Katherine Boehret

Cinema Buffs Capture Hard-to-Find Films

If you’re a fan of foreign and independent films, but you can’t always find friends to join you at the movie theater or you don’t have a theater nearby that shows such films, your luck may be turning.

This week I tested Jaman.com, a Web site that gives users the chance to download independent and international movies from the Web directly to their computers. It also serves as a social networking forum where movie watchers can read one another’s reviews, write their own comments that run alongside the film, and join groups with people who have similar tastes in movies. Jaman (pronounced jah-mahn), has 1,800 titles. It charges $1.99 for rentals, which can be watched for up to seven days, and $4.99 to buy a movie outright.

Jaman.com
Jaman.com’s home page (above) suggests movies for downloading, such as ‘Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories,’ and comments can be seen in a side panel while the film is being watched (below).

Jaman isn’t alone in the online movie downloading business, and its competitors boast bigger selections. Just this year Netflix Inc., known for popularizing DVD rentals through the mail, started offering its own movie downloads. So as to encourage this new method, Netflix builds movie-watching hours into its monthly plans, which range from $5 to $24 and include a certain number of hours during which downloaded movies can be watched. Of the 85,000 DVD titles available on Netflix.com, 4,000 titles can be downloaded.

Blockbuster Inc., which followed Netflix into the DVD mailing business, showed an interest in the online downloading method last month when it acquired Movielink LLC, a movie downloading service previously owned by Hollywood’s major studios.

And Apple Inc., which began selling films for $10 to $15 a year ago on its iTunes Store, offers over 500 movies. Amazon is in the game, too, as is Microsoft.

But Jaman hopes its niche films and viewer-comments system will set it apart.

Jaman.com

I took a close look at Jaman, downloading movies from various countries, posting comments about them on the Jaman.com site and reading what others thought of the films. I used a Mac and two Windows computers running Microsoft’s Vista and XP operating systems, and tried Jaman on all three major Web browsers. The site itself can feel a bit overwhelming, jumbling a lot of text together on pages that lack a clean central place where every element comes together. More than once, films blacked out in midplay, and Jaman’s community aspect didn’t seem as well-organized or integrated as I had hoped.

Jaman has another major downside: It forces every user to designate some of his or her bandwidth to distribute movies for the company, using a peer-to-peer program. Community network setups like this aren’t unheard of; Skype and many others use such setups. But these other companies are often free, while Jaman is charging users for movies while simultaneously using their bandwidth to reduce strain on its own servers. Participation in the peer-to-peer network is required while downloading a movie but can be stopped at all other times. Even so, this is a real chink in Jaman’s armor.

Jaman.com drops users into a site where five movies are showcased, showing their trailers one after another. Other titles can be searched according to region, categories and genres, top movies or films made and submitted by users. I skimmed through flicks from Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, North America, Europe and Latin America. A useful feature displayed details about a movie when I held my cursor over its title including a description, the movie’s Jaman rating (out of five stars), duration and genre. Jaman doesn’t sort movies by duration, which would have saved me time while I was looking for a short film to download for a cross-country flight.

I was surprised to notice that none of the movies prominently displayed Motion Picture Association of America ratings. Jaman explained that these data are buried within a sub-menu of details about a movie, but many films didn’t list ratings — even those with MPAA ratings.

Three rentals come included with each Jaman membership, which was free and quickly obtained in my experience, though a friend of mine had trouble when he didn’t receive Jaman’s email verification with two different addresses. I downloaded and watched movies from Mexico, the United Kingdom and North America, and watched a 21-minute Japanese short film that streamed directly from the site and didn’t require downloading. Community comments and reviews helped me pick movies, especially Jaman’s own one-line summary that it calls “Our Take.”

To download and watch movies from Jaman, users must first download the Jaman player. But this player doesn’t work with the Web site as smoothly as it should. For example, after reading various reviews of movies, I found a comedy from the U.K. called “Nobody The Great,” and opted to rent it. I downloaded the Jaman player but it didn’t recognize that I already signed in and chose the movie to rent on the Web site. I started over by signing in, finding the film and choosing the rental option, this time using the player.

“Nobody The Great” turned out to be an amusing story about two English guys who find supposed terrorists in their home but are more concerned about not ruining an evening planned with two women. The film is only 47 minutes long and 753 megabytes, but it took about two hours to download using a broadband connection. The most maddening thing about downloading the movie using Jaman was that the estimated time until completion kept changing dramatically — one moment it read 224 minutes, the next 69 minutes, then 22, 40 and 17. Other downloads followed this same wacky pattern, some worse than others.

After watching a movie, I was prompted by Jaman to rate the movie or to write a review about it. Jaman uses email messages with links to join discussions with others who saw the same movie. These discussions groups are more like blogs, with each person’s comment listed as a different post. Some of the movies that I watched hadn’t been reviewed in a while, so I wasn’t as inspired to add my comments as I might have been if there was a live discussion taking place.

This staleness was experienced again in one of my favorite Jaman features: comments that run on-screen during a film if you’re online. These can be hidden so as not to distract the viewer, but I found some of the comments really interesting. For example, while watching a subtitled Mexican movie from 1995 called “El Callejon De Los Milagros” starring Salma Hayek, comments appeared roughly every 10 minutes from a user named Cinequest. I later learned that Cinequest represented the Northern California motion picture institute of the same name and that the comments left weren’t live but were stuck to the movie so that anyone watching it could see them. I was free to leave my own comments, but I didn’t have quite as much to say about camera angles as Cinequest. The film director’s comments can also be seen here.

Jaman says that its road map includes plans for live comments, which would encourage more interaction with others as if watching a movie with friends.

Though I didn’t spend a majority of my time there, Jaman’s Community section seemed a little weak. Groups like “Bollywood 101″ and “Cult Movies” had members and comments left by these members, but still seemed somewhat disconnected from films. For example, preview clips of certain movies were posted to share with the group, but most of the comments made by the group weren’t related to the clips.

Jaman introduced me to new films that I wouldn’t otherwise have found. But its peer-to-peer system and its overall lack of real-time comments were frustrating. I’d also like to see Jaman reorganize the look of its site so it doesn’t feel so cluttered.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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