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

by | 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. And for the most part, digital cinema packages have replaced the 35mm film reels used for years by theatres. The good news is, that producing DCPs costs significantly less than it does cranking 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.

Table of Contents

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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.

What Does it Cost to Make a DCP?

You can expect to spend around $1000 USD for a single DCP from a professional shop. But, there are caveats based on resolution, length of film, and turnaround time.

Most DCP houses price by minute of footage. Around $10-$15 per minute. If you need a fast turnaround or a DCP for a 4K or 3D film, it will add to the hourly rate. Most DCP houses also offer quality control on special monitors calibrated for screenings. This is factored into the price as well.

As mentioned, making a DCP is far less expensive than shipping out 35 mm film reels. All this to say, you still have to set aside a good portion of your budget for DCP creation and delivery.

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.

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.

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How to Make Your Own Digital Cinema Package?

You can make your own DCP by exporting to ‘DCP’ in Premiere Pro, Final Cut, or DaVinci Resolve. Read our step-by-step instructions or watch the video below to learn how to create a DCP in Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve. 👇

How to Create a DCP in Adobe Premiere Pro

You can do this one of two ways:

1. Create a new sequence or modify the settings of your final cut sequence. Either way, you might need to do some manual adjustments to your edit.
2. Export directly from the locked editing cut or use a high-res master file

Prepare the sequence

First, let’s go through how to do this by changing the sequence settings of the locked cut.

  1. Make a copy of the final cut sequence and rename it.
  2. Go to Sequence > Sequence Settings to modify the settings of your final cut.
  3. Beside Editing Mode, select Custom so you can adjust certain parameters.
Premiere Pro sequence settings for a DCP

Remember to follow the specific requirements for the festival or theater to which you’re sending your film. Some settings may vary.

Export DCP from Premiere Pro

  1. Once you’ve adjusted your parameters, go to File > Export > Media.
  2. You’re now in the Export tab. In the dropdown menu beside Format select Wraptor DCP.
  3. Go to the Video tab in the Export tab. You can choose the video dimensions and frame rate.
  4. Click Export at the bottom right-hand corner. And there you have it!

Don’t see Wraptor DCP? It might be because you have an M1 Mac computer with Apple silicon.

If that’s the case, close Premiere Pro and go to Finder. Select Applications and find Adobe Premiere. Right-click on it and click Get Info. In the pop-up window, check “Open using Rosetta”. Relaunch Premiere.

Note: We’ve tested it out, and it seems that exporting a DCP using a Mac with Apple silicon will cause Premiere Pro to freeze or completely crash. If you can use a computer with an Intel processor, it could save you a lot of frustration.

Export directly from your locked cut

If you choose not to change the sequence settings and would rather export directly from your locked cut or high res export, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the Export tab.
  2. Go to Scaling located at the bottom right-hand side of the screen.
  3. Select Scale to fill so the image fills the screen. Keep in mind that some parts will be cut off. Or you can choose Scale to fit to keep the same image size you had before but with letterboxing.
  4. Now go to the Audio tab, and choose the appropriate Channel. It’s better if you have 5.1 as it will be the best option for surround sound in theaters.
  5. Click Export.

How to Create a DCP in DaVinci Resolve

Use the easyDCP plugin

Not only does the easyDCP plugin let you export your DCP, but it also encrypts and produces KDMs, which are certificates that allow the recipient to play an encrypted DCP.

You need to have the full version of DaVinci or the easyDCP plugin to be able to make a workable DCP. If you have the free one, you will have a watermark and deal with other limitations.

davinci resolve custom export

Select video and audio settings

  1. Go to the Deliver tab at the bottom of the screen and select Custom Export. Choose the appropriate video and audio parameters.
  2. Go to the Video tab under Custom Export.
  3. Open up the Composition settings. Beside Composition name, click Edit
  4. In the popup window, go to Film Title. Here you can add the file name with specific information about your film.
  5. Click Ok.

Export DCP from DaVinci Resolve

  1. To export your video in DaVinci Resolve, go to the bottom of the lefthand panel and click Add to Render Queue. Once it’s done rendering, you’ll see which folder it’s saved to.

If Premiere Pro or DaVinci Resolve aren’t your flavor, you can also use free online tools or go through a pro DCP shop for the best export 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.

You can sign up right now and get 20 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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