Telecom giants, games companies and video retailers are re-energising the North American VoD market. John Hazelton reports

VoD programming has been available for close to a decade in the US. Until recently, however, the Hollywood studios, eager to protect the DVD market, have offered relatively few major movies to cable operators' VoD services. And those that were offered were only made available six weeks or more after DVD release.

Now, with DVD growth slowing and the digital cable universe expanding (US digital cable customers numbered more than 36 million as of last September, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association), more movies are taking the VoD route. And more buyers are in the market for VoD rights.

Traditional buyers include major cable systems such as Comcast, Cablevision and Time Warner and aggregators such as In Demand, ViewNow and Popcorn Home Entertainment. New entrants in the VoD space include telecoms companies such as AT&T, with its Homezone service, and Verizon, with its FiOS TV fibre-optic Iptv (internet protocol television) service.

Video retailers are also moving in, usually via the internet: Blockbuster last year bought Movielink, the internet-based movie service originally launched by a group of Hollywood studios; Amazon has launched its Unbox joint venture with TiVo; and Netflix recently revealed plans to develop a set-top box for movie streaming with LG Electronics.

And device-based services such as Xbox Live Marketplace and iTunes are bringing computer giants Microsoft and Apple into the VoD arena.

In this energised VoD market, the studios are becoming more adventurous. Warner Bros, for one, is increasing the number of titles it releases simultaneously on DVD and via VoD, with films including Michael Clayton and The Brave One getting the day-and-date treatment. The move follows a test last summer showing, the studio said, that simultaneous DVD and VoD launches boost DVD and VoD sales and only slightly dent DVD rentals.

Warner and Universal recently announced a deal with Cablevision and Popcorn Home Entertainment under which movies including American Gangster and The Bourne Ultimatum will be released simultaneously on DVD and via VoD if customers fork out $19.95 for a DVD that arrives a few days after the VoD download.

Distributors of independent and foreign films, meanwhile, are getting a few more opportunities to tap into VoD revenue. Specialised VoD services offering foreign language and indie fare to US viewers and web surfers include IFC In Theaters, Bollywood specialist Bodvod, the advertiser-sponsored (and therefore free to consumers) Film Festival Channel offered by distributor Film Movement, internet-based Jaman and cable-based Eurocinema.

International sales companies Fortissimo Films and Celluloid Dreams both signed deals last year with Jaman, while Nima Entertainment is supplying Farsi-language Iranian films to Eurocinema.

Jaman CEO Gaurav Dhillon says his service, which has more than 3,500 films under contract (usually for the entire world outside their home territories) and charges users $1.99 for a seven-day rental, is winning over sales companies to the idea of VoD as an alternative, or maybe precursor to theatrical exposure.

'We went to the AFM in 2006 and we might as well have been selling malaria,' Dhillon jokes. 'In 2007, it was 180 degrees different. The quality of the service and the way we've built the site has impressed people.'

The expansion of the US VoD marketplace will make it easier for specialised movie services to establish themselves, argues Steve Matela, vice-president of affiliate relations at Eurocinema, which is currently available in 16 million homes in North America.

Advances in VoD technology 'are going to bring in more competition', Matela says, 'but they're also going to make it easier for us to market Eurocinema.'