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Zionism and the three-picture deal

Hollywood rediscovers the Jewish state

by Danielle Berrin

February 1, 2012 | 11:31 am

The first Women in Entertainment mission to Israel, in November 2011. Front row: Federation’s Catherine Schneider, mission co-chair Nina Tassler, Israeli composer Gil Shohat. Second row: Gail Berman, mission co-chair Nancy Josephson, Marcy Ross, Melanie Cook, Cheryl Snow, Bess Wohl, Federation’s Lori Tessel. Third row: Debbie Liebling, Sharon Hall, Suzan Bymel, Rabbi Sharon Brous. Back row:  Nancy Cotton, Amy Baer, Sarah Timberman, Marta Kauffman, Carolyn Bernstein, Robyn Broidy, Jeanne Newman.  Photo courtesy of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

The first Women in Entertainment mission to Israel, in November 2011. Front row: Federation’s Catherine Schneider, mission co-chair Nina Tassler, Israeli composer Gil Shohat. Second row: Gail Berman, mission co-chair Nancy Josephson, Marcy Ross, Melanie Cook, Cheryl Snow, Bess Wohl, Federation’s Lori Tessel. Third row: Debbie Liebling, Sharon Hall, Suzan Bymel, Rabbi Sharon Brous. Back row: Nancy Cotton, Amy Baer, Sarah Timberman, Marta Kauffman, Carolyn Bernstein, Robyn Broidy, Jeanne Newman. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

At the Golden Globe Awards in January, producer Howard Gordon stepped up to the stage to accept the award for Best Television Series — Drama for co-creating the breakout Showtime hit “Homeland.” In a single season, the show has become a sensation, edging the pay-cable channel closer to its rival HBO in number of subscribers and garnering profuse media attention and acclaim.

Gordon has much to be grateful for. At the Globes, he thanked his cast, his agent and a handful of television executives — but absent from his speech was any mention of the show’s secret shining star, the incubator of its concept, and its original homeland: Israel.

“When I walked offstage,” Gordon said in an interview after the event, “I said to Gidi Raff,” — the Israeli creator of “Hatufim,” upon which “Homeland” is based — “‘Did I remember to say thank you to …? In my head, it was: ‘Thank you to [my agent] Rick Rosen for bringing us this show from Israel.’ And he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Two weeks later, Gordon, a consistent Israel supporter, was remorseful. “Honestly, it was one of those moments where you go up there and you see Morgan Freeman yawning and the red light is flashing saying, ‘Wrap up,’ and you’re in shock.”

“Homeland’s” lead actress, Claire Danes, who also won a Golden Globe that night for playing Carrie Mathison, the show’s intensely driven, bipolar CIA agent, also left Israel off her list, though she did mention that after winning the same award 17 years ago for “My So-Called Life,” she had walked offstage crying because she forgot to thank her parents.

The omission, however, was a missed opportunity for the Globes’ nearly 17 million viewers to hear that the “Homeland” win was also a big moment for Israel: Three years after another Israeli-inspired show, HBO’s “In Treatment,” was up for the same honor, “Homeland” became the first Israeli format to win the Globes’ top TV award. But perhaps it will inspire a growing cadre of pro-Israel Hollywood movers and shakers to spread the word. Because with the success of such shows as “Homeland” and “In Treatment,” and the potential of many others currently in development, the industry has begun to see Israel as a great new resource, a fact of which very few Americans are aware. As director Jon Turteltaub put it, “You, me and 11 other people know.” 

This new trend reflects more than a triumph of good ratings, good writing and good luck — it is the love child of a deepening relationship between Hollywood and Israel that has been steadily building over the past several years. That’s right: The image of Hollywood as home to so-called self-hating Jews who have perennially distanced themselves from the Jewish state, whether out of apathy, ambivalence, fear, alternate priorities, shame, political disillusionment or, perhaps, just plain career absorption, has given way to the reality of an industry drawing closer to Israel than ever before.

All this is the result of a few strategic initiatives over the past five or six years that have been aimed at getting prominent entertainment leaders to connect with Israel’s burgeoning industry. Among them is an annual Master Class program organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which each year brings Hollywood “masters” like Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, to Israel to teach aspiring young film and television artists.

