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At Last, An Online Art House


TECH & YOU PODCAST

According to the "long tail" theory of the Web, e-merchants can make a bundle selling low-volume products to niche markets because they don't bear the cost of maintaining retail floor space and inventory. Amazon.com (AMZN) and iTunes (AAPL) have proven this can work with their far-flung book and music offerings. But vendors of online movies have never had a clue.

Until Jaman, that is. This startup download service aims to become an online film festival for world movies and the works of independent filmmakers—the sort that don't have distribution deals with Miramax Film (DIS) or Fox Searchlight Pictures (NWS).

The concept is more novel than you might think. Outside of Jaman, the movies available for download today are mostly a subset of the limited offerings at your local Blockbuster (BBI), dominated by films that have recently finished their theatrical runs, box-office hits of the last few years, direct-to-video flops, and just a smattering of classics. Movielink's download service offers fewer than 150 of the thousands of movies made before 1970, plus a shamefully underpowered roster of 40 foreign films.

Jaman is helping to correct this imbalance. You may never have heard of many of its offerings if you aren't an avid fan of Bollywood productions or martial arts movies. Personally, I'm not. Still, I enjoyed watching Miracle in Cracow, a quirky Hungarian fantasy, and Semen, a goofy Spanish romantic comedy about, of all things, in vitro fertilization.

LIKE NEARLY ALL MOVIE DOWNLOAD services, Jaman requires its own software player, which is available for both Windows and Mac OS X. The image quality is very good, both on PC displays and on the big screen I connected to my laptop. Someone at Jaman obviously cares deeply about the conversion of film to video, a process that poses both technical and artistic challenges, and has done it about as well as it can be done.

Jaman's business model is also a step up from other services. Most Jaman offerings are available to purchase for $4.99, much lower than the $15-plus price of a DVD. Or you can pay $1.99 to rent and watch for seven days, as opposed to the 24 hours most services allow. For the moment, a goodly chunk of Jaman's library can be rented without charge.

As befits a Web startup, Jaman offers an assortment of social networking features. The player lets you enter comments to share with other viewers, tied to specific moments in the movie. As the film plays, the comments appear in a window to the side of the video display. I found it a bit distracting and preferred to watch my movies full-screen, but I can see how this would appeal to a generation used to instant messaging its way through movies in theaters. Or maybe you don't want to watch a commercial film at all—a new feature in Jaman allows users to submit their own creations. Users can also post reviews.

Jaman isn't the only video service trying to exploit the niche marketing opportunities of the Web. A service called Akimbo offers a potpourri of video, from foreign TV series to Turner Classic Movies (TWX), that can be downloaded and watched either on a Windows PC or on a TV using an RCA set-top box ($99 after rebate). One drawback is complex pricing that includes a $10 monthly fee, plus additional fees for much of the content. Another service, EZTakes, has an eclectic variety of foreign, independent, and cult films and a scattering of old Hollywood productions. Instead of using a player, you download the films and burn them to DVD. Prices range from $1.99 to around $16.

By definition, Jaman and other out-of-the-mainstream services aren't to everyone's taste. But for anyone looking to go beyond the greatest hits approach of iTunes, CinemaNow, and the others, Jaman is well worth a look.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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