Israel's Aspiring 'Film Capital' Is Losing Its Movie Theaters

In just three months, six screening halls in the Malha shopping mall will close to make way for the H&M clothing chain.

Ever since Nir Barkat won the mayoral race in Jerusalem in November, the new administration under his helm has gone out of its way to prove the city is vital and has much to offer young people. Barkat spoke of Jerusalem as a "film capital" and hosted Hollywood producers to persuade them to shoot movies there.

But even if this dream comes true, Jerusalemites may soon be forced to go elsewhere to watch these movies. The capital is turning into the periphery, culturally speaking, in the number of functioning movie screens. In just three months, six screening halls in the Malha shopping mall will close to make way for the H&M clothing chain. And a serious threat of closure hangs over the Lev Smadar, a historic and much-loved institution, active as movie house for the last 81 years in the German Colony.

With H&M coming to Israel, into malls owned by the Azrieli group, Azrieli management announced it would close the movie theaters at its Jerusalem and Tel Aviv locations. But in Tel Aviv there are more than 30 cinemas in the city, and dozens more in surrounding areas. In Jerusalem, there will be six fewer screens from only 17.

Jerusalem's old-time cinemas operated in the city center - the Orion, Edison, Eden, Ophir, etc. A business downturn caused them to flee. The last downtown movie house closed in the '90s, where McDonald's stands today.

Movie lovers moved to the cineplexes at the edge of town, the Globus in Malha, and the Rav Chen in the Talpiot commercial area. Aside from these cinemas, movies are shown only at the venerable Smadar, at the Cinematheque and at the Jerusalem Theater, which specialize in art movies and not necessarily in the most popular films.

The Malha movie halls are expected to close in October, and to leave Jerusalemites, especially lovers of Hollywood box-office hits, with severely limited entertainment choices. A representative of the Azrieli group said the decision to close the movie houses was made after broad surveys. The public "preferred one product over another," says the manger of the Malha mall.

The city says there isn't much it can do to prevent the cinema closings. "It's very difficult when it comes to private businesses," says Yosef Alalu, a deputy mayor and holder of the city's culture portfolio. "But I think it's wrong [to close the cinemas]. The building plans for the mall were approved in part because of the movie houses. That influenced decision makers, and now we are being used. [The closings] mostly affect young people, whom we'd like to stay in the city. It's a hard blow."

Alalu has turned to the city engineer, Shlomo Eshkol, to see whether there is a legal way to stop the closings.

And yet another blow has landed. Last week the Jerusalem District Court ruled the Smadar Theater be offered for sale, in the wake of a conflict between the owners, sisters Nava Chechik and Sara Harish.

This week the theater's legal receivers, Yoram Aviram and Reuven Yehoshua, put it an offer. Knowledgeable sources say a buyer will prefer to turn off the projector and turn a better profit from the valuable land the Smadar sits on.

"The Smadar is a cross-generational Jerusalem institution. I see people my parents' age when I go there. It's a quality cinema without pretensions. You can sit in the movie with a coffee or a beer, and no one will bother you. It has magic lacking elsewhere," says Ido Nahum, 26, a movie lover Jerusalemite.

"The Smadar issue is really painful, and we intend to try to find a solution to enable the movie house to continue operating," says city councilman Ofer Berkovitch, who holds the municipal film portfolio.

Efforts to open movie houses in the city over the last few years have all failed. Private investors who looked into returning cinemas to the city center decided it would be unprofitable; the location would rule out Friday night screenings. Seven screening halls were to have been built at the Alrov mall in Mamilla, which opened about two years ago near the Old City's Jaffa Gate. But municipal sources say that the ultra-Orthodox nixed the plan, saying movie theaters on the street leading to the Western Wall were inappropriate.

Hopes were pinned on a different project, the Sherover cultural center slated for Hebron Road in the city's south, which was supposed to contain several movie theaters. In these hard financial times, the project has been frozen.