The man who put Israeli movies on the map

Moshe Edery’s magic carpet ride from Tangier to Dimona to Cinema City is the story of how Israeli movies were brought to the world.

  DIRECTOR JOSEPH CEDAR (LEFT) talks with Moshe Edery, one of the producers of the Israeli film ‘Footnote,’ in Beverly Hills. (photo credit: FRED PROUSER/REUTERS)
DIRECTOR JOSEPH CEDAR (LEFT) talks with Moshe Edery, one of the producers of the Israeli film ‘Footnote,’ in Beverly Hills.
(photo credit: FRED PROUSER/REUTERS)

Most Israelis may not have heard of him, but the man who launched the Israeli movie business into the world-class film industry it is today – and who is the key figure driving its recovery from the COVID-era restrictions that shuttered theaters – is Moshe Edery, the CEO of United King Films and an owner of the Cinema City chain.

“What you give is always yours,” said Edery, who immigrated from Tangier to Dimona in the early 1960s when he was a child, as he sits in a conference room in his suite of offices at Cinema City in Glilot – the first multiplex in Israel, and the flagship of the chain. There is a framed photo here of him with his late brother, Leon, who passed away in 2018 and with whom he went on the magic carpet ride that has made Israeli movies winners at every festival around the world and driven ticket sales sky-high at home. 

A relentless bundle of energy, the trim, athletic Edery, who looks much younger than he is – he just celebrated his 70th birthday in an event where he was feted by Israel’s leading filmmakers – has produced literally hundreds of movies in fewer than 20 years. These include Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort and Footnote, both Oscar nominees; Avi Nesher’s Turn Left at the End of the World and all the films he has made since then; Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water and most of his subsequent films; Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit; Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s Big Bad Wolves; Eran Riklis’s Lemon Tree and many of his other films, and so many more. 

These titles are from the more highbrow end of Edery’s empire. He has also been instrumental in revitalizing the crowd-pleasing comedy branch of Israeli cinema, that withered after the success of the seretei bourekas (slapstick comedies) in the 1970s, with movies that include this year’s big summer hit, Saving Shuli, by the Mah Keshur trio, which he said was set to sell one million tickets by the end of the coming weekend. 

“Have you seen it? It’s a phenomenon,” he said. “It’s the most commercially successful Israeli movie in the last 40 years.” In the early days of the film industry, he said, “Who knows what movies really made? Now, with computers, we know exactly how many tickets are sold.”

He estimates that he invests in around 70% to 80% of all Israeli movies and he has about 20 movies in production now, as well as a slate of films ready to be released, “once the government figures out what it’s doing” regarding the pandemic. “We’re waiting to release them. They have to come out, we can’t wait with them forever.”

These include Avi Nesher’s upcoming film, Image of Victory, an anti-war drama about the Israelis and Egyptians on both sides of the Independence War; it just received 13 Ophir Award nominations, which he is especially excited about. 

 “I want movies to get made,” he said. “Artistic movies, comedies, commercial movies, left-wing, right-wing... I give the filmmakers freedom to make the movie their way.” He draws the line only at those movies that “hurt IDF soldiers and the state.”

SPENDING EVEN an hour with Edery is like speed-reading through the self-help section of a bookstore. “My mother liked to say, ‘Jealousy is worse than death,’” he noted. He has so many sayings like this that at his recent birthday party, the guests were given party favors that were fortune cookies filled with Edery’s proverbs. 

It takes a little prodding to get Edery to move from the present and future to the past. His father ran a candy store in Dimona and his mother was British, from Gibraltar. “My father was a very honest man, very religious; he would pray three times a day and he wanted me to be a rabbi, me and my brothers. My mother said, ‘Rabbi isn’t a profession, he needs to learn a profession.’ 

MOSHE EDERY (left) sits beside his late brother, Leon (credit: SIVAN FARAJ)MOSHE EDERY (left) sits beside his late brother, Leon (credit: SIVAN FARAJ)

“Leon studied to be an electrician, another brother studied agriculture and I studied to be an engraver, but I made a mess and got thrown out after a couple of weeks. I was a problem child, I had ADD and dyslexia and everything. The school principal said I didn’t come to school to learn, I came to do business. ‘He should go to work,’ he said. So I went with my brother to work at a movie theater, it was like Cinema Paradiso, and that was our start. That was in 1964.”

 He always loved movies. “I loved Sergio Leone movies, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Fistful of Dollars and all the others. In the 1980s, I met him in Rome... I grew up on Bruce Lee movies, Enter the Dragon, I met him at Cannes.” Another film he remembered affectionately was To Sir, With Love, with Sidney Poitier and he hummed the title tune, naming several members of the supporting cast. “I saw Sidney Poitier at Cannes, too.” 

He has great fondness for the Israeli movies of the 1960s and 1970s  and mentioned many classics that he enjoyed from back in the day, including movies by Uri Zohar (now Rabbi Zohar, who is featured in a rare recent photo in the conference room), as well as films with the comedy trio, HaGashash HaHiver,  “They were the best, I admired them.” Ephraim Kishon’s classics, including Sallah Shabbati, The Policeman and The Blaumich Canal were also favorites.

“I bought the rights to all of Kishon’s movies, he didn’t want to sell but I persuaded him to,” he said, and told a juicy story about how he got a certain key figure in Kishon’s life to help him make the deal. “I was afraid they wouldn’t be shown if I didn’t get them. I want future generations to see them. What did Kishon say? ‘If there is no past, there is no future.’” 

