An antidote for the binge watcher

“Crescendo” is one of the films available for streaming from JxJ’s Virtual Cinemal. Courtesy of Menemsha Films.

Updated May 8, 2:30 p.m.

Finished Netflix today? Even if you haven’t and just want a break from binge watching, Ilya Tovbis wants to see you settled in front of a Jewish or Israeli movie.

His Virtual Cinema, out of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, is offering to bring quality rather than quantity to your digital device. Think of it as an art house cinema for the mind.

“In some ways, film is a natural medium to put online,” said Tovbis, director of the center’s JxJ cultural arts program

Not long ago, Tovbis was showing films out of Cafritz Hall, a state-of-the-art movie theater at the Edlavitch JCC. When the coronavirus led to shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, Tovbis moved the cinema online. Doing so was not as easy as just hitting play.

Tovbis said he had to negotiate numerous rights and permissions with film distributors. Even those in the film business for the long haul had not prepared for the quick shift. But distributors and cinemas got up to speed quickly.

Tovbis said his team “worked to replicate, as much as possible on digital, the experience of going to the cinema.”

The challenge Virtual Cinema and all cinemas like it face is how to differentiate themselves from streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

“Rather than having a channel with several thousand options all for one subscription fee, which, if you are watching a ton of content, turns out to be quite cheap per individual view, we’re interested in the cinema experience,” he said.

The price for tickets ranges from about $7 to $12 — per household. The purchaser has one to three days to screen the film.

Each week the offerings change; new films go up on JxJ’s Virtual Cinema website on Thursday mornings and run for about a week. (If you buy a ticket on the final day, you’ll still have the agreed on number of days to watch a film.)

Beyond the screenings of off-the-beaten-track films not typically in wide release, art house cinemas are prized for their curated film chats. The JxJ Film Club fills that role. Each Wednesday, film watchers meet on Zoom to discuss one film selected in advance from that week’s screenings. Over the past month, this group has been growing steadily, Tovbis reported, drawing up to 30 participants, as newcomers sign in with the now-regulars each week.

Often an invited expert in the topic of the film will provide context and commentary, but Tovbis encourages everyone to stop by and chime in, whether they’re a cinephile or just engaging conversation. The film club is free and each online meeting lasts about 60 to 75 minutes.

“The films we play are really unique,” Tovbis said. “A number of them are from with Israeli distributors, and some come from our smaller Jewish-focused distributors.” He pointed out: “These are titles that you would not be able to find anywhere … now we are able to play them virtually.”

He hopes film goers and others will discover something intriguing to watch beyond Netflix – and there’s no need to shop around because all arthouse cinemas and distributors have agreed to charge the same amount per ticket. That means if you think a JxJ film might be cheaper at another JCC or arthouse in another city, that won’t happen.

“We want people to feel like this is the way continue their film-going exposure at a time when all institutions are having to forgo public audiences,” Tovbis said. “Our audiences can continue to support the theater that they otherwise would have normally attended in person.”


Upcoming films on Virtual Cinema

Updated May 8, 2:30 p.m.

This coming week’s releases, May 7 through 14, include family- and youth-oriented selections from the New York International Film Festival Kid Flicks. With two installments — Kid Flicks One’s short films for the youngest viewers, ages 3 and up, and then films for children 8 and up — families can enjoy kid-oriented shorts from more than 10 countries.

Among them, the Swiss animated “KUAP” concerns a tadpole who somehow misses out on becoming a frog. When he gets left behind, the tadpole makes some entertaining discoveries.

The comic Australian live-action short, “A Field Guide To Being a 12-Year-Old Girl” is called a wry comedy for anyone who is, has been, or has known a 12-year-old girl. Kid Flicks Two, for kids ages 8 and up, aims to provide inspiration to continue the conversation with your kids or grandkids long after the screening is done.

The Israeli documentary “Once Upon a Boy,” directed by Uri Levi, in Hebrew with English subtitles, explores challenges a family faces raising their three children. One, Ron, though described as charming and full of life, is losing his mobility to cerebral palsy, while his twin runs freely and plays soccer. When the family seeks a complicated surgery for Ron in the United States, lessons abound about the power to live with one’s fate.

The German film, “Crescendo,” loosely inspired by conductor Daniel Barenboim, has been held over for another week. It details the conflicts that a renowned German conductor faces in creating an orchestra comprising Israeli and Palestinian musicians.

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