Jerusalem Film & Television Fund plots drive into virtual reality

As it approaches its 10th anniversary, the fund is pushing into the hi-tech worlds of VR, visual effects and gaming.

Jerusalem Film & Television Fund plots drive into virtual reality

When it launched in 2008, the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund pretty much did what it said on the tin: focused on encouraging local and international features and TV series to shoot in the city. But over time its remit has steadily expanded.

Some four years ago, the fund began spearheading the creation of an animation sector in the city and now, as its 10th anniversary approaches, it is plotting an ambitious drive into the hi-tech worlds of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), visual effects and gaming.

“We want to be one of the leading cities in the world in this new digital arena,” says fund director Yoram Honig. “We’re looking into the possibilities around AR and VR. They’re still at the experimental stage but we believe [the industry] will grow and want to be a part of it.”

Hi-tech drive

Much of Israel’s thriving hi-tech sector is to be found in the country’s so-called ‘Silicon Wadi’ in Tel Aviv and other smaller coastal plain hubs such as Ra’anana and Petah Tikva, but Honig believes the fund can entice new start-ups to Jerusalem too. The city has already started attracting other sectors in the hi-tech industry.

“In the space of some three, four years, we’ve seen the number of tech companies grow from 250 to 650,” says Udi Ben Dror, deputy general director of the fund’s parent body the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA).

The agency has made film, TV and other related industries a key plank of its strategy to support business and grow jobs in the city.

Honig is confident Jerusalem can build a digital creation scene in the same way it launched an animation sector. “Three or four years ago, when we said we’re going to build an animation industry in the city, everyone laughed,” says Honig. “But we’ve succeeded.”

Under that push, the fund introduced a 35% cash rebate for animation productions that are 80% produced in the city, and also encouraged companies such as VFX and 3D animation specialist Snowball Studios — which has offices in Tel Aviv, Toronto and London — to open a branch in Jerusalem. Local animators have since worked on Snowball commissions such as Star Darlings (Disney Channel Junior) and Barbie Dreamtopia (Mattel). The company recently began two training programmes, one aimed specifically at religious women, as part of a plan to scale up its operations in the city.

Other upcoming animations supported by the drive include Old Testament-inspired features Being Solomon (pictured, above) and Legend Of Destruction and the fund will hold a second edition of its Hop, Skip & A Jump meeting, which is designed to foster the city’s animation scene, during Jerusalem Film Festival (JFF). This year’s event will feature animator Eric ‘Bibo’ Bergeron (Shark Tale, A Monster In Paris) among the guests.

Six new animation projects will be presented at the event including Eldad Sery and Michael Kagan’s animal world fantasy Going Viral, about a group of savannah animals who take to social media. The project was pitched at a pitching event organised by the Annecy International Animated Film Festival’s Mifa market.

The fund will take a similar approach for its hi-tech drive. “As with animation, we’ll be taking a two-pronged approach, supporting companies to build studios in Jerusalem and also encouraging Israeli and international companies to carry out their projects here,” says Honig.

The fund has secured an extra $5.6m (ils20m) in state funding to help kickstart the drive. In addition, it also recently struck a deal with the Canada Media Fund (CMF) for a joint co-development and co-production incentive, aimed at TV projects as well as digital media projects in VR, AR, videogames, documentary and animation. Under the scheme, the two bodies will combine resources to make a maximum joint contribution of $75,000 for development and $150,000 for production. Producers based in both partner territories have until October 19 to submit their projects.

Other initiatives include a recent fact-finding mission to Finland — home to a multibillion-dollar gaming industry led by companies such as Angry Birds creators Rovio Entertainment — to help gain an inside view of how the country built its digital content industry.

Film focus

Pilgrim

As well as pursuing new avenues and new technologies, the fund remains committed to film and TV, enticing local and international productions to Jerusalem through a combination of incentives, grants for Israeli films and logistical support. “We’re the only place in Israel offering an incentive to international productions,” says Dror.

The efforts of the past nine years are also increasingly bearing fruit on the local front. Dror says there are signs that students studying at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School and Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design are increasingly staying in the city once their courses are completed rather than heading to Tel Aviv.

Also, when the fund was launched, only 30 of the 700 Israeli films made during the country’s 60-year history had been shot in Jerusalem. Since the fund’s creation, it has brought 60 local productions to the city. “Tel Aviv traditionally dominated the big screen but this is changing,” asserts Honig.

According to statistics released by the fund at the beginning of 2017, Israeli films set and shot in Jerusalem accounted for a record-breaking 700,000 of the two million cinema admissions racked up by local titles in 2016, led by Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony and Avi Nesher’s Past Life. Nesher is back in the city this summer shooting Pilgrim (pictured, above).

The second film in his so-called ‘Past Trilogy’, it stars Yuval Segal as a failed academic who returns to Jerusalem from the US to try to dissuade his estranged daughter — played by Joy Rieger — from marrying into the ultra-Orthodox community. The film is due to be completed in the first half of 2018. In the meantime, other Jerusalem-set titles due to hit the big screen include Amichai Greenberg’s Holocaust legacy thriller The Testament and Ofir Raul Graizer’s bereavement drama The Cakemaker. The latter is screening at this year’s JFF.

Attracting international productions has proven more difficult although Joseph Cedar’s recent Hebrew and English-language feature Norman did see Richard Gere touching down in the city for the shoot, which saw an old station depot in the city posing as New York’s Fifth Avenue. “It’s an example of what we can do here,” says Dror.

The fund may also welcome a rare international production next year in the shape of John Deery’s The Rock Pile, starring Hugh Bonneville as a jaded war correspondent on assignment in the city (see box, right). Honig acknowledges it can be complicated enticing international productions to Jerusalem against the backdrop of Middle East tensions. “It’s one of the factors behind our push into animation, CGI and digital content,” he says. “It’s a way of working with international companies without them having to physically send their talent over here.”

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