Just as pivotal has a been a series of trips by a select group of A-list Hollywood tastemakers that William Morris agent-turned-independent-manager David Lonner has been sponsoring since 2006 — largely on his own dime. Lonner’s guest list has included filmmakers Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”), Davis Guggenheim (“Waiting for Superman”) and Turteltaub (“National Treasure”), as well as producer Darren Star (“Sex and the City,” “Beverly Hills, 90210”) and Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal, whom Forbes magazine once called “arguably the most high-powered woman in Hollywood.”   

The timing for all these trips has been both intentional and providential, because they came just as Israel’s creative industry was undergoing an explosion in productivity and quality that many are comparing to the trajectory of Israel’s high-tech industry. Hollywood was able to get in on the ground floor. The start-up nation, as it turns out, is not only adept at technological and medical innovation, as well as energy efficiency, it is also darn good at making movies and television. Since 1964, Israel has garnered 10 Oscar nominations for best foreign language films — four of them in just the past five years.

Even bigger right now is the Israeli television industry, which, since 2007, has seen at least 10 Israeli television “formats” (industry slang for media concepts that can be translated or adapted into different markets internationally) sold into the Hollywood marketplace. Israeli-inspired “The Ex-List” (CBS) and “Traffic Light” (Fox) were short-lived, but many more, including CBS’ “Life Isn’t Everything,” HBO’s “The Naked Truth,” NBC’s “Midnight Sun” and the CW’s “Danny Hollywood” all are in various stages of development. The exchange between the two countries is now so substantial that people often speak of a “pipeline” going back and forth. And the mainstream media, including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and Nikki Finke’s Deadline.com all have taken note.

“Not since Golda Meir wanted everyone to make and write ‘Exodus’ has there been so much activity,” Ben Silverman, founder and CEO of Electus and the former co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, said in a recent interview.

“I do think there’s a renaissance happening,” said Sherry Lansing, the former studio chief of Paramount Pictures, who is responsible for organizing the first high-profile Hollywood mission to Israel, in 1984.

Producer Howard Gordon accepts the Golden Globe award for Showtime’s “Homeland,” based on the Israeli show “Hatufim.”  Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC via Getty Images

What is happening now, however, is more than a revival or renewal of past ties. Hollywood and Israel have become enmeshed in a relationship that is not about a religious awakening or even fervent Zionism — it is a practical business relationship of investment and trade. Hollywood, it could be said, is leading the anti-boycott movement, valuing Israel for its creative resources and paying handsomely for them.

“Right now,” Gordon said, everyone in Hollywood wants to know, “What’s coming out of Israel?” But the feeding frenzy is not simply about money — even the sales-driven Rosen, a talent agent from the tough-guy agency created by Ari Emanuel, admits he’s developed a soft spot for the country.

“It started as business for me,” said Rosen, a founding partner at William Morris Endeavor who is responsible for bringing both “In Treatment” and “Homeland” to the United States. “But I’ve become enormously close to the country, and even to my clients there. It’s become much more personal.”

As with every romance, there is much at stake. For one, the most powerful image-maker in the world is getting into bed with a country that has serious image problems. Hopes are high; hearts harbor great expectations. Especially at a time when the international conversation around the Jewish state remains focused on its unceasing existential threats — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a potentially nuclear Iran, calls for delegitimization, and, increasingly in recent months, internal conflict over a polarizing secular-religious divide. The potential for Hollywood to use its influence and expertise to help recast international opinion of Israel is huge.

“Israel invented storytelling, with the Bible,” Silverman, also an executive producer of “The Office,” said. “We are the storytellers — the Jews. And we have lost our way with our own narrative, and it’s essential we start telling our story again. All these stories coming out of Israel are stories the world should hear.”

What would it mean for an industry created by Jews to help redefine the narrative of the Jewish state? Perhaps it’s a chance for Jewish Hollywood to acknowledge its debts, and its origins. As Silverman pointed out, centuries of storytelling skills derive from reading and re-telling the most influential work of literature in the Western canon: the Hebrew Bible. So now that this confluence of cultures has led to a deeper attachment, what’s Hollywood going to do about it? 

