After suffering from a lack of movie theaters, Jerusalem is about to triple its number of oversized screens, stadium seating and IMAX options.
Following the February grand opening of the 19-theater Cinema City complex, YES Planet, part of the Rav Chen movie theater chain, announced its 16-screen theater opening at the Sherover complex in Abu Tor, in about 15 months. And unlike Cinema City, it will be open on Shabbat.
“We spent a long time looking for the right opportunity and the right fit in Jerusalem,” said Mooky Greidinger, the YES Planet CEO. “Here, we’re under the wings of [the] Sherover [Foundation], where we have [its head] Uzi [Wexler] showing us the way, and the location is the best and most important in the city.”
Construction has been underway for some time at the 28-dunam complex, which will be known as the Sherover Cultural Center, overlooking the landscaped walkways of the Sherover, Haas and Goldman promenades — known locally as the tayelet — abutting the Abu Tor neighborhood in southern Jerusalem.
The center has been planned for years, and will now comprise the YES Planet theater with its 16 theaters and 400 underground parking spaces as well as auditoriums for musical performances, art spaces, restaurants and cafes overlooking “one of the best views in Jerusalem,” said Greidinger. “This won’t feel like you’re sitting at home.”
None of it came easily.
Wexler — a beloved Jerusalem bureaucrat who runs the Gabriel Sherover Foundation and spent many years in charge of the Jerusalem Development Authority, the joint agency of the government and Jerusalem municipality founded under the aegis of former mayor Teddy Kollek – told the crowd on Tuesday morning that his plans for Sherover were initially straightforward:
“It was going to be another cultural center,” he said. “The kind of place where people would say, ‘Let’s meet at Sherover tonight; we can eat, hear some jazz, see an exhibit.’”
In other words, an updated version of the Jerusalem Theater, another Sherover project, which has long offered a cultural menu of music, theater, dance, film and two in-house restaurants. Wexler also emphasized that he didn’t want the center to exist on donations but rather “to survive on its own profits,” he said.
But things didn’t work out as planned.
Construction had already begun when it became clear there wasn’t enough money to continue the project, and the city scrambled to find another partner.
The partner, it became clear, could be the Greidinger family, scions of an Israeli movie theater company that opened its first cinema in 1931 in Haifa.
It was Mooky Greidinger’s grandfather, Moshe, who opened that theater and then the Armon Cinema, also in Haifa, then Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Chen in 1958. In 1967, the family, now owners of the Chen movie theater chain, bought the Forum Film distribution business, and opened its first multiplex cinema in 1982 in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center.
The Greidingers expanded internationally in the late 1990s, establishing Cinema City International N.V. — no relation to Israel’s Cinema City chain — and opening cinemas in Budapest and then in Poland. The family then began opening the YES Planet chain of theaters in 2006, in Israel. They listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, and in January, sold Cinema City International to London-based Cineworld Group PLC, the UK’s publicly-listed cinema chain, with Greidinger in place as CEO.
Cineworld announced earlier this month an expansion of their current partnership with entertainment technology IMAX Corporation for an additional 11 IMAX theaters, including one at the YES Planet theater in Jerusalem.
“We’re expanding into iconic locations,” said Cripps, at Tuesday’s gathering. “That’s why Jerusalem is so important. We couldn’t be prouder.”
Still, opening a YES Planet in Jerusalem required a different set of negotiations.
“Uzi’s our mentor in Jerusalem,” chuckled Greidinger. “He calmed me and supported me throughout this process.”
Mayor Nir Barkat joked that in City Hall, Wexler is known as “the tractor” for his penchant for pushing things through.
There were other hiccups in the development of the NIS 150 million ($43 million) construction project — including residential neighbors who don’t want a busy commercial center in their midst. Yet one matter that passed with relatively little fanfare was the plan to keep the complex open on Shabbat.
The cultural center, located in the southern end of Jerusalem, adjacent to Abu Tor aka Givat Hananya — a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood bordered by Hebron Road, the new train station complex and the Sherover Promenade — was always planned as a complex that would be open on Shabbat, unlike the new Cinema City project near the entrance of the city.
It required some dexterous negotiations to keep that promise, and Mayor Nir Barkat thanked several people, including deputy mayor Rachel Azaria, Meretz faction head Pepe Alalu and others, for helping finalize the plans.
A month after Cinema City opened in February, the Supreme Court ruled that it would remain closed on Shabbat for the time being. Although Cinema City’s original contract with the city stipulated that the complex would remain closed on Shabbat, owners Leon and Moshe Edry said the theater would face unfair competition from the planned YES Planet theater at the Sherover cultural complex, which will be open on Shabbat.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court asked the Jerusalem municipality to re-negotiate the contract with Cinema City in light of the potential competition.
“Cinema City is being debated, and in order for it to be open on Shabbat, it has to be agreed upon by the city council,” said Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat Tuesday.
Sources at the municipality said that Cinema City will only be opened on Shabbat if the mayor pushes it through, a move that could possibly threaten the delicate political balance between the ultra-Orthodox and secular council members.
When asked at Tuesday’s event whether he thought having a cultural center and movie theater open on Shabbat would disturb Jerusalem’s status quo agreement between the ultra-Orthodox and secular residents of the city, Barkat shook his head.
“Coexistence makes this city stronger,” said Barkat. “Look at places like the train station, where everyone’s together.”
“No project is anti-religious or anti-anyone else,” added Wexler. “They’re created for the public.”
For now, it appears the center’s managers have thought of nearly everything. While the center will be open on Shabbat, the food venues will be split between kosher and nonkosher, with three kosher restaurants on site, said Wexler, and another six that will be open on Shabbat, rendering them nonkosher according to local kosher certification laws.
The movie theater snack stands will be open all the time, but keeping popcorn and soda machines open on Shabbat does not render them unkosher, said Wexler.
And despite the existence of another mega movie theater in the city, as well as NIS 38 tickets, Greidinger said he isn’t worried about selling enough tickets, even in Jerusalem, which is considered a relatively poor city.
“Movies are a conduit to culture, and a city the size of Jerusalem is big enough for these two theaters,” said Greidinger. “You know what? Lots of Jerusalemites come to the YES Planet in Rishon. Now they’ll come to YES Planet in Jerusalem.”