May 20, 2004
Tinseltown Players Schmooze in Israel
It's popular sentiment these days that Hollywood has turned its back on Israel. Recent visits by actor Jason Alexander, action hero-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a concert announcement by Madonna indicate a few stars are still looking to show their support. But most celebrities -- most Jewish celebrities anyway -- have kept their feet planted in Tinseltown. Checks are being written, but flights aren't being booked.
This month, behind-the-scenes Hollywood powerhouses took a stronger stand. Members of the Entertainment Division of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles traveled to Israel on a 12-day mission. Not content with the typical tourist agenda, the group aimed to advance relations with Israeli entertainment counterparts and launch the grass-roots Israel Volunteer Corps (see page 15).
"As the Israel Film Festival tells us, there are many moving films emanating from Israel," said mission co-chair Danny Sussman, a talent manager at Brillstein Grey Entertainment Inc. "Not just films about political strife, films about daily lives. I think it's a very strong, virtually untapped arena for Hollywood to explore."
The L.A. delegation, made up of writers, directors, producers, executives, managers and publicists, toured the Tel Aviv University film department and instructed screenwriting, production and MFA students on the business of making movies in Hollywood. They gave Israeli students a practical education on industry politics and real-world dealmaking; they watched student films, and heard and critiqued the burgeoning filmmakers' pitches.
"We are so far from Hollywood, we don't know what the real world is like," said MFA student Micky Zilbershtein. "Today we have professionals in the business here telling us what's going on out there. That's so important."
The film professionals' mere presence in Israel left as great an impact as their insider tips.
"I knew there were a lot of Jews in Hollywood, but I never thought they would support Israelis who are trying to work in film," said third-year student Eden Gurion. "What I heard today is that they want to talk to us because we're Israeli. I never thought that would happen. It gives me hope."
Looking to bridge the divide between U.S. and Israeli entertainment industries, mission participants networked with leading Israeli filmmakers, writers, actors and producers.
"These are warm, committed people who are passionate about what they do, and just want the opportunity to work with us," said Naomi Goldman, vice president of Rogers & Associates, a national public relations firm.
Both groups believe now is the perfect time to commit to joint projects.
"A number of Israeli films had successful U.S. releases this year. Look at 'Broken Wings,'" said Katriel Schory, director general of The Israel Film Fund. "What better time to strengthen relations with Hollywood professionals."
Hollywood might agree. With film production costs on the rise, studios are seeking financial partners. Teaming with Israeli funding sources may be the solution for some films.
"The Israeli Film Fund controls millions in potential production financing and there are real possibilities for co-productions between the Hollywood and Israeli film communities," Sussman said.
It's easy to talk synergy, but more impressive to put such endeavors into motion. Last year, U.S.-based IDT Entertainment, the parent company of L.A.-based animation studio DPS Film Roman and several other entertainment entities, opened DPSI animation studio in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Started by just eight employees, the Israeli studio now employs 130 people, works on numerous animated television shows and has begun work on its first full-length feature.
"The entertainment industry is rapidly taking notice of the wide range of opportunities and creative talent in Israel," said Scott Greenberg, IDT Entertainment executive and Entertainment Division mission participant. "The growth of our studio there has been tremendous, and to see it in person is impressive."
With success in global 2-D and 3-D animation work, DPSI is an Israeli-based company making a universal mark.
"They're doing cutting-edge work and creative storytelling that transcends their Israeliness and has an international appeal," said independent producer Steven Rubenstein. "It's the best example I saw of a working Israeli-American entertainment partnership."
With so many potential joint ventures, why aren't more Hollywood-Israeli connections being made? Why aren't more industry Jews traveling to Israel and fostering business relations?
"People are scared. They all ask why I'd want to travel to a place they perceive as being unsafe," Rubenstein said.
Since the start of the uprising three years ago, Israeli tourism has seen a significant drop. But members of the Entertainment Division mission are encouraging their Hollywood peers to make the trip.
Only by visiting Israel, they say, can these Hollywood executives realize the wealth of talent that exists there.
"People won't understand until they go to Israel. Once I was there, I forgot I was supposed to be worried or afraid. I felt completely comfortable," Goldman said. "I would encourage anyone in the business community -- not just the entertainment community -- to look at Israelis as potential partners, and go there and meet these people for themselves."