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by Anthony Kaufman
February 16, 2007 4:54 AM
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World Cinema Web: Can Digital Downloads Offer Viable Avenues for Int'l Films?

Ivana Baquero and Doug Jones as The Pale Man from Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth." Photo by Teresa Isasi.

The diversity of this year's Oscar nominees has sparked discussion about an increasing globalization of the American film industry and audience. With its six nominations, "Pan's Labyrinth" recently broke the box-office record for a Spanish-language film in the U.S., while a trio of foreign-tongued actresses (Penelope Cruz, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikucki) crashed the Academy's vaunted acting categories.

But for all the heat generated by these few foreign-language titles, thousands of quality international films are being left out in the cold, either losing their way in U.S. theaters or never getting a chance to breach North American shores. "Foreign cinema has been greatly underserved in the U.S.," says Carlos Montalvo, SVP of Operations for Jaman.com. "And if something doesn't happen soon, it will become endangered."

Founded to make sure world cinema stays alive and well, Jaman plans to build an online community around international and independent movies, while offering digital downloads of more than a 1,000 feature films. Banking on the ubiquity of film festivals, both as potential partners and as a source of audiences hungry for non-mainstream cinema, Montalvo says, "We're using the power of Web 2.0 to tap these markets."

Jaman's beta launch comes on the heels of major digital-distribution announcements from two of the biggest retailers: Wal-Mart, which sells roughly 40% of the country's DVDs, is now offering video downloads on its website; Amazon's recently launched "Unbox" download service made a pact with TiVo to allow users to watch movies on their TVs.

Last month, Netflix also announced a free video-streaming function on its website, which will be fully operational for all subscribers to watch movies on their computers by June.

While the heavy-hitters see a future in digital distribution, do Internet platforms offer foreign and indie features a viable alternative to a theatrical marketplace that is largely prohibitive?

Jaman is certaintly betting on it. While most consumers have not yet jumped into the digital-download arena, Jaman believes that its focus on "socialization" will cultivate more world-cinema enthusiasts. "By and large, most other sites coming to online distribution are static retail sites," argues Montalvo. "Just putting up the jpeg of a film is not going to move these movies; it's really about looking at community and how people naturally socialize on the Internet."

Like a social-networking site, Jaman features profiles for individual users and specific discussion areas ("Bollywood 101," "Latino Filmmakers Group," "Hong Kong - Kung Fu") around which fans of its five core areas -- Asia, Latin America, Europe, South Asia and U.S.-made fiction and documentaries -- can interact.

Each group is spearheaded by "executive producers," which market and acquire material for the site, as well as consult with programming agents in the specific territories. Jaman has already made an impressive array of pacts, licensing material from distributors specific to each of its regions -- for example, Celestial's Shaw Brothers library for Hong Kong actioners, Venevision for Latin American titles, Tip Top Entertainment for Bollywood films, and Vanguard Cinema for American and international independents.

Jaman has also made strategic partnerships with film festivals, including Cinequest, Los Angeles Latino, Miami International, San Francisco Asian Film and the San Francisco International Film Festival, which will unveil select films from its 50th anniversary program online via Jaman. "We're working to extend the festival experience year-round," says Montalvo. The company is also working with independent filmmakers to distribute their work online: producers receive 30% of the gross revenue of rental and sales. "Our primary business model is straight revenue," says Montalvo. "We make money when the filmmakers make money." While there's no question that Jaman has undertaken a worthy mission. And their top ten most downloaded films reflect an inspiring example of international inroads: five are Indian, including the #1 blockbuster "Black," others are from Denmark, Hong Kong, Cuba and the U.S. But are there enough Internet-savvy xenophiles to sustain Jaman?

Netflix has shown a steady, but small increase in its world cinema business, which could bode well for the evolution of the market. Last year, foreign film rentals were around 5.8%, whereas today Netflix's director of corporate communications Steve Swasey puts the figure at 6.5%. "We are a bastion of distribution for smaller, independent films that wouldn't see the light of day, otherwise," he says.

But Swasey acknowledges the company's new "Watch Now" download-to-rent function is not a "material event" for Netflix. "We're including it in the service, and we rolled it out because the future is electronic delivery," he says. But he adds the end-point for digital distribution isn't the home computer; it's the TV. "This is just a first step for Netflix," he says.

Of the 1,000 films available through Netflix's new streaming feature, roughly 100 are foreign-language. More than 60%, however, are old Bollywood films. The remaining 40 titles are a healthy mix of festival favorites (Jean-Marc Vallee's "C.R.A.Z.Y."), classics (Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, Wrath of God"), and recent foreign standouts ("The Motorcycle Diaries," "Run Lola Run"). But a few dozen free foreign films aren't exactly going to create new audiences.