These classics and many others are now in the United King Films library, which is part of what is available to subscribers to his newly launched Israeli streaming service, Screen iL, which offers subscribers outside Israel full access to virtually all Israeli television, as well as hundreds of movies from United King’s library. 

“People have to abandon the pirates and come to the Zionists,” he said, pointing out that Israeli creators desperately need the revenue from streaming. He also acquired NMC, an Israeli music company – his offices are decorated with gold records – and other music libraries. 

LEAVING DIMONA, the brothers went into distribution, bought theaters and sold and rented videos. Eventually, they and several partners decided to open the first Israeli multiplex, Cinema City, on a highway intersection next to a gas station in Glilot in 2002. “People said we were crazy, we would fail, we would be hitchhiking back to Dimona. They recited kaddish over us,” he said. But they proved the naysayers wrong, and how – now there is a Cinema City in or next to every city in Israel.

“We saved Israeli movie-going,” said Edery. And other chains, such as Yes Planet, have followed in Cinema City’s footsteps. 

In the early 2000s, when Cinema City got going, the Israeli movie industry was at a low point. “I thought, it can’t be that we have 30 auditoriums and it’s all American movies, Italian movies. We have to start investing in Israeli cinema.” 

The way he generally works, he said, is that he meets with a director, “and he tells me the story in five to ten minutes. If my gut tells me there is an audience, I’ll support it.” His gut – or his commercial sense – has been with him from the beginning of his career. When he worked in Dimona as a teen, “I would bet the ticket seller and the usher when the theater would sell out and I was right 95% of the time.” 

 EDERY WITH Chuck Norris (credit: Courtesy) EDERY WITH Chuck Norris (credit: Courtesy)

Countless filmmakers attest to his commitment to Israeli movies. Fox, whose most recent film, Sublet, was produced by Edery and who is working with him on the upcoming television series, The Rabbi, said, “Moshe Edery has been a supportive partner and friend to me for many years.” Their relationship started when part of the budget for Fox’s 2004 film, Walk on Water, fell through. 

“Moshe came in and invested the money and made the film what it is and was part of that success. It’s wonderful how much he loves films and film directors... He has a few Israeli directors he really cares for, believes in and he really tries to support them as strongly as possible, even when they make mistakes or fail or fall, he’s there... He doesn’t give up. He supported me when I was successful and when I lost my direction, he helped me find my way... His support is not only financial but also emotional and that is just as important.”

Kobi Machat, the director of the successful teen racing movies, Full Gas and Full Speed, which is currently in theaters, said, “Moshe Edery is the central pillar of Israeli cinema; so many people owe him their careers and I’m happy to say he supported, produced and distributed six movies that I made. His kindness knows no bounds and he has the spark of a child in his eyes. Moshe Edery truly loves cinema. It’s no wonder that cinema and filmmakers love him back.”

In a speech at Edery’s birthday party, Nesher spoke about how he first met Edery in the early 2000s, when he was doing research for the film, Turn Left at the End of the World, which is set in the Negev. The two bonded over the fact that when Nesher was a soldier in a training course at a nearby army base, he spent his weekends at the Dimona theater where Edery was a projectionist. The research fell by the wayside as they reminisced about the movies they loved.

“He remembered every detail of each of those films. Directors, actors, plot twists. I know very few filmmakers with such deep cinematic knowledge and such a deep and emotional connection to the viewing experience.”

Calling Edery his “soulmate,” “brother” and “a visionary,” he said, “Without these two [the Edery brothers], the best Israeli cinema of the last 20 years would simply not have been possible... With Moshe, everything is done with fitting modesty. You’ll never find his name in big letters on a poster, you’ll never see him pushing himself in front of the TV cameras. Everything is done quietly, generously, wisely and with lots and lots of love.” 

Edery learned to work quietly and with love from his mother. “She said, ‘The important thing is to be a good person.’ I prefer mitzvot [good deeds] to prayers.” Among the causes he supports is the Or LaMishpachot (Light for Families) Association, which helps families who have lost children in military operations. He helps with their fundraising and holds screenings of new Israeli movies for the families. 

PART OF BEING a businessman is changing with the times and Edery has begun investing in television in recent years. Among the series he has been involved with was Valley of Tears, about the Yom Kippur War, and a whole slate of upcoming series, including one set in Iran, an adaptation of the book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. 

Hollywood has beckoned and as Nesher said in his birthday tribute, “Had Edery decided to go to the US, he would have become the president of a major movie studio.” But he is staying put. 

“I’ve had the option to go abroad and set myself up in England or America. But I didn’t. I want to stay here and work in and preserve the culture I am attached to,” he said.“I have a pretty good business here.”  In spite of the pandemic, he is convinced that, “movies will survive and thrive here.”

Given how much he has achieved, you might think that he would be planning to retire. A family man who calls his wife “The Old Lady,” and whom he mentions often and affectionately – “She’s the boss,” he said, when she dropped by – he enjoys spending time with his children, some of whom work with him, and his extended family. 

“Sometimes I think I’ll retire after I win an Oscar,” he said, but after a minute, he changed his mind. “No, I’ll still be an ‘advisor,’ ” he said and returned to what he wanted to talk about most all along: the movies and TV series he has coming up.

“My mother used to say, ‘You don’t die from working, you die from boredom.’”