Coronavirus in Israel: Movie theaters struggle to reopen

Government-subsidized culture institutions have received aid packages, while movie theaters have not.

CINEMA CITY in Jerusalem. Will it once again be filled with movie-goers? (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
CINEMA CITY in Jerusalem. Will it once again be filled with movie-goers?
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
There is one piece of good news for Israeli film lovers who have been deprived of seeing movies on the big screen since theaters were shut in mid-March 2020: The Jerusalem Cinematheque has announced it is reopening on March 1.
While much of the rest of society has been getting back to normal and some cultural institutions have announced concerts and dates that shows will open, most movie theaters remain dark. And those who manage movie theaters say the just-released order detailing reopening regulations raises more questions than it answers.
The Jerusalem Cinematheque has managed to buck this trend by announcing it will reopen at the beginning of the month with several programs, the details of which are still being worked out.
All screenings will be in accordance with the green-tag regulations, meaning that entrance will only be permitted to those with a green passport, and online screenings will still be available for those not vaccinated. The auditoriums will be filled only to partial capacity, and tickets must be purchased online. Further details are available on the Jerusalem Cinematheque website.
However, the Cinematheque is just a single theater, and reopening is more problematic for the large movie chains. Representatives of the chains cited a number of problems, and some preferred to speak off the record.
First, they emphasized that they are in a more difficult economic position than other cultural institutions, including theaters such as Habima, Israel’s national theater. These government-subsidized cultural institutions have received aid packages that movie theaters have not.
Guy Shani, CEO of the Lev Cinemas chain, which shows art-house movies all over Israel, said: “Basically we have been shut for a year with no specific help to our industry. Other organizations, like cultural institutions and hotels, etc., received support. We didn’t.”
Staying in business, while shuttered and with no money coming in, for almost a year has not been cost free. The chains have to pay rent and municipal taxes on their theaters and carry out maintenance. Most have had to furlough much, if not all, of their staff.
These employees, many of whom had low-paying jobs such as ushers or concessions salespeople, may have decided not to come back to work, either because they are getting by well enough on unemployment insurance or because they have found other jobs. So hundreds of new staff may have to be hired and trained.
While the green-passport guidelines are fairly clear for audiences, they are murkier for employees. One executive said it was not clear whether it is legal for theaters to require vaccines for their staff or even ask their employees if they have been vaccinated. A high percentage of the employees are young and may not have received both doses yet even if they do want to be vaccinated.
In addition to restricting the number of people allowed into each theater, the green-tag restrictions specify that food and drinks may not be sold. Movie theaters make a big chunk of their income from the concession stands, sometimes 40% or more, depending on the chain. In better times, the chains might be able to eat that lost income, so to speak, but because of their lost year, they need every shekel.
Another issue is that the theater owners are wary of putting their whole apparatus into gear and then getting slammed by the proposed Purim shutdown and the one looming for Passover, which could force them to furlough employees again.
Advertising costs also present an issue.
“If we start advertising a movie and then there is another lockdown, all that money will be lost,” said an executive. And after a year of three lockdowns and countless policy shifts, they do not trust the government to give them much advance warning before a fourth shutdown.
There are certainly movies waiting to be released, including international films such as Wonder Woman 1984, starring Gal Gadot, as well as nearly a dozen Israeli movies that have been shown online at festivals around the world but not in Israel. But it still is not clear when the cinemas will reopen.
“We’ve lost so much money already this year,” said an executive. “We have to make sure we are able to reopen in a way that is profitable. We can’t reopen in money-losing conditions and stay in business.”
As another said, less diplomatically, “It’s a mess indeed.”