While the organized, institutional Jewish community has long desired — and struggled — to galvanize Hollywood support for Israel, it is wary of putting too much stock in a historically fickle relationship. Jacob Dayan, who served as Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles from 2007 until last summer, spent a great deal of his term cultivating relationships in Hollywood. “I met each and every one — if I had to call Les Moonves, I called Les Moonves. I spoke to every person I had to, told them the Zionist story. And I saw a lot of progress,” Dayan said by phone from Israel, where he now works at a venture capital firm. “There are heads of studios who are great friends of Israel — for example, Amy Pascal was in very close contact with me — but to tell you that a concrete product emerged out of this great connection? The answer is ‘no.’ ”

It wasn’t long ago that the Israel-Hollywood relationship was an uneasy one. In 2001, the actor Joshua Malina, who at the time was starring in the Emmy-winning series “Sports Night,” created by Aaron Sorkin, received a desperate call from an official at The Federation in Los Angeles, asking him to appear at a pro-Israel rally. The Second Intifada had just broken out, and the news out of Israel was dismal — terrorist bombings on buses, in cafés and a nightclub had given the image of dead Jewish bodies a regular spot on the evening news. The Federation decided to stage a solidarity rally on Wilshire Boulevard, billing it as a show of support for Israel’s right to exist. “I thought, ‘OK, that’s a slam dunk,’ ” Malina said. But the somewhat image-conscious actor still took a moment to reassure himself, “That’s not controversial.”

When Malina arrived at the celebrity check-in desk on the day of the rally, the woman on duty didn’t even recognize him. Flustered, but not surprised, he was soon cleared and ushered to a green room for celebrities and dignitaries — but the room was nearly empty. “There was [singer] Peter Himmelman and Mayor [James] Hahn” — then Los Angeles’ mayor. Beyond that, he said, there was “nobody else that I recognized.” Having grown up Conservative in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he studied at a Modern Orthodox yeshiva, Malina was comfortable in his Jewish skin. “Love of Israel was baked into my consciousness,” he said. So when he gazed upon that empty room intended for his colleagues, he was taken aback. “I was really struck by that,” he said. Before the rally’s end, he tracked down The Federation’s entertainment director to ask: “Where are all the famous people?”

The answer was disconcerting. “I was told, ‘If it has to do with Israel, you can’t get anybody [in Hollywood] to come,’ ” Malina recalled. “I was appalled. This was a rally for Israel’s right to exist, and that’s a political hot potato you can’t get people to show up for? I thought, ‘Wow, if I’m the best they can do — this is bad.’ ”

Historically, Hollywood support for Israel has been erratic for myriad reasons, but like anything else in Hollywood, who shows up is often dependent, of course, on who’s leading the effort. In 1984, an Israel fundraiser honored the renowned William Morris agent Stan Kamen, and it was as glamorous and well attended as any event in town. Kamen was the industry’s leading Israel advocate at the time, serving as chair of the United Jewish Fund’s (UJF) Entertainment Division. Kamen also had one of the hottest client lists in town, including Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty, Walter Matthau, Joan Collins and Gregory Peck, and he was instrumental in bringing the novel “Sophie’s Choice” to the screen.

Sherry Lansing, then a young executive at 20th Century Fox, got Kamen to agree to receive an honor from the UJF, because it was “a chance to raise money for something he believed in,” according to Frank Rose’s book, “The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business.” That night at the Beverly Hilton looked more like a Golden Globe Awards ceremony than a Jewish fundraiser: Lew and Edie Wasserman, then the reigning king and queen of Hollywood, were there, along with Gregory Peck, Frank and Barbara Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, Barry Diller, Sue Mengers, Jerry Weintraub, Robert Evans, James Caan and even Cher. Warren Beatty, then at the height of his career, served as emcee, and Ted Kennedy, in town campaigning for Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, delivered the keynote address. It was star-studded at every turn, “a sell-out,” Lansing remembers, that “raised a ton of money” for Israel. Even the Tel Aviv Mayor, Shlomo Lahat, was on hand to present Kamen with a special honor from the prime minister’s office.

“That was a peak,” Lansing said recently, looking back on what she perceives as the golden era of Hollywood-Israel relations. “Thirty-two years ago — and this was when Lew Wasserman was still alive, Stan was saying, ‘We need to do something to get our industry more emotionally attached to Israel. You’ve been to Israel, I’ve been to Israel; if we take a group of people to Israel, Jews and non-Jews, they will never be the same afterward. It will change their lives.’ And that’s what we did.”

