In the 14 years since the Israel Film Council, which provides funding for Israeli cinema, was established, the movie industry here has proved it can produce films of high quality, witty and critical, varied and innovative.
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The industry has also shown it can garner awards at the world’s most prestigious film festival, impress the world’s critics and turn the film sector here into one of the most interesting anywhere.
But something was missing: Israeli cinema succeeded abroad but the Israeli public still had its reservations. Except for a few successful years - 2004, 2007 and 2010 - sales of tickets to Israeli films in Israel have faltered.
By this measure, 2014 has certainly been a shot in the arm for the local industry. A record 1.6 million tickets to Israeli films were sold here. For comparison, in 2004, which had been viewed as the most successful year for the local industry since the film-council law was passed in 1999, 1.3 million tickets were sold.
Another record this year was the number of Israeli movies that attracted ticket sales exceeding 100,000, a mark of local box-office success.
Usually two or three films exceed that figure and sell the great majority of tickets to Israeli films. This year, no fewer than seven films broke the 100,000 mark with ease, deciphering the DNA of what appeals to Israeli audiences.
'Zero Motivation' wins big
The year’s biggest hit was Talya Lavie’s “Zero Motivation” (“Efes b’Yehasei Enosh”), which managed to dispel all the concerns and dire predictions that it engendered.
Lavie had said she thought the film was very Israeli and would be hard for foreign audiences to connect with. Even that concern was dispelled at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it won the Best Picture award.
The film was released in Israel in June. Israel’s 50-day war with Hamas and its allies in Gaza broke out in early July and the movie’s producers were sure that the fighting, which brought rocket fire raining down on Israeli cities, would bury the movie.
But even during times of war, Israelis proved themselves ready to turn out to see a comedy about frustrated female Israeli-army clerks.
No fewer than 530,000 Israelis have seen the movie, which is a nice reminder not only that the local industry is capable of producing very funny movies, but also that Israeli comedies don’t need to be stupid and shallow, but can be sophisticated and critical - looking the sacred cow of the Israel Defense Forces squarely in the eyes.
It’s still showing at the movie theaters, and since pirate copies have not invaded the Internet, there’s still a small chance that it will match the record 570,000 tickets sold for the movie “Zohi Sdom” four years ago.
Public desire and acceptance
“The Israeli public has a yearning and desire for something from here, something that dovetails with the general feeling that there has been in Israel, especially last summer,” said Katriel Schory, executive director of the Israel Film Fund.
He attributes the success of “Zero Tolerance” during the war to that atmosphere. “The vast majority of women in Israel have served in the army, and every one of them has their memories of their army service, for better and for worse,” he notes.
“The movie reminded them of their service and raised the issue of the role of women in the IDF. This is a smart, flowing, well-written comedy that is fantastically acted, proving that comedies can be quality film.”
From a broader perspective, Schory says, “Israeli film has managed to be absorbed by the Israeli public, and now it is an inseparable part of it. All the festivals, the Ophir prizes [the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars] and [promotional Film Day] events have reinforced public consciousness of Israeli film.
“But most of all, it has been the films’ quality. There were good films this year that competed with important films in a highly communicative way, and the comedies were also successful.”
Women’s breakout year
Especially encouraging is that this year’s successful connection between Israeli film and local audiences comes as women have made a major breakthrough on the Israeli movie scene.
An old rule of thumb, in Israel and internationally, said that perhaps 10 percent of films were produced by women, but 2014 refutes that idea.
Four of the year’s most successful films were directed by women or jointly by men and women: “Zero Tolerance,” “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem,” “The Farewell Party” (“Mita Tova”) and “Orange People” (“Anashim ketumim”). Three of them feature women in the leading role.
In addition, four of the six Israeli feature films shown this year at the Cannes Film Festival were directed by women. Films directed by women captured the major awards at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, at the Docaviv documentary film festival and at the Ophir awards ceremony.
Two major trends helped boost ticket sales this year and may continue in the coming years.
The first involves a return to past approaches in Israeli cinema. “Zero Tolerance,” “Zinuk Ba’aliya,” “Kicking Out Shoshana” (“Shoshana Halutz Merkazi”) and even “The Farewell Party” have proved that Israeli audiences, like their peers internationally, love to laugh.
With all due respect to directors who fantasize about serious film and artistic consciousness, 2014 not only made clear that there is room for comedies here. It also undoubtedly proved that, again, comedies can be intelligent and of high quality, as shown by “Zero Tolerance” and “The Farewell Party.”
Second trend: commercial focus
The second trend: Producers and directors were not ashamed to make movies that aim at commercial success and numbers of tickets sold rather than the number of international film festivals at which they are shown.
“Kicking Out Shoshana,” which sold 220,000 tickets, is a prime example of such a movie. Another example is “Galis: The Journey to Astra,” based on a successful television show. The film appealed to younger audiences, who are generally not the target audience of Israeli movies, and it sold 220,000 tickets as well.
Danny Kafri, director of the Cinema Industry Association, says this year’s strong ticket sales for Israeli movies may have happened by chance and may not necessarily indicate a trend.
“The trend that does exist is an increase in the number of people going to movie theaters in general,” he said. “It’s possible that Israel film is [simply] benefitting from this trend.
“There is a trend to return to movie theaters, and the major cineplexes are a concept that is proving itself and bringing additional people to the theaters. [So] have the [discount Cinema Days] that we have held, each of which saw an onslaught at the box office. On Israeli Film Day, for example, more than 100,000 tickets were sold, five or six times a normal day.”
In a country in which the specter of cuts in cultural funding, including film, hangs overhead, and in which broadcasters have been repeatedly trying to evade their obligation to invest in film, this balance between commercial and artistic films seems not only a natural stage in the local film sector’s maturation but also an essential step in its survival.
“Film businesses are unstable,” notes Yoav Abramovich, deputy director of the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts. “This year was a good year for Israeli film, bringing together a lot of good movies, but it could change next year.
“Nevertheless, over the course of the past decade and longer, since the cinema law was enacted, we’re seeing the faith of the Israeli public in Israeli cinema grow and build. Over time, Israeli cinema has been providing good films, so the public’s faith has been growing and people are less hesitant to go and see Israeli movies.”