A blockbuster year for homegrown movies

2006 saw more tickets sold to more Israeli movies than in all but one previous year.

bubble movie 88 298 (photo credit: United King Films)
bubble movie 88 298
(photo credit: United King Films)
The numbers are in, and by the standards of the Israeli film industry, they're excellent. 2006 was a big year for local movie directors and distributors, who saw more Israelis buy more tickets to more Israeli movies than in any previous year but 2004. The number of tickets remained relatively small compared to the number purchased to films produced abroad - and would scare the living daylights out of any self-respecting Hollywood producer - but the figure nevertheless represents a clear and positive trend for the local film industry. According to figures released by the Israel Film Fund and local movie distributors, Israelis purchased nearly 900,000 tickets to see locally made movies over the past 12 months, better than in any year but 2004, when Israeli-produced box office leaders included Avi Nesher's Turn Left at the End of the World, Joseph Cedar's Campfire and Eytan Fox's Walk on Water. The runaway commercial hit of 2006 was also one of the year's most critically acclaimed films, with Aviva My Love, a comic drama written and directed by Shemi Zarhin, selling 302,000 tickets at movie theaters across the country. The tale of an overworked, underappreciated Tiberias woman who dreams of being a writer, the film earned Ophirs - the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Award - for Zarhin's directorial work, for lead actress Assi Levy and for supporting actress Rotem Abuhav as the motormouth sister of the film's heroine. Aviva also took the Ophir for best movie, though in a first in the history of Israeli cinema, the award was shared with another film, Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud. Israeli film fans appeared to share critics' taste in movies, with Sweet Mud, released at the end of September, becoming the second most widely attended Israeli film after Aviva. But despite splitting the country's top movie prize and later being named Israel's foreign film submission at the 2007 Oscars, Sweet Mud didn't do nearly the business of Zarhin's hit, selling 148,000 tickets even with a release date that came less than two weeks after its Ophir triumph. More than 20 percent of the tickets purchased to see Israeli movies in 2006 went to the third and fourth most popular movies of the year, both released within weeks of the outbreak of war in northern Israel and Lebanon. The fourth-place film, Fox's The Bubble, split critics with its depiction of a group of gay and straight friends living in Tel Aviv, though it further cemented 2006 as the breakthrough year for one of its stars, Arab Christian actor Yousef Sweid of Haifa. Its title a reference to the stylish clubs and cafes of Tel Aviv, the film gained in political relevance when the fighting began two weeks after its release, though it's not clear whether the war helped or hindered its progress at the box office. Selling just over 100,000 tickets to land in third place was Someone to Run With, an adventure set in Jerusalem and released the day after the start of the war. Nominated for 10 Ophirs, Someone became the first Israeli film ever to open the Jerusalem International Film Festival in early July. Adapted from the acclaimed book of the same name by Jerusalem novelist David Grossman, the film achieved an unexpected degree of poignance when Grossman's 20-year-old son, Uri, died in battle in southern Lebanon during the final days of the fighting. Rounding out the year's top five ticket sellers was Dina Zvi-Riklis's Three Mothers, a well-acted drama about Jewish triplets born in Egypt and brought to Israel as young girls. Released in November, the film sold 60,000 seats and is still in theaters, but will perhaps be best remembered as marking the big screen arrival of pop star Miri Mesika in one of the movie's key roles. The next four films on the list sold an additional 100,000 tickets, with Year Zero and Little Heroes both selling about 30,000 cinema seats and Love and Dance and Salt of the Earth selling 25,000 and 15,000, respectively. The news was also good in Israel during 2006 for films produced abroad, with movie theaters selling 9.2 million tickets in all, an increase of 10% from 2005. Israelis arguably showed less taste in selecting their foreign-language favorites, making Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest the highest grossing non-Israeli movie of the year. The biggest commercial success of any movie released in 2006 - it sold $1.07 billion worldwide - Pirates sold roughly the same number of tickets in Israel as Aviva My Love. The coming year should also be a solid one at the Israeli box office, with two of 2004's biggest directors, Turn Left's Nesher and Campfire's Cedar, set to release new films in the coming months. Cedar's latest effort, Beaufort, documents Israel's hasty withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, and one can only hope the film won't be hurt by an embarrassing gaffe by its promoters, who've misspelled the film's name on its own Hebrew-language Web site (currently www.bufor.co.il).