Lansing and Kamen believed Hollywood missions to Israel would be a kind of panacea — both inspirational and an antidote to apathy. One trip in the mid-1980s, which Lansing called “the famous mission that everybody talks about,” brought along two of the day’s biggest stars — Lemmon and Walter Matthau. “You have to realize,” Lansing stressed, “at that time, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were like the equivalent of Brad Pitt, or whatever.” Visits from movie stars, Lansing learned, made Israel look good. “After that, suddenly everybody wanted to go. It was cool to be Jewish. And then, by the next one, we had to say no to people.”

It’s impossible to measure, of course, how much a celebrity presence truly bolsters Israel’s public image. But who could deny that a photograph of a movie or pop star praying at the Western Wall doesn’t make a good impression, eliciting at least some modicum of pride in Jews who care about popular culture, but especially among young Jews who idolize their favorite celebrities? “There are very few things that make me wish I was more famous,” Malina said, half-joking. “I constantly wish I had more money, but the one thing that makes me wish I had a higher profile is that I would be such a good Jewish role model. It seems like the high-profile non-Jews are going to Israel all the time — Madonna’s going, Whitney Houston’s going — it’s the Jews that seem a little more hesitant.”

“Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander is one big name who traveled to Israel specifically to draw attention to a politically minded nonpartisan pro-peace group, One Voice. He said he believes celebrity is pretty “useless” unless it is used for some meaningful purpose. “If you step back and say, ‘You know, when I show up at places, people tend to make a fuss about it. Maybe I should think about what I show up for.’ ”

Darya Shaikh, executive director for One Voice (who was raised in a Hebrew-speaking home in New York with her Israeli mother and Pakistani father) said celebrity voices are sometimes the only way to draw media attention to the messages of smaller, grass-roots organizations such as her own. One Voice even has an entertainment council, which includes Pitt, Paul McCartney and Natalie Portman, although, for the purposes of One Voice, Alexander tends to be the most outspoken of the group. “Celebrities are able to hold up a microphone to our programming and activities long enough to communicate a message,” Shaikh said. Plus, with a celebrity in tow, Shaikh said, the organization got VIP access to Israeli political leaders. And that high-profile attention is particularly meaningful since One Voice trains Israeli and Palestinian youth leaders in conflict resolution. “It is incredibly empowering for them to know these conversations are being heard by an international community.”

But sustaining the Hollywood-Israel relationship is a perennial challenge. Even after Lansing’s Hollywood trips in the 1980s received copious publicity, the relationship slackened because no one else picked up the ball. “There was a gap, a real gap, a long period where nobody was engaged,” Lansing admitted.

The desert years lasted decades. Perhaps until Danny Sussman, a manager at Brillstein Entertainment Partners, became co-chair in 2008 of The Federation’s Master Class. Sussman considers himself a staunch Israel advocate and said he has personally been to Israel 45 times. He keeps in his office a running list of people he meets who want to go to Israel, as well as a box full of copies of “Exodus” that he distributes to them upon their return. Today, that list is longer than ever before, but Sussman remembers how sparse it was just a few years ago.

When the Master Class began more than a decade ago, it was a humble beginning. Classes at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque were basic, introductory courses, and the “masters” flown in from Los Angeles were B-list. “It was like pulling teeth to get people to go,” L.A. Federation President Jay Sanderson said. Some of the reluctance was based on fear and the perception of Israel as a war zone. After Sussman took over the program in late 2007 and invited CBS’ Tassler to participate, things started to turn around, but Sussman sees this as a trend, not a change of heart.

“All these big names in the industry that are going now were not going then,” he said. “The big people in Hollywood were afraid to go — they were afraid they were going to get blown up. I have a whole sheet of people who want to go to Israel now who did not have the courage to go in 2007. Everyone was afraid and too busy going to the French Riviera.”

Meredith Weiss, director of The Federation’s Entertainment Division since 2006, said, “When I started, I couldn’t get anybody to go to Israel. I had a lot of conversations where I had to explain to people that it was more dangerous to drive down Laurel Canyon in a rainstorm than go to Israel.”

Lonner began his advocacy trips in 2006, and he enlightened some of the industry’s most influential people on the everyday vitality and cosmopolitanism of life in Israel, even during a period of crisis.

“When I started doing my trips, it was because Israel was at war with Hezbollah and the Hollywood community was silent, whether out of apathy, ignorance or a misunderstanding of what was going on,” Lonner said. For three years, Lonner spent a small fortune shuttling A-list Hollywood back and forth; though he declined to reveal his personal investment, Sanderson said The Federation split expenses with Lonner and estimates its own expenditures at between $30,000 and $50,000 per trip. Because Lonner made his own guest list, Federation had limited ability to follow up and involve the participants on an ongoing basis. But Lonner was confident there would be some measurable impact.

