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July 29, 2009

Hollywood Shakes Hands With Israel

http://www.jewishjournal.com/hollywood_jew/article/hollywood_shakes_hands_with_israel_20090729

Nina Tassler, right, president of CBS Entertainment, talks to Israeli actress Leor Hashin at a master class on film and television in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2009. Photo by Dina Kraft

Nina Tassler, right, president of CBS Entertainment, talks to Israeli actress Leor Hashin at a master class on film and television in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2009. Photo by Dina Kraft

The 11th annual Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Master Class at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque began this week offering both negative and positive news for Israeli students and professionals. Founded by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and co-sponsored by HOT cable company, the event was established to forge connections and create partnerships between Hollywood and Israel’s film, television and new-media professionals.

This year, if there were any doubts about how the television networks have been weathering these difficult economic times, CBS President Nina Tassler and talent manager Danny Sussman cleared them up immediately. In their 25 and 21 years in the business, respectively, this was the worst year they have ever seen, both said. The combination of the Writers Guild strike, shrinking advertising revenues and dramatic increases in digital recording devices that eliminate commercials has the networks mired in serious financial trouble.

Despite having the number one new series (“The Mentalist”), the number one returning show (“CSI”) and the best network ratings, CBS, along with everyone else, is still struggling.

Dressed in a casual white pantsuit that set off her deep olive complexion, Tassler quietly took her allocated seat on the stage, while Sussman roamed about the amphitheater like a prowling lion bursting with excitement. Although their demeanors could not have been more different, and the pair traditionally stake ground on opposite sides of the fence — Tassler for the network and Sussman for actors — they know each other well and share a similar perspective. While Tassler calmly explained the recent changes with a warm frankness, Sussman peppered his outlook with lively asides.

“Our industry is not immune to the bubble bursting, and we’ve had to take a hard look at reality. The days when agents could negotiate multi-year, $45-million contracts for writers are over,” Tassler explained.

“GM is f—-ing gone, in case anybody wanted to know about it!” interjected Sussman from his perch on the stairs beside the audience. “The thing you people have to remember is that the networks may be cutting back, but we know they’re fair, and we know that we have to play ball with them.”

Aside from overseeing all of CBS’ entertainment programming (prime time, late night and daytime), Tassler is also the incoming chair of the L.A. Federation’s United Jewish Fund Entertainment Division. Over the course of her career, she has introduced some of the highest-rated and commercially successful dramas on network television, such as the “CSI” franchise, “Without a Trace,” “Cold Case” and “NCIS.” More recently, she was responsible for debuting “The Mentalist” and “The Big Bang Theory,” the latter a critically-acclaimed comedy currently in its second season.

Sussman has been a talent representative for 21 years and has been deeply involved in the annual Master Class collaboration between Israel and his native Los Angeles for the last nine years. This year, he is placing extra emphasis on the opportunities for new talent that have not been seen in the industry for years. Sussman even prepared what he calls an Obama speech — a “Yes I Can” pep talk for the downtrodden and discouraged to get them fired up about their ability to succeed in this difficult business. 

Indeed, amid the downturn, there is some good news for Israel’s growing entertainment industry. The economic situation has opened new doors for collaborations between Hollywood and other countries, something that American networks traditionally eschewed.

“As countries like Israel get better and better at what they do and there is more development, they are buying less from us too,” noted Tassler. But this increasing talent pool abroad has also led to American networks buying rights to more foreign shows, such as the wildly popular “In Treatment,” which got its start in Israel.

“Israelis are known for their creativity, and whereas American writers have to do mental gymnastics to come up with stories, Israelis can pull from their personal lives. They don’t have to look elsewhere for good drama. They live with it,” Tassler told The Jewish Journal in an interview after the seminar. The appeal of small, intimate stories transcends cultural borders, and the human elements that make up a good story are universal. The ability to look at relationships and characters and to be introspective resonates with American audiences, no matter where the content may have originated — be it Israel, Canada or elsewhere.

“Ever since ‘In Treatment,’ Israel has been on the radar, and I’m impressed by the level of professionalism here and the influx of a higher caliber of talent,” Tassler continued. “The level of awareness here and curiosity is extraordinary, and we would love to co-produce some shows in the near future.”

In Tassler and Sussman’s vision, co-production could mean using Israeli actors who speak English well and shooting the same show in Israel in multiple takes — one in Hebrew and one in English.

A staunch, self-proclaimed Zionist who has been to Israel 45 times, Sussman agreed that the wave of collaboration between the two countries is just beginning and holds enormous potential for both sides.

“Both countries share a multicultural democracy that is based on an immigrant population,” he said. “The importance of the theater in Israel means that they’re getting the highest level of training. The United States wants to make TV here, and within the next three or four years, we’re going to see that becoming a reality.”

Continuing through July 31, the master classes and special events in Tel Aviv will also feature Darren Star (“Sex and the City”), Gail Berman (former president of Fox Broadcasting Company and Viacom Paramount Pictures, producer of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Bill Masters (sitcom writer, including for “Seinfeld”), Jerry Levine (television director), Sarah Treem (head writer of HBO’s “In Treatment”) and others.

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