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Jewish Journal

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.

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