Freeze Frame: Israel's Film Industry Paralyzed by Coronavirus

Thousands of producers, directors and actors who work in TV and film in Israel have lost their livelihood. Haaretz spoke to five who are trying to keep the creative juices flowing in the face of an uncertain future

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A scene from director Talya Lavie's film, "Honeymood," now on hold.
A scene from director Talya Lavie's new film, "Honeymood." It was supposed to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, which has been indefinitely postponed. Credit: Yaron Sharaf
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

These days, content is king. That’s true even in ordinary times, but it’s only that much more so during the corona crisis. Everyone is inside, glued to their screens, consuming television series and movies in large quantities, benefiting from the golden age of television.

But outside, the entire film and television production industry, both in Israel and abroad, is effectively on ice. Shooting has been postponed, productions have been canceled, movies and series are on hold and it’s not clear what will become of them. The king is rapidly losing his clothes, and who knows what will remain of his raiment in another few months.

Other branches of the economy also have nothing to celebrate these days. But the local film and television industry seems to have suffered an especially severe blow.

“The industry’s situation is unequivocally worse than that of other industries, because 95 percent of the people in it are self-employed,” the director of Israel Film and Television Producers Association, Zvika Gottlieb, said. “Film set workers don’t get unemployment compensation, and the producers are dealing with a dual problem – they need to bring their own money and risk it, while also chasing after broadcasters that aren’t remitting payments. I don’t know how many companies in the industry will manage to survive this period.”

The industry’s thousands of self-employed workers are now sitting at home with no income. Their trade unions recently appealed to the communications and culture ministries, asking them to set up a fund that would grant compensation to artists and workers whose productions have been halted, canceled or otherwise hurt.

The communications minister offered 35 million shekels ($9.8 million) in aid, financed by money that television franchisees are required by law to deposit with the government for this purpose. The culture minister offered to divert 20 million shekels from the film foundations’ budgets. Without these steps, the unions warned, the film and television industry will be in great danger.

How does all this look from the perspective of the film workers now sitting at home? What’s happening to the people who one fine day suddenly lost all their work for the coming months? How are they dealing with the financial and emotional difficulties that the crisis has created? We asked five of them.

Director Talya LavieCredit: Screenshot via Zoom

Talya Lavie, director

“We felt the blow from the very first week. First, all the screenings, conferences, lectures and everything that happens in movie theaters was canceled. Immediately after that, all the production shoots were halted.

It caught me just before the maiden screening of my new film, ‘Honeymood,’ at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. My trip was already planned, and the festival organizers insisted on continuing to work as usual until the last minute.

“Three weeks ago, they were still coordinating screening dates, guests and interviews with us by phone. They were clinging to hope that everything would take place as planned. But two hours after that conversation, we got an email that the festival had been postponed to an unknown date.

“In Israel, the film was scheduled to open in movie theaters in June. We had just started working on the trailer, on the poster. But now everything’s on hold and the horizon isn’t visible.

“At the same time, I’m also in the process of casting a new series. We moved to online auditions as an interim solution, largely thanks to the producer, who is doing everything he can to continue moving ahead with the production despite the situation. But nobody knows when we’ll be able to resume full operations.

“In an industry that suffers from constant uncertainty in any case, this situation is impossible. Almost everyone I know is currently unemployed. There aren’t many employees in our industry; most people are self-employed. We’re dependent on each other, and an event like the coronavirus makes this even clearer.

“People that work in production are now sitting at home with no way to support themselves. Screenwriters can ostensibly continue working as usual, but their sources of income are at risk, if they haven’t already been cut off.

“One of the ways I’m coping with the anxiety is a creative challenge I’ve set for myself – posting a new installment of the comic strip I created on my Instagram account every day. This comforts me and helps me feel that not every day is the same as the one before it.

“The disease is worrying and frightening, but the economic blow is painful right now, and it’s having a very harsh effect on our industry and on Israeli culture. We’re still far from understanding its scope.”

Producer Maya Fischer at home.Credit: Screenshot via Zoom.

Maya Fischer, producer

“The coronavirus caught us in the middle of filming a series for the public broadcasting corporation that was directed by Matan Yair (“Scaffolding”). We had finished six weeks out of seven, but unfortunately, we had to stop everything in the middle the moment they published the orders banning gatherings of more than 10 people.

“As of now, all the crew and the actors and the entire production are sitting at home. Everyone has been badly hurt financially. This is our biggest problem, and that of the whole industry. The corporation is trying hard to help and asked for an estimate of the damages, but they can’t absorb the whole cost.

“The new orders also caught us a week before the start of filming for a new musical. Obviously, there was no choice, and we had to tell the whole crew and the actors that the production was postponed. Film is an expensive business. A lot of money went down the drain here.

“For now, we’re trying to work on projects in the editing stage and also move forward on projects in development. We’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons and think about new films and series.

