Outfits help bring movies to screens worldwide

In the new digital age, as films enter the final phase of their journey to the silver screen, work that was traditionally undertaken by film labs has been assumed by a group of global companies whose multiple divisions and functions reflect the complexity of film delivery today.

As they’ve always done, these outfits bring movies to screens worldwide via film prints (the purview of the old-time labs). More recently, they’ve also been doing this on digital media. But in addition, they handle delivery via DVD and Blu-ray and are becoming more involved in video on demand and Internet services.

This group includes — but is not limited to — Ascent, Deluxe, FotoKem, Technicolor, Prime Focus and Reliance MediaWorks.

Yet, despite the explosion in digital services, reports of the death of film have been greatly exaggerated.

“As we go along, we’ll certainly be dealing with film less and less as more new movies are made with only digital components,” says Doug Parrish, exec veep of operations at Ascent Media. But he notes that “many of the most important movies ever made were created on film, so you’ll always be going back to that original film each time you want to get the best scan possible to take it into the newest digital format.

“Scanning technology — all technology — gets better every year, so each time you scan it you’ve only got the best scan you can get today. Tomorrow you’re going to be able to make a better one.”

For film labs that began their existence in the all-film era, the move to digital isn’t necessarily a problem as much as it’s about evolving their services to fit the changing needs of their clients.

One of the most challenging and fastest expanding areas is digital asset management — the backing up, archiving and maintenance of all the individual elements used to create a movie. Those in the business of helping filmmakers maintain organizational control over their workflow recognize that this process is crucial, especially as theatrical and home entertainment release schedules become more compressed.

“For 35mm release schedules, we have increased our capacity in Hollywood, Barcelona and Sydney to accommodate shorter turnaround schedules from locked picture to the release date,” says Warren Stein, COO of Deluxe. “Along with our bulk release printing labs in Toronto and London, we can deliver 35mm prints on a much faster schedule.

“In home entertainment, we begin the creation of the Blu-ray or DVD master during the post-production process of the theatrical release, rather than waiting until the release date of the picture.”

Some film labs are also expanding the sorts of services they provide with an eye on becoming a kind of one-stop shop for filmmakers and studios. FotoKem recently acquired L.A. Studios/Margarita Mix in order to broaden the range of services it’s able to offer prospective clients.

“There’s a lot of talent there that we wanted to add to our services in terms of sound recording and mixing capability,” says Mike Morelli, SVP of strategic planning for FotoKem. “They were a great fit for us. … The reality is that this business is growing and changing, so you can’t bet on just one aspect.”

For FotoKem and other service providers, this means that diversifying what they are able to offer a prospective client becomes a huge part of the long-term plan.

Regardless of whether these companies are dealing with film or a multitude of digital elements, one of the greatest challenges remains managing the sheer volume of assets under the pressure of time constraints.

“I do expect that the complexity of the tasks we have to complete will go up and the time frames that we have to complete those tasks will continue to collapse,” says Joe Berchtold, president Technicolor Creative Services. “There will continue to be more versions of every movie we do — multiple ones for DVD releases and for different territories — so really our job is to manage all that complexity and make sure that we still address the needs filmmakers, creatives, distributors and studios.”

Reliance MediaWorks senior veep of U.S. operations Reid Burns believes 3D in television and film may prove especially important for his company, though there are still challenges to overcome in terms of audience reaction and the time needed to complete post.

“It sure looks like 3D TV is going to go great guns,” says Burns. “We are … working with several studios and filmmakers, as we believe our expertise in 3D post can significantly relieve many of the common capture issues in 3D and alleviate the problematic view fatigue that has always given 3D a bad rap.”

Reliance MediaWorks is also a market leader in film processing and printing, processing a large number of Hindi films every year. The company also has a new digital lab designed to complement its processing business within the same premises at Film City Mumbai.

As part of its expansion, Reliance MediaWorks has acquired Lowry Digital, which will bolster the company’s restoration work. The company recently restored versions of “Fantasia” for Disney and some Marilyn Monroe films for Fox.

“What we’re really talking about is survival,” says Rob Hummel, CEO for North American post-production at Prime Focus. “These companies and our company have to grow and change with what’s happening out there, and that means working with clients who come to us for everything from 3D to visual effects.”

To that end, Prime Focus has a large menu of products for potential clients to peruse, including Clear, a workflow-management system that allows filmmakers to access their digital assets from anywhere in the world, and View-D, its proprietary system for converting 2D images into stereoscopic 3D images, famously used in “Clash of the Titans.”

Hummel agrees that one of the biggest challenges facing his company and others is dealing with the studios’ compressed release schedules. Also critical: handling the complex workflow issues resulting from dealing with massive digital assets.

“It can become overwhelming if you don’t really watch what you’re doing or if release dates get moved up,” says Hummel. “We work hard to make sure everything stays on track.”

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