to expect will keep you out of trouble and within budget for that “last mile”.


© 2008 Oliver Peters