October 25, 2001
Advice for Israeli Filmmakers
The movie business ... is the toughest business in the world.
I'm sitting in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet on an Israeli Air Force (IAF)base. A friend of mine is an F-16 fighter pilot, an American-born Israeli who just finished his MBA at Harvard Business School and is doing his monthly stint in the reserves. He knew that I had just sold a project about the formation of the IAF to Dreamworks' ImageMovers, a subsidiary owned by Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke.
Dan Gordon ("Hurricane") is the writer. This is a project dear to our hearts, since both Dan and I have deep Israeli roots. Dan, an American, volunteered to join the IAF in October 1973.
The movie is about two very different American guys who have to con their way through a series of adventures in order to get the necessary military equipment to arm the not-yet-formed IAF. It's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" with Nazis, Spitfires and a 10,000-man Egyptian infantry unit marching on Tel Aviv.
The din of the F-16s taking off and landing nonstop throughout the morning, made me wonder why an Israeli movie producer had not thought of our idea before. The story of the foundation of the Israeli Air Force is part and parcel of the Israeli patrimony, a resident of the country's collective memory. How could they not see it?
I came to Israel to teach the Tel Aviv master class in creative producing this summer at the behest of Jean Friedman of Los Angeles, whom I met through one of my oldest friends, Rita Spiegel. Friedman is co-chair, along with Mickey Yerushalmi, of the Culture Committee of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
This is the partnership's third annual master class; the first two were on directing and screenwriting. Previously I had delivered one-shot lectures on the art of "pitching" at USC for various friends who were teaching courses in film at the university.
Pitching -- essentially presenting the minimal form of a screenplay is a tool used by writers, directors and producers in Hollywood to get a deal to write a screenplay. In nearly 30 years in the business, I have developed a reputation -- or so I am told -- as one of the best pitchers in Hollywood.
I'd never taught a whole course about the movie business as it is practiced in Hollywood today, so I asked my good friend Susan Landau, who taught this same course at USC, to join me.
Israel is hardly a foreign country to me. My parents, who were both born in Jerusalem and are sixth-generation sabras, had just retuned to Israel themselves. My sister, along with her husband and five children, made aliyah two years ago. They are haredim, who live in Ramot Beit Shemesh.
Susan and I had done a lot of preparatory work and created a syllabus that essentially outlined the way Hollywood works. We were assisted by U.S. program coordinator and USC directing teacher Mary Beth Fielder and filmmaker Ilil Alexander, who was producing the course in Tel Aviv.
The students, who were all professionals in the 25-31 age range, had day jobs and were all involved in the Israeli film and television business in some capacity.
We had to explain the fundamentals of the system: the modern studio system and the players who function within that infrastructure; the roles of agents, managers, lawyers, producers, directors, public relations handlers, journalists and actors; and the complex interrelationships between all those entities and the studio system.
We explained the art of the pitch and how to do it, spending several days with each of the students and ruthlessly preparing them to do it themselves. We went over the entire process: selling an idea and developing it into a screenplay, making and structuring a deal, contracts and delivery requirements, finding writers, the process of rewriting, the making of lists, the attachment of talent (actors and directors), the budget process, getting a project greenlighted, preproduction, production, postproduction and marketing and distribution.
We showed the students how to write coverage, a sort of book report that tells, in two or three pages, the story of a screenplay plus the reader's evaluation of whether the screenplay will make a viable movie; how to write story synopses; how to write letters to all the executives in Hollywood (in English) and everything else that goes into the miraculous process of "getting it on," that is, getting the picture onto the screen.
"Less is more" became my mantra, and after drilling and redrilling the students day in and day out, they were finally able to understand the full professional requirements of what it takes to get an idea to the screen.
We also entertained them with true, absurd, hilarious and pathetic anecdotes of each of our various experiences making our own movies. Naturally, the students enjoyed those the most, gossip and salacious stories being the lingua franca that all could understand and relate to.
Saturday night at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, we screened "The Celluloid Closet," an award-winning documentary I had produced. The room was not quite full: the terrorist bombing at the Dolphinarium had occurred the night before -- I could see the wreckage from my hotel room's window -- and some people had stayed home, shaken by the tragedy.