Swasey also notes that users of the new web feature tend to be under 30-years-old. "The smaller format is okay for them," he says. The mainstream audience still wants to watch the films on DVD, Swasey contends, "which will be the preferred delivery method for at least 5-7 years."

With the audience for many non-genre foreign-language films over the age of 30, this could present a stumbling block to Jaman.

Jaman is also bypassing DVDs altogether, distributing the films through a video codec called h.264, whose resolution is excellent ("better-than-DVD," touts the company).

This may simplify Jaman's business, surpass the quality of some of its rivals, and look to the future of exhibition platforms -- "we are tapping into the trend that media is going to be device-independent," says Montalvo -- where users can watch h.264 media on intelligent plasmas screen TVs or mobile phones. But it's difficult to say whether the target audience for the 2001 Taiwanese Berlinale winner "Betelnut Beauty" -- recently featured on Jaman -- will be among those early technology adopters.

Jonathan Marlow, a VP of content at online video store GreenCine, says the most popular films on its video-on-demand service -- which currently includes 3,000 non-adult films, roughly 40% of which are foreign -- are movies that "have some awareness," he says, citing Caveh Zahedi's early work, the short films of Hal Hartley, and Hong Kong martial-arts movies.

Marlow says the VOD business continues to grow every month, and that international sales agents tend to be more open to licensing digital rights as a way to tap the lucrative U.S. audience. "They realize that any chance to get into this market is worthwhile," says Marlow. But he adds that "the largest barrier" to such films is getting people "to spend money on something that they've never heard of, because it's an unknown commodity."

That's where GreenCine, like Jaman, believes in building a community around the films. Because after all, who is going to watch such GreenCine titles as the 2002 Polish feature "Angels in Cracow" or the 2005 Greek drama "Eyes of Night" without some discussion of what these films are, and whether they're worth viewers' time and money?

"We've obviously focused on trying to provide context for this work," explains Marlow, citing the popular GreenCine Daily, which has become an online hyperlink bible for cinephiles, as well as a revamped site, which is in the process of including more interviews, interactivity and even social-networking capabilities. "Without that," he adds, echoing Jaman's ethos, "I don't know how you can build that audience."

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5 Comments

  • michaelmbrown | February 21, 2007 2:13 AMReply

    To both David and theirgreat: it's almost amusing to see you two arguing. I agree with both to a limited extent. Who is technically speaking right can be argued over, but David, as much as I agree with you and am an old-fashioned filmwatcher myself who prefers to pop a DVD into the player and turn up a real amplifier (if I can't make it to the theater), where the others have a point is that there is no point in denying the evidence. The world is turning online and that goes for all generations. If we old farts don't learn to adapt (our grandfathers and grandmothers already are and I have proof), we will not sell our work, and I am not one to make films for my personal library. I make films because I want to share stories with others and I need to make a living, preferably by making films of course. This goes for most of us. The online industry is filling a social gap that is growing as it is being filled: people are lazy, and the until they realize for themselves the difference between watching a feature documentary or music and dance films on a cell-phone or a computer and enjoying it on a good screen (tv or theater), they will look for the easy way out � at least what they think is the easy way, and they will soon learn that your way is sometimes a lot easier (think of the hours spent online just registering as a user for the hundreds of sites like this one). The only way we can help the general public to learn and appreciate those differences is by providing them with films that make the difference: good pictures and good sound telling good stories that literally scream for a bigger screen. Our films is the only thing that can educate our audience in the long run, and contrarily to what most tv-producers and advertisers claim, the audience is not stupid and is already fighting back, hence the rapidly growing interest for cultural programs. DVD vs. downloads ? I'm having a hell of a time adapting, frankly, but I'm willing to make the effort or I go back to taxi-driving. We must learn to find a good balance between both, as we did in the past with tv-productions vs. cinema.

    Michael Brown, independent filmmaker

  • lfproductions | February 17, 2007 4:00 AMReply

    In response to theirgrrreat, perhaps you should look further into your so called million times more secure DRM. (Digital Rights Management). Even if they can update, that doesn't mean the movies that have been cracked using the earlier versions of DRM will be safe. From what Ive seen up to version 7 has been cracked already! As soon as the DRM is cracked for a film, that person can then make copies or send it to everyone using bit torrents or other shareware programs such as Limewire. Im not saying DVDs arent easy for people to upload and steal. However, it makes it just a little more difficult when you make them put the DVD into their computer rip it and then crack it. Also many DVDs separate the film into separate files, which takes an additional program to fix. But with the online films all one needs to do is get past the DRM and theyre good to go. Now about the size of these films, I myself burn my own films to DVD and I know that films can be condensed to around 1GB. Nevertheless, I forgot to say in my last post that DVDs also have extra features. So even if they can get a 1.5-hour movie to 1GB in size they still need to deal with the extra features. Also, why in the world would I want to wait 3.5 hours to download a movie? That would mean I would have to plan my day all in advance.