“The big question is,” Sanderson pointedly asked, “How does this change their life individually? Does it affect their creative decisions? Are they going to shoot a film in Jerusalem? Do a Jewish-oriented project?”

“The list of takeaways is huge,” director Turteltaub believes. “You become much more aware of every news item involving Israel, and things make more sense, because you have some first-hand knowledge. You understand the geography of the Middle East, the demographics of each city. It becomes very personal, and you come back amazed and surprised at how little you understood before, and with new awareness. Not all of it is positive, but all of it is very real.

“This interview,” he added, “is an example of my being more receptive to being part of the Los Angeles Jewish community. When I got back, I felt I had more to say, and I was less afraid to say it.”

It is, of course, common for Jews and non-Jews alike to experience a sense of awe, spiritual excitement and even a renewed sense of history when visiting Israel, but how does the experience change behavior afterwards? Jewish identity has always been grounded in collective responsibility; spiritual transformation that doesn’t lead to contribution can become an exercise in narcissism. So how might a newfound connection to Israel spark action that turns a free vacation into a vehicle for advocacy?

After his first visit with One Voice, “Seinfeld’s” Alexander said, “I was embarrassed at myself for living such a small life. It lit a kind of idealism in me.” Alexander, who had been to Israel previously as a child, is nevertheless a rare example of a Hollywood celebrity who not only has now engaged in ongoing activism, but also is comfortable speaking publicly about the politics of the conflict. He said he understands, however, that the transition from trips to activism isn’t as smooth for most of his colleagues. “The problem with Middle East activism is that you go there, and you are so overwhelmed by the complexity of it all, and you come back, and now it’s on the other side of the planet, and you go, ‘Well, what really can I do?’ What happens is that most people just kind of surrender and go, ‘It’s above my pay grade.’ ”

What’s new now, however, is that the stream of business has begun to fundamentally change the degree to which Hollywood and Israel are — quite literally — invested in each other. Now, the trips are not just for fun or to inspire — they’re business.

Last November, Tassler and Nancy Josephson, a partner at William Morris Endeavor, led the first-ever Women in Entertainment mission to Israel with a group of 20 well-known women. Josephson, a Harvard Law School graduate, claims “a very deep history” with the Jewish state, because her father, Marvin Josephson, a founder of International Creative Management, was an ardent Zionist with powerful political ties — among his many prestige clients were former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Margaret Thatcher. “Bibi Netanyahu was at my first wedding,” Josephson said.

Tassler described how during a meal at the popular restaurant Machneyuda, located near the Jerusalem market of the same name, Josephson and entertainment attorney Jeanne Newman disappeared into the kitchen, ostensibly to sign the chef. Josephson, who represents the Spanish superchef Jose Andres, confessed, “I’m a total foodie. I was a bit of a nut about every meal needing to be planned and thought through. With 20 women with different tastes, I thought, ‘If we’re all fed, we’ll be happy.’ I made sure every restaurant was, like, a great restaurant with a great chef — and if you ask anyone on that trip, the food was off the charts.” 

Not one to separate business and pleasure, Josephson quickly discovered that Machneyuda’s three chefs — Yossi Elad, Asaf Granit and Uri Navon — had already appeared on the Israeli version of “Iron Chef,” so instead of signing them, she tried to persuade them to bring their restaurant to Los Angeles. “We’re absolutely convinced it would be a smash hit here,” Josephson said.

Which is just the point: A visit to Israel is no longer just about sightseeing and having a good time, it’s about collaboration and commerce. “It’s very easy to be in Israel and in the course of one day, broker a deal for a new Israeli reality format and then be in the kitchen of a phenomenal Jerusalem restaurant making another deal,” Tassler said.
“Commerce with consciousness,” Ben Silverman calls it, because it’s one thing to do business wherever there’s potential for profit — but for a Jew, enterprising with Israel is an added success. And should the relationship grow, Hollywood’s investment in the country will inevitably deepen as its own fortunes become tied with Israel’s.

“There’s great outreach to our community to come to Israel to shoot,” Tassler said. “As the mayor of Tel Aviv likes to say, ‘We want to do Vicky Cristina Tel Aviv.’ ”

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