When I was in Bergen for the Bergen International Film Festival, just as I was finishing my lutefisk, Paul Devlin (a fellow science doc filmmaker who has made a very successful film called "Blast") mentioned to me that there were some international distributors at the next table. I had a good conversation with one of them and attended a panel discussion where she was speaking, and learned quite a bit about getting a film ready for international distribution. Truth is, we had thought vaguely about it, but didn't really put a whole lot of thought into it.
Things I learned:
1. International outlets rarely want anything over 1 hour. Most American filmmakers aim for the feature, and the first hard hurdle is the realization that they're going to have to cut their baby to fit a 54-ish minute time slot. Luckily for us, we already jumped this hurdle and had our 53:30 cut ready to go.
2. There are many countries who do not subtitle foreign films. They dub them. Yes, that's right. Cultural issues, literacy issues, lot of different things mean you have to prepare your film to be dubbed into many different languages. How do you do this? You have to prepare what's called an M & E track (music and effects). This means you need to have your sound mixer work some magic on the edit: all the dialogue has to be pulled, but background sounds, music, sound effects, and everything else has to be left in. It makes me really curious to know how the dubbing is done. Do they hire a team of actors to play the different parts? Or do they just have one man and one woman who do it all? Do they just read the text, or do they... act?
A strange example of the expectations of dubbing can be found in the incredible film "I Am Cuba," which isn't exactly a documentary (but has been called a "poetic documentary"). This is a Russian film made in 1964, celebrating the communist revolution in Cuba. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but in the versions I've seen is quite a mind-bender in terms of its language: it was shot silent, then overdubbed with Spanish. However, a deep-voiced Russian "narrator" then repeats each line in a sonorous tone, whether the Spanish speaker was a man or a woman. Finally, on top of it all, are English subtitles. Whew.
So, the M&E tracks are placed on the master tape that you deliver. There are 4 sound channels on a master tape: 1 and 2 are for the regular stereo mix (in English) and 3 & 4 are for the M&E tracks. The broadcaster can access whichever they want.
3. For those countries who DO want to use subtitles, you have to also give them a version of the film that has no English text. Well, not actually the full version. On the same broadcast master, after the film ends, you insert blank versions of all the shots from the film that had text on them. These are called "textless elements," and are usually separated by a second or two of black. That way some lowly broadcast intern in the Czech Republic or Finland or Peru can insert the clean shots and slap their own subtitles on.
For example, our film has quite a few lines of text pointing out this or that fact or development. In addition, every once in a while a date will appear, and certainly everyone who speaks gets a name and ID (incidentally, these last are called "lower thirds"). All of those shots have to be provided at the end of the tape without any text on them.
4. Finally, the last thing to do is to convert your show to the PAL format. We in the US and Canada use NTSC, but in Europe and many places overseas PAL is the standard. What the heck are NTSC and PAL? I won't give you a technical answer (I do that in my classes at Northwestern) but here's the gist of it: imagine if two different cultures had the same idea and worked it to completion independently of each other. The end result would be the same, but the methodology would likely be completely different. That's the way it happened with video. They both work but they are utterly incompatible. Different frame rate, different size, different way color is encoded.
So, after that technical sidebar, back to my story: The woman I spoke with in Bergen took home a dvd and a few days later she indicated her company was interested in the possibility of distributing it internationally. Exciting! But it turns out they wanted a rather radical re-cut, in essence creating an entirely different film. We thanked them but passed.
Not long after, we got an email and a phone call from a Toronto-based company who had seen the film at the Pariscience festival (where it won the Audacity Award!). They were very interested, and in fact interested in moving fast because there was something called the "World Congress of Science Documentary" that they wanted to take our film to. To make a long story short (sorry, too late), we went into high gear and inked an international distribution deal!
So what have I been doing lately? You guessed it: creating M&E tracks and preparing textless elements. Soon I'll be able to send off the file to the post house for them to create the NTSC and PAL masters, and then... who knows? The Atom Smashers might be beaming into households from New Zealand to Iceland. A few days ago the distributor said "we've been inundated with requests for screeners." I like that word, inundated.