When Eytan Fox, one of Israel’s leading directors, learned his latest movie, Sublet, had been accepted into the International Narrative Feature Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City this year, he was ecstatic. Then the novel coronavirus pandemic came along and rewrote the script, causing the festival, which had been set to open on April 15, to be postponed. But late last week, the festival announced that it would go on, in an online version, with juries awarding prizes although the films cannot be screened for an audience.
In addition to the juries, film critics will have access to the films through the publicity team.
Jane Rosenthal, who founded Tribeca in 2002 with Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff in part to revitalize downtown Manhattan after 9/11, explained the decision in an interview with Deadline: “As human beings, we are navigating uncharted waters... Tribeca is about resiliency, and we fiercely believe in the power of artists to bring us together. We were founded after the devastation of 9/11 and it’s in our DNA to bring communities together through the arts.”
On March 12, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that there could be no gatherings of more than 500 people, and the organizers knew that the show couldn’t go on as planned. The South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas had already created a precedent of presenting its films online, via Amazon, after its cancellation due to the virus in March.
Fox had the choice to withdraw from the festival and present the film at another festival after the crisis ends, but he is opting to stay with Tribeca.
“You work so hard on a film, for years,” he said. “Then you find that you’re going to be in a festival. And I had this vision of the wonderful atmosphere at Tribeca, coming to New York with Niv [Nissim, an Israeli actor making his debut in the film], Gal [Uchovsky, his husband, who was one of the film’s producers] and some of the other Israelis who worked on the film, and being joined onstage by John Benjamin Hickey, our star, and seeing it on the big screen with an audience, being there while they experience the film.”
Sublet is the story of a New York Times travel writer who comes to Tel Aviv after suffering a tragedy and finds that the energy of the city and his relationship with a younger man bring him back to life [full disclosure: I was a script editor on the film].
Sublet is Fox’s fourth film at Tribeca. Yossi & Jagger, a love story about two male Israeli soldiers, won the Best Actor Award at Tribeca in 2003 for its star, Ohad Knoller. Yossi, a film about the same character, opened the International Competition in 2012. His 2006 film, The Bubble, was also shown at Tribeca.
“I NEVER IMAGINED when we were accepted to Tribeca that there would be this virus. And that John would get it,” he said. Hickey, a Tony-Award winning actor who appeared on The Good Wife, told Broadway.com’s Live at Five on April 2 that he had tested positive for the virus in March and that “it is a brutal sickness,” although he said that he was feeling much better now.
Hickey was in the midst of directing a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite with Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick when the virus caused all of Broadway (including rehearsals) to shut down, and just then, he noticed he was showing symptoms.
Said Uchovsky, one of Sublet’s producers: “It’s a very, very strange situation, we’ve never been through anything like it before. We are not like a big studio that made 10 movies this year. We are a small production company from Israel, we have this one movie and we want it to do well. Everyone who’s seen it [in screenings for Israeli distributors] loved it. It’s gotten great word-of-mouth already. So we decided to keep it in Tribeca in this online competition.”
The International Narrative Feature competition jury at Tribeca this year features some giants of the movie world, including director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) and actor William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Big Chill).
Uchovsky and Fox said that they thought that Sublet might eventually find a natural home on one of the popular streaming services, such as Netflix, Apple and Amazon Prime, which have brought international movies and television series into living rooms in nearly every country on the globe, rather than a traditional theatrical arthouse release.
Said an Israeli movie industry insider, “Arthouse movies shown in America these days earn a few hundred thousand dollars, maybe - best case scenario, a million or two - and are in theaters for a couple of weeks. On streaming services they reach a much wider audience and stay around longer. The whole industry was moving away from theaters and into streaming even before the virus, but now streaming will become even more popular. No one knows what the day after the virus will look like, but it’s likely that people won’t be running to sit in a theater with hundreds of strangers crammed together.”
International festivals are critical for Israeli films, because they provide exposure to distributors and streaming services, as well as raising their profiles and generating buzz through critical response. For a director like Fox, who has made such international hits as Walk on Water (2004), which was nominated for a Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and which earned millions of dollars around the world, a festival like Tribeca is a key launching pad.
Another Israeli film is set to be shown in the international competition, Asia by Ruthy Pribar, starring Shira Haas (Unorthodox) and Alena Yiv as a Russian immigrant mother and her daughter, is the director’s feature-film debut. For a movie like Asia, Tribeca could likely lead to more festival exposure, but for Sublet, which is 98% in English and features a well-known American actor, the hope is that it would connect the film to a wide international audience.
TALYA LAVIE, whose film Zero Motivation won the Tribeca international competition in 2014, was set to return this year with her black comedy, Honeymood, which was to be shown out of competition.
The pandemic has hit the Israeli film and television industry hard, shutting down production on everything, sometimes after just a day or two of shooting. Lior Raz’s high-budget Netflix show, Hit and Run, which was filming in and around Tel Aviv, also had to come to a halt.
Filmmaking in the West Bank has also closed down. Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, The Mountain Between Us) had to shut down production on his latest film, Huda’s Salon, in Bethlehem.
Israeli television series were affected by the cancellation of international competitions, such as Series Mania in France, which was to be held in March. Series Mania is a competition where Israeli series have done very well, with such shows as Your Honor and On the Spectrum winning the top prize in recent years. This year, like Tribeca, they decided to go digital due to the virus.
The international competition featured the world premiere of Valley of Tears, an epic drama about the Yom Kippur War starring Lior Ashkenazi, as well as the French/Belgian/Israeli co-production No Man’s Land, about a young Frenchman’s search for his sister who is missing and presumed dead in Syria. The co-production pitching was conducted online and featured the latest project by Eran Riklis (Spider in the Web, The Syrian Bride), among several Israeli films.
In Israel, the Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival and Docaviv already announced they would be postponed and no one knows yet what will happen with the Jerusalem Film Festival, set for late July, or the Haifa International Film Festival, scheduled for the fall.
Fox is optimistic that although there won’t be the excitement of a live screening, Tribeca will connect Sublet to a receptive audience.
“It’s wonderful that Tribeca is going out of its way to support the films that they chose,” he said. “Sublet’s main character lived through the plague of AIDS and lost friends and lovers. And now Sublet is coming out during this plague. It’s a film about love, about choosing life and overcoming death and tragedy. I think it will speak to people now.”