The First Picture Show

About two weeks ago, the commercial center in Shoham near Modi'in looked tranquil and relaxed. But anyone who took the stairs down under the main plaza saw a buzzing hive of activity. A young man was climbing a ladder and affixing a speaker more securely to a wall, two workers were lifting a wooden box and concealing it out of sight, and a technician did the last fine-tuning of the projection and sound systems.

In the midst of all this, Shai Michaeli bustled through the corridors in work clothes and gave instructions to the workers. His brother Hilik was busy with endless phone calls, his daughter was at the new, still-empty popcorn machine, and her grandfather dropped into the lobby every few minutes to rummage through the toolbox before returning to help set up the inner rooms. It seemed as if the entire Michaeli family had mustered for the final touches to the new movie theater that opened to the public last week.

In Israel, where large chains own nearly all movie theaters, the modest family cinema house with only two halls is unusual. At a time when movie theaters are disappearing from the urban landscape in favor of the huge structures the large chains are putting up outside cities, the Michaelis' cinema in the heart of a town of 20,000 is a fascinating test case. Can a movie house like this survive the competition with the large chains?

"We wanted a different concept, unlike the chains' megaplexes," says Hilik Michaeli, a resident of Shoham. "We believe that alongside the large fashion chains there is scope for a boutique as well. We have no aspiration to be big like they are but rather to be different, to offer something different and to live alongside them in harmony," he says.

"We can live from what slips between their fingers. We also offer the theatergoers something different - they can come here in their sweatpants and slippers. They don't need to get into a car and drive a long way, and they don't have a 20-minute drive home after the movie."

The Michaeli brothers want the atmosphere in the place to be warm and homey. "I am going to see to it that the people here get individual treatment and that we will know them personally - and this is possible, because after all, Shoham is a small place," says Shai, the manager of the movie house.

Hilik, who is responsible for strategy, says he would not hesitate to send in free popcorn from time to time to a regular customer, and he's proud that ordering tickets by phone will entail neither the familiar struggle with a recorded announcement nor paying a fee. "As far as I am concerned this is the difference between being McDonald's and being a small business," he says.

Anyone who suspects that this is a story of two naive rookies, dreamers who are unfamiliar with the tough movie business, is mistaken. Hilik Michaeli, 41, started out in the field 16 years ago. Among other things, he has managed a Globus-chain movie theater at the Malha Mall in Jerusalem. He has also been distribution manager for Warner Brothers in Israel and the chief executive of a media company. He has also managed Globus' studios and content company, and is currently a film producer. He also owns a small distribution company. His brother Shai, 36, worked for a number of years in movie-theater management and as a producer of Israeli films.

A year and a half ago, three halls of the Globus chain closed at the site and the brothers decided that this was their chance. "As the father of children who have no cultural offerings here, and because of our difficulty as parents with driving them everywhere, it was important to me that there be a movie theater in Shoham," Hilik says. "This is my culture and I want it to be accessible to my children too."

As in other places, which prefer to edge out theaters in favor of shops (as with the Lev movie theaters at the Ramat Aviv mall in Tel Aviv), here too business considerations almost thwarted the dream of a movie house. "It took us more than a year to convince the owners of the commercial center to let us operate the cinema, because they preferred to use this space for commerce," Hilik says.

There will be two halls in the new movie theater, and along with screenings the Michaeli brothers plan to hold other community and cultural events. In one of the halls they have erected a stage for various events - stand-up comedy, poetry evenings, performances by musical ensembles, plays for children and young people, conferences and even school end-of-year parties.

"Everything that makes this place be a part of the community where it is located," Hilik says.

Hilik acknowledges that quite a number of people in the movie industry raised an eyebrow when they heard about the new cinema house.

"They said to me, 'What do you need this for?' But I explained to them that I wanted my children to have a movie theater near home. This is my love. In its day, when we established Cinema City, it was a very ambitious project, and it never occurred to us what change this would bring about in the movie-house industry," he says.

"Now we have no ambitions. All we are is a tiny fly on the wall. But for us this is both a contribution to the community and an expression of the love of cinema that burns inside us, and if the business manages to work well - we will have done our bit."