Go Jaman for Global Movie Downloads

Almost 18 months ago, Gaurav Dhillon, founder of Informatica, a Redwood City, Calif.-based enterprise software company, had just come back from a year-long stay in Argentina. He had left after guiding his first company through a gut-wrenching bust to a successful public offering. Spending his days dealing with the minutiae of the Sarbanes Oxley, however, was grinding him down.

He decided to take a year off, and spend time South of the border, learning Spanish and tango. Well, tango didn’t work out, but he did have a moment of clarity about what he wanted to do next: start an online video download company.

Like you, we also groaned when we first learnt about Dhillon’s idea. With over 300-odd video start-ups, not to mention all the money being spent by the likes of Apple and Wal-Mart and Google, we wondered if the world actually needed another online video download service.

“Everyone is focusing on that one square mile are in Hollywood,” says Dhillon — when there is a whole wide world whose content is in demand but is never distributed in the US. From French films to Bollywood potboilers, to the Kung Fu flicks from Hong Kong, the only place to buy (or rent) this content was ethnic grocery stores or small specialist video rental shops.

“This is the kind of content which gets little or no distribution in the US,” he argues. Being an immigrant himself, it was something Dhillon says he knew first hand. Convinced that it was a niche worth going after, he started Jaman, a San Francisco-based company. Given how we struggle to get Bollywood films, it is hard not to get excited about Jaman. Of course it helps that Dhillon has self-funded his company – to the tune of $3.5 million – a sign that the entrepreneur really believes in what he is doing.

“Our initial focus is on three immigrant communities – Latino community, people from Greater China and the Indian subcontinent,” says Dhillon. “These are underserved markets in North America, and many movies from those countries fail to get distribution in the US.” Eventually Jaman wants to become a distribution channel for European and US indie movies as well.

While it is not as lucrative mainstream market, Dhillon believes that it can become a multi-million-dollar-a-year business. Putamayo and Six Degrees are two record labels that have built profitable businesses by focusing on the non-mainstream world music acts.

But it wasn’t till Carlos Montalvo, a former member of the Apple QuickTime team joined, that things started to fall in place. Dhillon met Montalvo at a local film festival, and watched him participate in a panel on digital distribution.

“He was so spot on,” says Dhillon. After some arm-twisting Montalvo joined the company on January 2006 as senior vice president of operations. Eva Tse is the head of engineering. The three of them are the brain trust of the company, which uses BitTorrent-styled swarm casting technology (called Cascade) for its service. The company has built up its own network backend that includes super peers to help download the movies quickly. In addition, the company has built its own DRM and payment system. The 26-person company is split between San Francisco and Palo Alto.

We got a chance to try out the beta of the service, which at present has about 100 movies (and another 600 being encoded.) Jaman has signed deals with Celestial Pictures in Hong Kong for Chinese language and Venevision International, part of the Cisneros Group for Spanish-content. We will file a complete review later, but whatever little we tried was impressive, though needs some tweaks and polish.

You need to download a piece of software to make the videos play back on your computer (for now it only works on a computer). The good news is that the beta version works on both Mac and a PC. You can also watch a low-resolution version of the films on the web. The movies downloaded to your computer are high-definition, and can be rented for $1.99 for a week, or can be purchased for $4.99 a copy. At this time, due to international copyright regulations, the downloaded movies cannot be burned on a DVD.

I think that is the biggest knock on the service, but still, compared to about $15 you pay for a DVD of a foreign film, it is still worth it. There are a lot of shortcomings in the films on demand. For instance, there aren’t too many new movies — though we didn’t mind seeing Jackie Chan as an extra and Bruce Lee in his primal glory.

Well, instead of taking our word for it, why don’t you try the service. It might pleasantly surprise you.