Army Comedy-drama ‘Zero Motivation’ Leads Blockbuster Year for Israeli Films

The local movie industry may be small, but it’s enjoying a record-breaking year buoyed by a string of hit comedies and unashamedly commercial stories.

Two soldiers with emotional issues and a commander with control issues (all female) may mark a milestone in the history of Israeli cinema. They are the stars of “Zero Motivation,” the successful movie by Talya Lavie and one of the reasons for the blockbuster year Israeli movies have been enjoying in 2014.

It still doesn’t pay to make movies in Israel, warns the local industry, and they still need government support. Despite those caveats, locally made movies are more popular than ever before.

Tobias Hochstein

“Zero Motivation,” Lavie’s debut feature, is the biggest hit of the year. It’s already sold 600,000 tickets (in a population of 8.9 million, including Palestinians). And since it’s still showing, it could even break the box-office record of 2010 comedy “This is Sodom.”

“We can certainly smile. The movie ranks highest, even if we include the Hollywood movies shown here this year,” says Yossi Uzrad, co-owner of July-August, the production company behind “Zero Motivation.”

Box-office receipts in Israel have been growing for years, but the increase has been mainly confined to overseas (read, Hollywood) movies. One reason for the increase is the spread of giant multiplexes and technological advances in the film industry, which have been drawing filmgoers back.

Even though the Israeli experience is relatively expensive – and let’s not even mention the gouging on popcorn – the forecast for ticket sales this year is 15 million. Maybe even 16 million. Unusually, about 10 percent of that will be from ticket sales for Israeli movies. “That is extraordinary by any criteria,” says Danny Kafri, director of the Cinema Industry Association. “We haven’t seen figures like that for decades.”

Moshe Edry, owner of United King Films and the Cinema City multiplex chain, thinks the final figures will be even better. “We will reach 2 million tickets for Israeli movies this year,” he predicts.

Their increased popularity isn’t due to any surge in Israeli movie production. In fact, 22 Israeli movies were produced in 2014 (a few more are expected by year-end), while in 2013 there were 28 new Israeli movies. But they sold less than half the tickets compared to this year.

The year 2010 was a benchmark in Israeli cinema. Although just 17 movies were produced locally, 1.1 million tickets were sold for Israeli movies, mainly thanks to “Sodom,” which garnered sales of 570,000 tickets and was the most popular Israeli movie in 25 years. (The most popular Israeli movie of all time remains Topol’s 1964 comedy “Sallah Shabati,” says Yoav Abramovich, deputy manager of the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts, one of the bodies that mediates government money for Israeli movies.)

Better than Hollywood

Recent developments have Israeli movie people scratching their heads – what are they doing right? So far this year, seven Israeli movies have managed to sell more than 100,000 tickets at the box office, the threshold for “success.” Aside from “Zero Motivation,” the list includes comedy “Kicking Out Shoshana” and children’s action pic “Galis” (more than 200,000 each); the Shlomo Bar-Aba comedy “Hill Start” and Nissim Dayan’s drama “Farewell Baghdad” (between 150,000 to 200,000 each); and the acclaimed black comedy about assisted death, “The Farewell Party” (100,000).

Israeli movies did better than Hollywood movies this year, says Mark Rosenbaum, one of Israel’s more prominent movie producers. In Hollywood, one in every seven to eight movies is considered a success. “This year, one [Israeli film] in four is a success,” says Rosenbaum. “That’s success by global criteria.”

And Israel achieved this despite the economy being almost paralyzed during Operation Protective Edge in the summer. (In fairness, 120,000 movie tickets were sold at a discount price of 10 shekels (around $3), which jacked up demand.)

Art for art’s sake? That’s so last year

“This was a year in which the funds managed to pick better projects,” believes Rosenbaum. But beyond that, he feels it was the year in which Israeli cinema achieved a trusting relationship with the local audience.

“Following the first movie, ‘Zero Motivation’ – which was so strong – a relationship was created with the Israeli filmgoer, which helped boost other movies,” he says. That said, he doesn’t anticipate sales this strong every year.

But it wasn’t just coincidence. Israel’s producers and filmmakers have undergone a change in perception. More and more filmmakers don’t just look at the artistic element: they also keep an eye on the box office. They might choose to cast a television star in a leading role, for instance.

Another element, says Edry, is that there were more comedies this year. “They saved the industry,” he says. “Israeli cinema had traditionally focused more on dramas.”

Two movies that perhaps took commercialization to extremes are “Galis,” coproduced by the Children’s TV Channel and Dori Media, and “Kicking Out Shoshana,” a popular comedy about a soccer player in Jerusalem who gets into trouble with a mafia boss and is forced to pretend to be gay. Both were planned to be box-office hits, says Yair Raveh, movie critic and author of the blog Cinemascope (in Hebrew). “I feel that’s legitimate. The movie industry can’t work only to screen at festivals and wait for funding. Cinema is a commercial enterprise, after all.”

In fact, the Israeli movie industry has been growing nicely since 2000, when a law was passed that, among other things, allocated 80 million shekels ($21.1 million) a year to support Israeli movies – half of which is earmarked for fiction features through the Rabinovich fund. The Jerusalem Foundation adds to that, but non-documentary movies only get 50 million shekels a year in support.

On average, an Israeli movie costs about 4 million shekels to make. Various foundations put up about half of that. Commercial television channels are required by law to invest in original content: they invest between 60,000 to 800,000 shekels. The producers may personally invest, as may the Mifal Hapayis national lottery and foreign funds.

“The movie world is highly unpredictable,” says Abramovich. “We aspire for every movie to succeed, critically and at the box office. Some do.”

Anyway, this year’s terrific numbers mean that some industry elements even made returns on their investment. “Zero Motivation” is believed to have brought in some 20 million shekels, which is divided between the cinemas, producers, artists and investors.

Actually, says Rosenbaum, any movie that sold more than 100,000 tickets locally can be considered to have broken even.

But it takes time until the artists and producers see any money. The production of an Israeli movie involves a very long chain, and each link along it helps itself to money. The biggest chunk – about 60% of the movie’s gross – goes to the cinemas. The distribution company (which may well own cinemas as well) then gets between 8% to 12%. After all that, there’s precious little to share around, mourns David Lipkin, production manager at a movie foundation. “An Israeli movie is very unlikely to make money, but it can return the investment.”

Any remaining money after the cinemas and distributors goes to advertising and events; whatever’s left then gets shared by the producers (who typically funded 10% of the budget) and the artists, and private investors, if there were any.