Lights Out for Another Cinema

The Dizengoff movie theater, hidden in the basement of the Dizengoff shopping center in Tel Aviv, will close its doors in the coming months. The theater - which opened 24 years ago with festive screenings of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Three Men and a Baby" and "Ran" in its three halls - is about to join the wave of movie houses closing in city centers and shopping malls, making way for multiple-screen megaplexes on urban outskirts, as well as more parking and commercial space.

The screens in the Dizengoff halls are small, and the sound equipment can't compare with that found in new theaters. Still, many are sorry to say goodbye to these familiar places, to movies made available in the heart of Tel Aviv, to the possibility of watching a film in the morning, and the homey feeling evoked by ticket sellers who are often the same people opening the doors and tearing your ticket in half.

"It's an unfortunate loss. I've seen tons of movies on these screens," says director and cinematographer Yachin Hirsch. "The closing of any movie theater saddens me. I'm all for urban movie houses; I view film as high and not popular culture. It's true that the Dizengoff halls were small, and the screens were not gigantic, but Dalia Shapira [the theater's owner] brought in excellent films. True, there are many movie screens in the Tel Aviv area now - some 20 in Cinema City and many more at Yes Planet - but they are not within walking distance. You have to get into a car, and if you don't have a car, it's a big deal to get there. I imagine that after the Dizengoff theater is closed, as happened in Ramat Aviv, the walls will be torn down and they'll sell shirts. I don't understand, how many shirts does the world need?"

However, in contrast to what happened at the Ramat Aviv and Azrieli malls, at the Malha Mall in Jerusalem and at many others, it is not mall management pushing the theaters out to make way for retail stores, but a decision by the owners, Shapira Films, to close the movie house.

"The decision to close stemmed from a consideration of the changing viewing habits of the audience," a company spokesman said. "The audience prefers to go to large complexes, and we must adjust to the spirit of the times. Nonetheless, we are searching for the correct alternative for the future." According to the spokesman, when the theater closes in a few months (an exact date has not been set), the space will be rented to the Neopharm drugstore chain.

TV killed the movie theater

Journalist and film researcher David Shalit explains that during the first decades of the state, movie houses were located in buildings in city centers which offered large halls that could seat hundreds. In those days, everyone went to the movies. "The high point of movie attendance was reached in 1966, when the population of Israel numbered 2.5 million," Shalit says. "That year, 51 million movie tickets were sold. But the numbers have gone down ever since."

At the end of the 1960s, television entered the picture and damaged the standing of movies. Eventually many people began to watch films on video, DVD and on computers. In response to the rise of television, video equipment and pirated TV via cable, neighborhood movie houses began to give way to those located in shopping malls; in the wake of home movie systems and the ability to download films from the Internet, giant entertainment centers (or megaplexes) rose at the expense of the smaller mall-based movie theaters.

"It's a kind of evolution. I see it as the movie version of 'Had Gadya' - they came and ate them," Shalit says (referring to the Passover song about a cumulative chain of consumption, starting with a baby goat being eaten by a cat).

Shalit says he is not among those crying over the closing of the Dizengoff theater. "The damage is not great," he says. "These tiny halls offer an experience which has long ceased to be collective. When you buy a home screen at 40-something inches, and watch movies on a large screen in the right proportions - not with a cutoff frame as in the past - it's fun. It is for all intents and purposes a privatized communal-collective experience - you watch films with other people at home."

When the Dizengoff theater first opened, it was extremely successful, recalls film critic Shmulik Duvdevani. "It was impossible to get tickets. But the trouble started the moment other theaters changed the viewing experience, with larger screens and advanced sound equipment. The Dizengoff theater never modernized to keep up with the times," he says. "There are halls in other places intended for smaller crowds, but this seems to be disappearing in Tel Aviv. The Dizengoff audience was composed mainly of older people who attend morning and afternoon shows, retirees. Shapira Films has declined in the quantity and quality [of its offerings] recently, and the theater depended on films distributed by other companies."

Duvdevani, who grew up in Tel Aviv, remembers how the opening of the Dizengoff theater took place during the same period that the neighboring Chen cinema opened on Dizengoff Square and the Lev Cinema opened on the top floor of the mall. (The Chen has been renovated over the years, divided into six halls and changed its name to Rav Chen; it closed recently for more renovations.) It was a time when a movie theater with several halls was considered a promising innovation.

"I used to visit the theaters under renovation, while they were being worked on. I asked for permission to go in. I smelled the new seats, saw the new screen," Duvdevani says. "And so I think I was one of the first to sit in a Dizengoff movie theater chair, before the opening. The theater aimed to be Parisian, with its reddish colors and rounded lines."

So there's no more room for Paris in Tel Aviv? "Apparently not," he says. "It's a fact that the Paris theaters have closed, too."