Coronavirus Steals Show as Israeli Entertainment Industry Hits Standstill
Pre-pandemic. A view of the entrance to the Jerusalem Cinematheque. (WIkimedia Commons/Gilabrand)

Coronavirus Steals Show as Israeli Entertainment Industry Hits Standstill

Some filmmakers opt to stream creations online after cinemas shut down, while ongoing productions hit pause button

As the COVID-19 outbreak leaves many stuck at home, demand for online entertainment is at an all-time high.

Lockdowns around the world have crippled a number of industries, including sports, concerts and other forms of live entertainment, but they have created ideal conditions for binge-watching TV shows and movies. In fact, market research released this week by London-based OnePoll shows that the average person in the United States is streaming eight hours of content each day – double the amount from before the pandemic.

The study also shows that with the spread of coronavirus, the average American now subscribes to four streaming services.

But can the show go on?

Even as a growing number of people are glued to their screens and content from Netflix, Amazon Prime and other platforms, film and television productions have come to a grinding halt.

The work of the film industry, known for its large production crews and a reliance on actors, makeup artists and others traveling from abroad, has stopped in most countries, and in various stages of production. Hollywood productions effectively ceased last month after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered everyone to stay home.

In Israel, the story is the same. The entertainment industry has hit the pause button. Movie theaters across the country have been shuttered, and casts and crews have been sent home.

“Everything is on hold and you can’t shoot anything now,” Israeli filmmaker Gal Uchovsky, who has worked on a number of high-profile movies, told The Media Line.

“The only things being shot now are documentary projects of people during the coronavirus [pandemic] − where people film themselves at home in kind of like a self-documentation − or news-related items,” he said. “In Israel at the moment, nothing [else] is being shot.”

Uchovsky recently co-produced Sublet, which was slated to have its world premiere this week at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York as part of the International Narrative Feature Competition. Directed by Eytan Fox and produced with Micky Rabinovitz, Moshe Edery and Leon Edery, the film tells the story of a New York Times travel correspondent visiting Tel Aviv for his latest article and finding himself swept up in the coastal city’s unique energy.

Actors John Benjamin Hickey (right) and Niv Nissim in the Tel Aviv-based film ‘Sublet’ from Israeli director Eytan Fox. (Daniel Miller/Tribeca)

Sublet will be screened online for the press, buyers and the jury as part of the Tribeca festival, but not for the wider public.

“The plan for our movie is that we have representatives in the US and they are now showing it to buyers,” Uchovsky explained.

“When you go to a festival, you go there to make the movie visible and available,” he continued. “You take it to a festival in order to sell it to streamers and to distributors…. One good route for us is if a big streamer buys our movie to show it.”

Tribeca, which was set to open on April 15, opted to move much of its showcase films online rather than postpone the whole event to a later date. France’s Cannes Film Festival originally announced that it had moved the event to July, but this week said that summer screenings were “no longer an option.” Meanwhile, South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, which was supposed to take place at the beginning of March, decided to stream participating films for 10 days on Amazon Prime later this month.

A view of crowds gathering at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in a previous year. (Courtesy)

According to Uchovsky, filmmakers have two options: to take their movie home and wait for the world to return to normal, or look for alternative distribution methods. Either choice is a gamble.

“The coronavirus has totally changed everything,” he said. “Most of the world is on hold. We don’t know yet how things will shape up.”

Others in the film industry are reeling from the changes and financial uncertainty.

Misha Pletinsky is the owner and art director of the Tel Aviv-based Crazot Studio, which designs and produces film posters, DVD covers and title sequences for movies released in Israel.

The studio typically works on two major films and several student projects each month. March and April − which normally precede several important film festivals − are typically among the busiest months of the year. But no longer.

“In the past month, there was nothing to work on,” Pletinsky told The Media Line. “We are still waiting to be paid for the last poster we made, and the producer already told me: ‘Listen, I don’t know when we’ll be able to pay you.’”

Like many self-employed people in Israel, Pletinsky says he has no income and is still waiting to receive unemployment benefits. Hundreds of independent workers, contractors and freelancers protested in Tel Aviv on Sunday against the government’s handling of these benefits, demanding changes to eligibility criteria and an easing of financial and tax burdens.

The posters Pletinsky’s studio produces are used for promotional purposes at film festivals and movie theaters, neither of which is up and running.

“Even without [this crisis], most viewers had already gone to television [or online], and cinemas were struggling to fill their seats,” he explained. “This is just another nail in the coffin for cinemas.”

A screenshot of the Crazot Studio website. (Crazot.com) 

With movie theaters in many places shut for the foreseeable future, some are expected to file for bankruptcy if the crisis continues into the summer months. AMC Theaters, North America’s largest chain of cinemas, already furloughed 26,000 of its 27,000 workers after it closed its outlets last month.

Dr. Noa Regev, CEO of the Jerusalem Film Center, which houses the city’s Cinematheque and film archive, told The Media Line that everyone in the film industry was “very concerned” about the situation.

“For us, it’s not only about bringing films to the audience, it’s also about creating a meeting place for filmmakers and the audience,” said Regev, who also heads the Jerusalem Film Festival. “It’s not only about watching movies, but also about watching them together on a big screen – and I think that this is a big part of the medium of cinema.”

The Jerusalem Cinematheque has made some movies available online for home viewing. According to Regev, while thousands are tuning in to watch on a regular basis, “the financial damage for all the cultural institutions and cinemas in Israel that rely on audiences is huge.”

The Jerusalem Film Festival, a major event on Israel’s cultural calendar, is meanwhile scheduled to proceed as planned in July.

“There is a lot of uncertainty right now, but I hope things will become clearer for all of us in the near future and that the Israeli government will create a structured plan of how to come out of this crisis so that we can adjust and make decisions accordingly,” Regev said.

“We’re still optimistic that we can have the festival this year,” she noted, “but the final decision regarding the dates will be taken in a couple of weeks.”

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