ChaiFlicks: Jewish TV and Film on Demand
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Seemingly out of nowhere, the pandemic lockdown has fueled the unprecedented popularity of Jewish-themed streaming series, some with unexpected crossover appeal to broader audiences.
So it’s only natural that a boutique streaming service has emerged to try to catch this wave, providing engaging, smaller, independent alternatives to the big- and mid-budget blockbuster limited series.
ChaiFlicks, a Santa Monica-based service that acquires and distributes content focused on Jewish culture, launched August 12.
The new service costs $5.99 per month, roughly what the BBC-overflow Acorn charges. Acorn, like other smaller services such as Sundance and Filmatique, has been compelled by market pressure from the streaming giants to offer 30-day free trials.
ChaiFlicks’ app is compatible with Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV as well as on iOS and Android mobile devices.
“We want to be the repository for Jewish culture,” says Heidi Bogin Oshin, one of the streaming service’s three partners. “We want to provide one-stop shopping for people who are interested in Jewish culture.”
The best known of ChaiFlicks’ content will come from Menemsha Films, founded by Neil Friedman. Oshin and Friedman are partners of both Menemsha and ChaiFlicks. They were joined in the new venture by film industry veteran Bill Weiner, former executive vice president of New Regency Productions.
Menemsha is a perennial supplier of art-house releases and to Jewish film festivals, most of which are now shuttered because of the pandemic. The partners acknowledge that they are entering a streaming field crowded with heavyweights.
A recent article in Barron’s was headlined, “The Streaming Wars Are Fierce. Is It ‘Too Little, Too Late’ for New Combatants?”
The article quoted J.P. Morgan analyst Alexia Quadrani, asking “whether it is ‘too little, too late’ for new services coming to market now, given the potentially lower demand compared with just a few months ago.”
“The onset of warmer weather and easing stay-at-home orders across the U.S. could mean that the pandemic’s highest-demand months for streaming are behind us,” the article said. “Economic turmoil and high unemployment could decrease consumers’ willingness to splurge on multiple services at once.”
But Oshin says that ChaiFlicks sees an opening, if a tiny one, in the market.
The timing may be propitious for a niche newcomer, she said. That is, if the pandemic drags on, content inventory of the big streamers may be depleted before production can ramp up, so viewers may become desperate for new material.
About half of Menemsha’s library is foreign-made, and roughly a third of the films deal with the Holocaust. While the anti-Semitism theme runs through many of the films, Oshin says, it is “not as much an element as the celebration of Jewish culture.”
ChaiFlicks’ more upbeat fare includes two Menemsha features also sold to Netflix: The Women’s Balcony, a 2017 hit Israeli comedy set in an Orthodox community; and Dough, a lightweight 2016 British film about an aging Jewish baker and his Muslim apprentice, starring Jonathan Pryce.
But Netflix passed on 1945, a black-and-white Hungarian film, when Menemsha offered it. Based on the short story with the same name by Gábor T. Szántó, 1945 is set in rural Hungary immediately after WW2’s end. On its 2017 release, the New York Times called it “absorbing and finely wrought.” By then the streaming giant had shifted emphasis to its own productions, which sparked the idea of ChaiFlicks.
“We did more than $1 million in domestic box office, which is usually the benchmark,” Friedman told the platform Deadline Hollywood. “We had these amazing reviews, 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. But they said no. The handwriting was on the wall. I said, ‘If we can’t sell a movie like this to Netflix, we need another way.’”
Now, 1945 is a ChaiFlicks marquee feature.
Part of ChaiFlicks’ intended appeal is as a Jewish aggregator.
“Some of these films may be available on other streaming services but you have to hunt around for them,” Oshin says.
How does ChaiFlicks expect to cope with the challenge of being outbid for potential sleeper feature hits by the big four or five streaming services, or by PBS for documentaries?
“We’re well known in our niche,” Oshin says. “Sales agents and producers know that we will work hard on their films. We’re micro-focused.”
Many of Menemsha’s independent films are set in the Diaspora, while another streaming service, IZZY, (launching on September 3) relies almost exclusively on Israeli films, TV shows and documentaries.
Within its primary goal of celebrating Jewish culture, ChaiFlicks has additional social concerns: combating racism and encouraging women filmmakers.
One ChaiFlicks documentary is entitled, Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance. Other upcoming documentaries on Jews of color, include They Ain’t Ready for Me: One Mother. One Corner. One Mission, about an African American rabbinical student in Chicago who leads an organization called MASK—Mothers Against Senseless Killings.
In addition, Oshin said, “we’re looking for films directed by Jewish women, on any subject. Jewish women have been the keepers of the home throughout the tradition. As that tradition meets various art forms and periods of our history, the unique perspective of Jewish women needs to be seen and heard.”
ChaiFlicks’ initial offering includes 150 films and TV shows, like Soon By You, an American web sitcom described as an “Orthodox Friends.” The show features a group of young, modern Orthodox friends living on NYC’s Upper West Side and looking for love.
ChaiFlicks has high hopes for Natasha, a 2015 Canadian feature, based on the title short story in David Bezmozgis’ well-received 2004 collection, updated from its original setting. It’s a dark tale of summer romance between young teens, involving Russian Jewish immigrants in the 1990s Toronto suburbs.
Other features and series in the eclectic lineup include A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma, the quirky, Australian documentary My Mother’s Lost Children, and Holy Land Hardball. Also the previously released Shekinah: The Intimate Life of Hasidic Women and Bulgarian Rhapsody.
ChaiFlicks hopes to release three new films a week.
Ultimately, the screening service would even like to include cooking shows. Also available are theater performances, including those by the Los Angeles based Jewish Women’s Theatre known for their award-winning stage productions.