As the summer blockbuster season kicks off, Hollywood turns its attention to sequels, reboots and star vehicles. These films attempt to drive box office dollars with explosions and effects while sidelining story and drama. But the summer also opens a window for arthouse cinemas to provide an escape from the heat as well as a respite from special effects. Many of the arthouse distributors put out their best foreign films over the summer, hoping one will catch fire, and become a minor summer hit. And this summer, more than ever, we are seeing a rise in the distribution of Israeli films. Beyond the evolution of the once small Israeli cinema into a developed film industry, distributors might be recognizing other elements that lead to the release of more Israeli films than ever. Here are seven you must see:
Last summer, a small film about a kosher bakery, called Dough, made over one million dollars in ticket sales. This was mostly from cinemas in Florida that cater to a predominantly Jewish audience. Distributors know that the senior Jewish population is a key audience for arthouse films. This audience does not mind reading subtitles and cares about social issues while being less attracted to explosions and stars. This may be one of the factors that has driven over ten Israeli films to have theatrical releases in the US this past year and most from reputable foreign film distributors.
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Sony Pictures Classics is releasing Joseph Cedar’s (Beaufort, Footnote) Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. This film is one of the more invested releases. It is almost completely in English, has big American stars and takes place in NY, making the production very palatable for an American audience.
The Wedding Plan
Rama Burnstein’s follow up to Fill the Void is the orthodox romantic comedy The Wedding Plan. The story follows an orthodox woman who has her wedding hall booked and now just has to find a husband. This film plays like a classic American Rom-Com and you can imagine Jennifer Aniston in the lead, just in a long dress. It also has one of the larger arthouse distributor’s behind it, Roadside Attractions, giving it a big push for marketing.
Avi Nesher (The Troop, Turn Left at the End World) is one of Israel’s most successful directors in the Israeli box office, but has not had many releases in the U.S. Samuel Goldwyn is releasing his latest film Past Life, based on a true story about the children of a Holocaust survivor uncovering secrets from the past. Nesher studied filmmaking in the US and has a more American style of storytelling making this film a gripping drama.
One Week And One Day
Oscilloscope released the stoner shiva comedy about parents trying to deal with the loss of their son, the mother tries to go one with her life and the father smokes weed — One Week and One Day, by Asaf Polanski. This topic is a challenging sell for some audiences, but the distributor has put together a clever marketing plan, selling it as the movie you did not know you wanted to see. Making this film more universal is the fact that the son in the passed away from cancer, and not in the military as one might expect from an Israeli film.
All of these films have received positive reviews, but the most surprising is Women’s Balcony released by Menemsha Films. It is perhaps the least assuming of the films in release, but is a New York Times — and more importantly — an audience favorite. This small comedy about a traditional community in Jerusalem contemplating its future religious direction, has become a sensation.
The success has been seen in the numbers too. Women’s Balcony is one of the best performing films in relation to the number of screens that are playing it. The film has not only been one of the most successful films at its few theaters, but has also been growing from week to week. Menemsha Films used a grassroots approach to promote this film. They started with building buzz for The Women’s Balcony with community screenings and a successful Jewish Film Festival run. Neil Friedman, the director of Menemsha Films feels that beyond the reviews, part of this success is due to the part the community plays. “Something is going on that is quite wonderful here.” Friedman wrote, “if I had to guess the word of mouth is what is driving the film and the word of mouth is getting stronger and stronger each and every week of the run.”
All of the films above had preview screenings as part of JCC Manhattan’s film program and festivals to help promote their release. Distributors realize the power of the Jewish community, not only as a potential audience, but as creator of buzz. More so than other communities, the Jewish community is tightly knit with many organic places to spread the word such as synagogues and community centers, It also helps that it’s probably a community with tendencies to share their opinion more than others.
We are in a monumental moment for Israeli films. These films in release are all high quality movies on diverse topics. And surprisingly, none are directly political, which is often the most expected theme from Israel. These are films that present quality drama and plot lines that translate universally. Israeli cinema has learned to use its rich culture as a backdrop to tell stories not the star, allowing for the humanity and finer details to shine and make these stories universal.
Still to come this summer is the Sundance hit, Menashe. This film is in Yiddish and takes place in a charedi community in Brooklyn. The film managed to receive Israeli production credit and despite having no real connection to Israel. It tells a father-son story within a niche community that also, like Israel, has a rich culture which serves a detailed backdrop for the universal father-son story.
These films come with relatively small marketing campaigns and rely on the word of mouth between the audiences to fill the theaters. This is where our job as audience members becomes important. Take a break from the blockbusters and try an unexpected independent or foreign film and help support quality drama… then tell a few friends.