    Hey, I want to watch a film. Oh thats right, I have to wait 3.5 hours for it to download first!



    So you can go with your Internet downloads with your fast DSL line but I think Ill stick with my DVDs. Less work, less time, more features.



    David Dorn

    Lost in the Fog Productions

    http://www.lfproductions.com

  • theirgrrreat | February 16, 2007 8:27 AMReply

    In response to David Dorn I would have to say that you should do a bit of homework before stating a bunch of sensationality comments on things that you don't know anything about (in this case technology). Programs to rip DVDs have existed since about a month after DVDs were available to the general public so you DO NOT have any extra security with them than you would downloading a movie from the internet with a proper DRM. As a matter of fact, movies downloaded from the internet with a DRM are about a million times more secure because the DRM model can be changed if it's cracked but the DVD industry can't just recall all of the DVD players in the world and upgrade their security measures. The next point is in regards to the size of the movies of which you are correct that they are huge on DVDs but you didn't mention that the movies downloaded from the internet are going to be compressed to about 1 GB per hour of playing time which is about 20% of their original size. Oh, and the quality can be better (which I think is the case with Jaman) than it's DVD counter-part. About the only thing that you were right about is in regards to those trying to download a movie at 56 kb but those with even the crappiest DSL line will be able to download a 1.5 hour movie in about 3.5 hours. Those blessed with a fast DSL line like me should be able to download the same movie in about 45 minutes.

  • lfproductions | February 16, 2007 7:25 AMReply

    First off I would have to agree that foreign films don�t get the recognition they deserve. I recently went to see Pan�s Labyrinth in theaters and it was far better then many American films I have seen recently. Other films that should be recognized would be Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. However, they went straight to DVD and instead of showing them in theaters they are just going to remake it into an American version. Following the path of The Ring and The Grudge. I can�t see why they would want to ruin a film such as the above when they could simply dub them (which they did). I have seen countless movies from China such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon that made it to theaters being dubbed so why not the other great films coming out of foreign countries. Perhaps we should look into making theaters that only play foreign films?



    Moving on to the Online Film distribution that Jaman, Netflix, and Amazon.com are all working on. I think the idea is good on the aspect that it will save many resources and money that it takes to manufacture the DVD�s but it will also makes it easier to steal movies. Most DVD�s come with a copyright seal and software that stops people from uploading the content to computers to distribute for free. So if you put it on these websites it will just make it that much easier for people to steal. This may be good for those companies that are distributing the films but for the actual film companies this could be very bad. Another problem is many Americans do not own computers that are powerful enough to download all these movies. Seeing as a DVD stores 4.7 GB�s and the average computer comes with about 60GBs that leaves room for about 12.5 films provided you have nothing else stored on your computer and that the films use that space. Also with the release of HD DVD�s and Blueray discs that hold up to 50 GB�s your looking at even less room. Most people buy DVD�s so they can watch there films again and again not to download once and have to get ride of it to make room for the next movie. The last problem is the fact that the files will be so big, that to download one film on a 56kb connection could take hours to even days. Even a DSL connection can still take hours to download a single film. Perhaps instead of distributing these films through download jaman and other companies could simply put the trailers of all the independent films on there site. If the viewer thinks it is interesting they can order the DVD through the site and have it delivered via DVD. This would help prevent people from simply stealing the movies and the films will still get recognition. They just simply need more recognition like most films in the U.S.



    David Dorn

    Lost in the Fog Productions

    http://www.lfproductions.com

  • shellyi | February 16, 2007 3:10 AMReply

    I wholeheartedly agree that foreign language films are being underserved in the United States,and I hope the previous comment that "dubbing foreign language films would serve them better in theaters" - I don't think so.It is not about the fear of subtitles - these films should be heard in their own language - and reading subtitles does not take away from the experience, rather it enhances it. More importantly, while the internet could certainly serve the cause of advancing and building the audience for foreign language films, we should not overlook the importance of the shared theatrical experience these films offer. My programs - Cafe Cinematheque and Senses of Cinema at theaters in South Florida have been successfully drawing audiences upwards of 300 and more per screening of strictly foreign language films that have not received the attention they deserve. For over five years now, I have programmed and led discussions following each screening - hoping to illuminate the power and value of these films as a cultural experience. These are the kind of programs that will get more people to see these films the way they are meant to be presented. And I invite companies like Jaman and others to work with me toward creating more awareness for these films, not just on the internet, but in theaters, the way they were intended be seen,the way they are seen at film festivals, thus inspiring audiences to then download them for further viewing.