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World Cinema Web: Can Digital Downloads Offer Viable Avenues for Int’l Films?

World Cinema Web: Can Digital Downloads Offer Viable Avenues for Int'l Films?

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 “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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