Movie fringe with a seal of approval

Israel has moved to a more individually oriented model of movie distribution.

By
November 23, 2006 15:09
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Movie distribution has become more and more niche-oriented as the ability to identify ever-more-specific audiences grows. Moreover, distribution has begun to abandon traditional models. Conventional wisdom used to dictate that entertainment value was only to be found in megacorporations marketing blockbusters to the masses. Today, Israel too has moved to a more individually oriented model. Alternative, independent DVD rental shops are found all over the country, and new media pipes such as pause-able and fastforward-able VOD (video on demand) television are gaining in popularity. The result is that any person's taste is matched by a treasure trove of entertainment at his fingertips, or at least around the block. And the existence of small local screening rooms means one doesn't need to become even more indebted to the banks in order to enjoy quality surround sound along with crisp, digital pictures on a 100-inch screen from a reclining, drink-holding seat. With branches in Tel Aviv as well as Jerusalem, local retailer The Third Ear (Ha'ozen Hashlishit) has always been at the cutting edge of video dissemination. With The Floor Above (Hakomah Me'al) screening rooms opening in recent months, along with several other cutting-edge developments, the organization is poised to bring Israeli consumers into a new generation of moving pictures. Boaz Lehahn, manager of The Third Ear's Jerusalem branch, says: "We like to look at it as the best home system. After people see the quality, they want to come back." Yair Halper, manager of the Jerusalem screening room, agrees. "It's not for the masses; it's very cozy," he says. "You can go in with your drink and sandwich and feel like you're at home." The Tel Aviv branch now sports four screening rooms plus a VIP room, accommodating some 120 moviegoers at once. The store also has a full bar that serves cocktails, hot drinks and fresh popcorn. The Jerusalem version is more modest, with a a single hall that features 25 seats, as well as a bathroom. The Third Ear started out as a tiny videotape rental shop on Sheinkin Street - the nerve center of funky Tel Aviv - in the late Eighties. That facility recently relocated to King George Street, across from the Dizengoff Center mall. The new store includes a huge CD shop, an enormous selection of DVDs to buy or rent, the screening rooms and corporate offices. Asa Offek, marketing manager for the chain, says he dislikes the term "mega-store." He admits that the new Tel Aviv Third Ear is getting closer to something along those lines, but he claims that the institution is far from losing its edgy soul. "We want to bring 'alternative' to the center," he says. "The Israeli crowd should be made aware of fringe art." The Jerusalem branch, which opened in the mid-Nineties on Emek Refaim, has expanded its one-room basement into four rooms of DVDs and books, and now has a screening room as well. Already known as alternative cinema chains, Israel's Cinematheque and Lev organizations are famous for providing artistic, non-Hollywood and older films that have little mainstream potential. But even these establishments have limitations; the movies they screen must be at least somewhat marketable to a mass audience and must be available on 35mm film. The Floor Above, on the other hand, has thousands of DVDs on hand. Customers can arrange for personal screenings of any movie they like, with the possibility of renting the facilities for parties or industry showcases. In addition, Third Ear managers offer a roster of scheduled screenings through its newsletter and Web site (www.third-ear.com). Halper says selections are made "in the spirit of the Third Ear" - with an emphasis on rarity, independent projects, small-time Israeli films and music features. In Jerusalem, Thursday is "Rockumentary" night, with a different musician highlighted weekly via rare concert footage and television appearances. Recent Rockumentary presentations have chronicled the works of The Beastie Boys, Neil Young, Syd Barrett and Mazzie Starr. The Tel Aviv screening room managers are in the process of solidifying a template of theme days, so that each day of the week will feature its own genre. Separate managers select movies for each branch's schedule, but many films are coordinated for national screening, such as November's upcoming Jump Cut series, for example. The Floor Above team is also looking to make connections with Israeli film schools to advance the work of their students. "Anyone who is eager to have a platform," says Halper, who tries to secure the rights for screening as many Israeli movies as possible in a given month." Lehahn sees the Third Ear angle slightly differently. "We're looking for movies that fell between the cracks," he says, emphasizing that the project is not competing with alternative moviehouses, since The Floor Above screens films that the Cinematheque and the Lev have already decided to forego. Lehahn cites the example of Souvenirs - a documentary about Israeli filmmaker Shachar Cohen, who travels to his ancestors' native Holland with his father, a Holocaust survivor. Souvenirs won prizes at DocAviv 2006, and then The Third Ear stepped up and purchased the Israeli theatrical rights, giving audiences a chance to see a praised work that would probably otherwise never have been widely available. The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which was screened extensively throughout October and appears on The Floor Above's November schedule as well, is an oddball documentary about the life of a mentally disturbed Texan "outsider" illustrator and songwriter. Jeff Feuerzeig's movie was deemed good enough to win the Best Director award at the Sundance Festival and to be picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, but Israelis couldn't have seen it in a theater if it weren't for The Floor Above. Often, contracts signed between filmmakers and The Third Ear involve far more than theatrical rights. HOT cable TV's VOD service, which was launched in mid-2005, includes a Third Ear Channel, which features a library of films associated with the Third Ear brand. Now it has launched www.indic.net, which gives customers the ability to have DVDs shipped directly to their homes for a week. Ultimately, no matter how ambitious the organization's managers may be, the content is still by definition an alternative to the mainstream, which makes the mission more aboutlove than lucre. "We like film, and we want to push it as far as we can," Lehahn declares. "I don't know if it's our future, but it's a big part of the full package we're offering," says Offek of The Floor Above. The screening rooms fit into the ambitious scheme nicely, but the Third Ear's new directions don't necessarily mean new profits. Rather, the idea is that serious fringe-film enthusiasts in Israel know where to turn when looking for a seal of approval. "These movies have been okayed by people who see movies for a living," says Halper. The Floor Above schedules can be accessed by visiting www.third-ear.com and clicking on the had'rei hakrana section.

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