Yerushalmi welcomed us and cheered our bravery in coming to Israel despite the events of the past eight months, but it had never occurred to me not to come.
The course started first thing Sunday morning. There were 20 Israelis and seven Americans. The whining and complaining about the Israeli film system very soon turned into a roar.
The Israeli film business is stagnant and in crisis -- obviously not the country's biggest problem, but a frusturation to many eager and talented filmmakers. Listening to these young men and women, hearing their pessimism and cynicism, depressed me.
I finally blurted out, "What happened to the people that created a vibrant nation out of sand? What happened to the people that created the finest and most sophisticated air force in the world? What happened to the people who created the best army in the world? What happened to Theodor Herzl's inspiring dictum, 'Im tirtzu, ein zo aggada' [If you will it, it shall be no legend]?"
I told them what I thought, and they looked at me as if I were some crazy Zionist from the States who was still living in 1955, singing the "Song of the Pioneer," wearing a kibbutz cap and passing along a finjan.
The movie business in America, I told them, is the toughest business in the world, filled with untold rejection. I told them they should imagine me at the head of a big pool, with a huge wooden board in my hands, and that they are all in the pool. Anytime anyone attempted to get out, I would smash them down with the board. It was their job to figure out how to circumvent the board and get out of the pool.
That's what the movie business is all about, I said. If they couldn't take it, they should sell shoes in Holon. The students looked at me in shock.
I told them the roughest "war stories" they ever heard. By the time we finished the two weeks, I had strong, strapping former IDF soldiers in tears, thanking me for giving them one of the great lessons of their lives.
What I began to sense was that the film industry in Israel is government-sponsored, so it's like being a Soviet artist -- and being on the dole.
All government-sponsored films have to be made in Hebrew. But if a teenager in Netanya goes out on a Friday night and has to spend the equivalent of $16 for himself and his gal, he's not going to see a movie about a depressed girl on a kibbutz in 1954 who howls at the moon. He's going to plunk down his $16 to see Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible II" or Brendan Fraser in "The Mummy Returns" -- big American movies with big American movie stars!
What has to happen to revivify the Israeli film industry is the creation of a consortium of producers who would raise money the same way the Hollywood moguls of old did it (the Sam Goldwyns, the Louis B. Mayers); the way the new moguls do it (the Barry Dillers, the David Geffens, the Jeffrey Katzenbergs): as entrepreneurs, by raising a fund that would just develop movies.
Since in Israel there is no culture of story development and a very sparse infrastructure of story editors and development executives, along with few agents, no managers and just a scattering of entertainment lawyers, they have to build an infrastructure along the paradigm of the Hollywood way, instead of following the European model, where the director holds total sway, plot is at a minimum, and character studies and esoteric, painterly tone-poem movies are the norm.
I also thought about the Hebrew problem. If 50 percent of the development fund were to go to develop Hebrew-speaking movies, you can preserve the tarbut ha'yisraeli (the Hebrew culture).
But the other half should go to develop English-language movies. There's no reason Israel can't develop its own versions of "Jagged Edge" and "Basic Instinct," or even a franchise like "The Mummy." Then Israeli filmmakers could bring their developed scripts to partner-producers in Hollywood and have them packaged with American movie stars.
Susan tempered my passion by suggesting that at the same time, an Israeli Sundance Institute should be created to develop Israeli versions of "Il Postino" and "Life Is Beautiful" and "Cinema Paradiso" on the model of the French film institute Equinox, which itself is modeled on the Sundance paradigm. Susan herself participates in the Equinox program.
I also suggested that the Israelis should study the Canadian and Australian models, which are hybrid government-private enterprise organizations. All in all, I think we stirred up local attitudes and got them started thinking in new ways.
I suggested to The Federation, with Ilil Alexander's support, that if they let Susan and me do this for five years, at the end of those five years we'll have trained 120 film producers in the American way of developing a screenplay. If 60 students go on to be working producers, and if 10 of those students become very successful, Israel will have a thriving film industry in 10 years.
After all, are we not the People of the Book? Did we not practically invent the art of storytelling? Hello! Genesis! Hello! Exodus! Hello! the Tanach! Hello! Chassidic shpielmeisters! Hello! Hollywood! Im tirtzu, ein zo aggada!