DCP: What is a Digital Cinema Package and How Does it Work?

by Jim Donnelly | January 5, 2022

A digital cinema package is the standard delivery format for film screenings at a digital cinema. Most major movie theatres today are digital cinemas. That means any sort of digital projection, be it a short or feature film, requires a digital cinema package or DCP for short.

DCPs play on expensive digital projectors like this, this, or this. And for the most part, digital cinema packages have replaced the 35mm film reels used for years by theatres. A fact mourned by many film aficionados. The good news is, producing DCPs costs significantly less than it does to crank out 35mm prints.

So let’s break down what is a digital cinema package, how to create a DCP, and the best way to deliver it to a theatre.

What is a Digital Cinema Package?

DCPs are audio, video, and metadata files (e.g. subtitles) configured for cinema servers. These servers connect to the digital projectors we mentioned earlier. Every single frame of a film is a separate folder within the DCP. A typical DCP includes XML files for metadata and MXF (Material Exchange Format) files. MXF is a video file container that wraps the track files according to Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) standards. 

The video track is encoded frame-by-frame in JPEG-2000. This is a lossless compression codec mastered at 24 frames-per-second (FPS), with high-resolution picture quality. The audio file is a 24-bit linear PCM uncompressed multichannel WAV file.

Most DCPs have a bitrate of around 250 Mbps. The majority of digital projectors at theatres can’t handle anything higher. Digital cinema servers run on Linux operating systems, which means DCP hard drives are formatted in Linux EXT3.

Because DCPs are usually encrypted, a Key Delivery Message (KDM) is required to ingest and play the content. You can think of a KDM as a content encryption key. KDMs specify when, where, and how that version of the film can be played.

A digital cinema package can be around 200 GBs in size or larger. The DCP for Spider Man: No Way Home is around 500 GB and includes the 3D and 4K versions of the 2h 28m-long film).

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What about physical DCPs on hard drives?

For years the standard delivery of films to movie theatres was through a physical DCP. Some cinemas and film festivals still use physical DCPs but a majority of commercial releases are delivered via satellite or ‘terrestrial’ (IP-based) methods, says SimpleDCP CTO Garrett Sergeant.

A physical DCP is a secure packing crate consisting of a heavy-duty case containing a hard drive, a power brick, and any cables required for ingestion.

Most physical DCPs are shipped in CRU drive enclosures. These are semi-indestructible DX115 hard drive carriages originally designed for military use. The Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum (ISDCF) notes that the use of USB-3 portable hard drives has become common.

Read More: Why SimpleDCP trusts MASV to transfer digital cinema packages on deadline

What are the Advantages of a Digital Cinema Package?

The main advantage of a DCP is that it’s really the only way to get your content played on digital projectors around the world. On top of that, Sergeant says:

1. DCPs are secure. You can make a million copies of a DCP, he explains, but if you don’t have the KDM configured for your equipment, you can’t play them. KDM’s also specify the date and time a DCP can be played. This has led to some…embarrassing incidents at film festivals.

“Film festivals need a little bit more flexibility (than movie theatres),” Sergeant explains. “Very famously, there was a Brian De Palma film playing at the New York Film Festival a couple years back, and they had to cancel the screening because the keys were for the wrong time zone.”

2. DCPs are easily updated. Because DCPs are a package of files (and not one big file), they can be edited without having to update the entire production. One master file can be localized for dozens of regions. For example, by adding dub tracks or subtitles as small pieces of metadata.

“Let’s say somewhere down the line, somebody realizes ‘Oh, my God – we forgot to credit the director of photography,’” Sergeant says. Instead of having to update the entire film, a small metadata update is all that’s required.

3. DCPs are verifiable. As soon as a DCP gets copied onto a cinema server, a SHA265 checksum validation automatically runs to verify the content “is in the same state as it left the lab,” he says. This ensures no unauthorized modifications have occurred.

How do Cinemas Use a Digital Cinema Package?

Physical DCPs are delivered to cinema managers/operators the old-fashioned way: by ground courier.

Patrick Chua, a Digital Project Specialist at digital cinema provider ProjecTech, says that once received, physical DCPs are connected via USB or eSATA to the cinema’s theatre management system (TMS) or playback server for ingestion.

Individual cinemas are then responsible for shipping physical DCPs back to distributors, says Chua. “The hard drives are then reused for the next batch of DCPs. You’ll often find those hard drives have multiple stickers on them from past DCP releases,” he explains. Chua also adds that all that shipping can sometimes even lead to damaged or defective drives.

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Satellite and IP-based DCP delivery

The potential for damage is why cinemas now receive DCPs via satellite or over the internet. Along with cost and convenience. According to the ISDCF, several present-day DCP delivery methods exist. This includes satellite, internet, and site-to-site file sharing via a secure network.

The Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition (DCDC)—an initiative by industry heavyweights such as Warner Bros. and AMC Theatres—handles digital distribution for the vast majority of major studio releases.

How to Make Your Own Digital Cinema Package?

theatre audience prepares to watch a movie

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

You can make your own DCP by exporting to ‘DCP’ in Premiere Pro, Final Cut, DaVinci Resolve, or by using free online tools. Going through a pro DCP shop is also an option for better quality.

For the highest possible DCP quality, Sergeant recommends starting with a DPX or TIFF image sequence (known as a Digital Cinema Distribution Master, or DCDM). DCDMs become DCPs once they are compressed, encrypted, and packaged for distribution.

How to Send DCPs over the Cloud

MASV large file transfer can help filmmakers throughout the DCP creation process. From getting your DPX or TIFF image sequence files from point A to point B, to transferring your actual DCP to movie theatres or film festivals that accept IP-based DCP transfer, MASV makes sending those 200 GB+ files as fast and painless as possible.

MASV is also one of the most secure ways to transfer your DCP or other large files. MASV protects files and IP at rest and in-flight through TLS encryption and strong password protection, and rides on Amazon Web Services (AWS) infrastructure. MASV is also verified by the Trusted Partner Network, the leading content protection audit for film and television.

Read More: Secure File Sharing: How MASV is Designed to Protect Your Files 

You can sign up right now and get 100 GB of free data to transfer. Using MASV costs just $0.25/GB after that, which means you can sign up and transfer your first 200 GB DCP for around $25.

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