Who is winning Jerusalem’s cinema wars? Moviegoers!

Many scoffed when in 2008 Mayor Nir Barkat announced he wanted to turn the holy city into a ‘film capital.’ The opening of Cinema City and Yes Planet seems to have proved the skeptics wrong.

Cinema City Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Cinema City Jerusalem
A traffic jam is a rare sight on a Friday night in west Jerusalem, but since Yes Planet opened in mid-August, there have been small ones every week at the entrance to the theater complex on Naomi Street, just off Hebron Road.
Inside, crowds head to their movies or eat in the restaurants. Outside, cars wait to enter the garage, devoid of any of the ultra-Orthodox protests that greeted Shabbat moviegoers at the Jerusalem Cinematheque when it first opened in the 1980s or at downtown theaters decades ago. The ultra-Orthodox have protested the Shabbat opening of Yes Planet, but these demonstrations have been confined to the haredi neighborhoods of Mea She’arim and Romema. Yes Planet, which is built on privately owned land, is legally allowed to open on Shabbat.
The public has embraced Yes Planet, a 28,500-square meter compound that has stadium seating in all of its 16 theaters.
These theaters include an IMAX theater, as well as a DX4 auditorium, in which seats shake, water spritzes, smells waft and smoke billows to intensify the on-screen action. Yes Planet Jerusalem is the latest venture for the Yes Planet chain, which already has movie theater complexes in Haifa, Ramat Gan and Rishon Lezion.
Jerusalem’s branch of Yes Planet is located at the entrance to the mixed Jewish/Arab neighborhood of Abu Tor, and it is an unusual but welcome sight to see crowds of both Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites side by side, enjoying themselves. On a recent Friday night, a young Arab couple having ice cream at the complex’s McDonald’s told me they enjoyed being able to go on a date at a place within walking distance of their homes, and there seemed to be many other couples there with the same idea.
That same evening, one of the stars of Jerusalem’s cultural landscape, Hadag Nahash frontman/screenwriter/Cafe de Paris owner Shaanan Streett, strolled through the lobby. During the week, even national-religious Orthodox Jews are part of the mix.
Yes Planet is Jerusalem’s second recently opened movie multiplex – the Cinema City chain opened a Jerusalem branch in winter 2014. Located next to the Supreme Court building, Cinema City is an eight-floor, 20,000-square-meter complex with 19 theaters, two VIP rooms, conference halls and a cultural center with a museum of Jewish film, a Bible-themed activity center and an indoor mall with more than 50 restaurants, cafes and stores. Unlike Yes Planet, it was built on publicly owned land and does not open on Shabbat, in keeping with the so-called status quo agreement between the Jerusalem Municipality and haredi residents.
Like Cinema City, Yes Planet features a cultural hub, the Sherover Cultural Center, which sponsors free concerts on Thursday nights, with plans for more activities. There is a gallery on the top floor, which currently features an art exhibition and a show of classic James Bond movie posters. Unlike Cinema City, Yes Planet does not have stores.
Now Jerusalem has more screens than ever, and the question arises: Can these two multiplexes, each of which was built by a company that invested more than NIS 200 million, survive in the capital? Spokespeople from both chains report that business is brisk, and the best answer is: Let’s hope so. The truth is, in spite of its reputation for holiness, Jerusalem has always been a town of movie lovers. Although many extremely religious Jerusalemites – both Jewish and Muslim, who comprise a third or more of the city’s population – avoid movies, movie theaters have always been packed here. Many of the beloved older theaters located mostly in the downtown area – the Edison, Eden, Orion and many others – closed in the 1990s, a trend similar to what happened in cities around the world.
Movie going in Jerusalem then shifted to two multiplexes – one in Malha Mall and the other, Rav Chen, in Talpiot.
Lovers of art house fare could rely on the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Smadar (now part of the art house Lev Cinemas chain) and the two auditoriums in the Jerusalem Theater. But for those who crave mainstream movies, the last few years in the capital have been tough. The theaters in Malha closed six years ago, while Rav Chen became increasingly run down and unpleasant, forcing patrons to exit through a poorly marked network of back staircases. Given the choice of Rav Chen or nothing, many preferred to stay home and watch movies on line. Rav Chen, which was owned by the same parent company as Yes Planet, closed its doors for good on the day that Yes Planet opened.
The movie theaters in the Harel Mall in Mevaseret Zion, just outside the city, also closed their doors a number of years ago.
There have been rumors that Cinema City would start to open on Shabbat once Yes Planet opened, but those rumors are not true, said Moshe Edery, who along with his brother, Leon, is one of the co-owners of the Cinema City chain, as well as a movie producer.
Speaking at the festive premiere of Natalie Portman’s A Tale of Love and Darkness at Cinema City in Jerusalem on September 3, he asserted, “There are no plans to open Cinema City on Shabbat for the time being.”
Representatives of the chain were in touch with the Jerusalem Municipality about the possibility of Shabbat screenings some time in the future, but he said that he was well aware of the delicate balance of the city’s status quo and did not want to make any move that would cause controversy.
Mayor Nir Barkat, who also attended the premiere, announced when he took office in 2008 that he wanted to turn the holy city into a “film capital.” Many scoffed, but the opening of these two theater chains seems to have proved the skeptics wrong.
The very fact that the Edery brothers were in Jerusalem at a movie premiere shows how far movie-going – and movie- making – has come in the city. The Jerusalem Film Fund, headed by Yoram Honig, which opened in 2008, distributes funds to movies set in the capital, and it has dramatically increased the number of films made here. When these movies are released, the Jerusalem Film Fund has been throwing them gala parties at Cinema City.
While once the idea of people from Tel Aviv driving to Jerusalem for a movie premiere was unthinkable, judging by the number of BMWs in the Cinema City parking garage and the blonde, suntanned women in evening gowns at the Love and Darkness premiere, Barkat has made good on his pledge.
Once the fall blockbuster movies begin opening in the next few months, it will become clearer how the theaters will fare in the long run. The upcoming slate of movies – which includes the star-studded action-adventure docudrama Everest; the new James Bond blowout, Spectre; and the latest Star Wars installment; all of which are especially well-suited to viewing in one of the big theater chains – will surely draw Jerusalemites to the theater of their choice. •