“The situation is difficult; everyone is afraid. I hope there will be government support so that our industry doesn’t collapse.”

Director Yonatan Nir at home.Credit: Screenshot via Zoom.

Yonatan Nir, director

“I’m genuinely fine, which isn’t nice to say. I realize this is a very difficult time for many people, with lots of reasons to be down, but I think it’s a time with enormous potential for personal growth.

“I had screenings worth 80,000 to 90,000 shekels canceled. I work with the Education Ministry, the army, kibbutzim, moshavim, community centers and so forth. I go around with my films and talk about them.

“At the same time, I’m now working on three major projects, two of which are international, with a lot of money in them, and suddenly, everything is stuck. The Israeli project is a film about [veteran photojournalist] Alex Levac, and the other two are one about animal migrations and one about the beauty of sharks and the people who try to save them from extinction.

“Both those productions were halted because there are no flights. It’s impossible to know how all this will affect the story and characters we chose.

“There’s financial pressure, and I don’t know what will be in another month or two. Nevertheless, I feel that this coronavirus is an important lesson for all of us – what we want to change if we survive this deluge, and what we did to Mother Nature that she turned on us like this. For me, it’s expressed mainly in the thought that I’ve worked too much in recent years and need to be with my family more.

“Fortunately, thanks to that hard work, I now have a bit of breathing room, financially speaking. I don’t have a big company; I don’t have rent to pay or four employees who have to be fired. If the situation continues for several months, we’ll survive and go on from there.

“For now, I’m developing the subject of online screenings and lectures. That could also create more income in the future and reduce my expenses – on travel, for instance.

“The first online screening was free; now I’m debating whether to start charging. On one hand, you have to make a living, but on the other, there are people who can’t pay right now. At the moment, I’m leaving it open – only people who want to and can will pay.

“This time has given me a moment to sit with my partners, to write, to think, to prepare, to build budgets and packages. I don’t think the economy is dead; it’s just that its pulse has weakened. We have to turn inward, grow stronger and then go out and do things.

“In the end, people at home want to see content, watch films and feel like a community, so this is a great time for storytellers. I’m sure these weeks will give birth to amazing documentaries.”

Actress Noa KolerCredit: Screenshot via Zoom.

Noa Koler, actress

“Last month, I finished shooting a series I wrote with Erez Driges, produced by Assaf Amir. We finished filming a day before everyone entered lockdown and they shut down productions, so our timing was miraculous. Now the editors can edit it. They’re working from home or only two to a room, so it’s possible to continue.

“On one hand, our profession isn’t considered essential, so it’s not possible to do anything at the moment. On the other, everyone is currently going crazy for content, because this is the golden age of television.

“I was supposed to be in filming right now for the second season of “Shabas,” a comic series for the public broadcasting corporation, but it was halted. In May, I was supposed to participate in a series for Yes,” the satellite broadcasting company, “which was also halted.

“The future of many projects is really unclear at the moment, and the economic crisis to come will affect the budgets of all planned productions. And I and all my friends – all of us are nonessential.

“I’m self-employed, a freelancer. I have a way to get through the next three months, because I just this moment finished filming. But I can’t see what I’ll be doing next.

“From the great intensity of filming, I’ve moved to a situation in which I’m at home all the time with the kids, while my partner was in quarantine. I have no creativity in me; I’m not able to write. But I’m an optimistic girl – or a naïve one – and I believe everything will work out.

“My friends and I are trying hard to support each other. Maybe our profession has a bit of an advantage – as actors, we’re used to the fact that there are periods with work and periods without work.”

Director Jasmine KainyCredit: Screenshot via Zoom.

Jasmine Kainy, director

“I was at the height of a period with a ton of work. I was working on five or six projects simultaneously. I was about to travel to the United States for the research and filming of a new documentary. But now I don’t know if any of it will get off the ground.

“The new film was supposed to document the Israeli show jumping team – the first equestrians to be sent to the Olympics. I’ve been following them for a year, but now it’s all up in the air.

“Another project I’m involved in is also stuck. Everything’s stuck. It’s really awful. But projects that I’ve been developing with the public broadcasting corporation are continuing so far, even if not in same way.

“I need to figure out how to move forward now, because it’s impossible to earn a living anymore just from documentaries. I’m also studying at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, but classes have been postponed as well.

“On another project that I’ve been working on with producers from Los Angeles, they cut everyone’s salary by 25 percent. For half a year I curated a program...for the EPOS festival. The opening night of the festival took place, and then the whole thing was canceled. I can’t ask them to give me full pay; after all, no tickets were sold.

“I, one of the busiest directors in the field, who has worked every day for the last four or five years, thank God, am now facing collapse. As a single mother, it’s tough. I haven’t yet figured out what’s going to be in the future.”

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