February 8, 2012
How Tel Aviv became big business in Hollywood
Could Israel's newest export reshape its image?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
Israel’s population is estimated at about 8 million people, according to the most recent data published by The World Bank. Not exactly the kind of numbers to support a blockbuster movie opening each weekend, unless, of course, nearly every person in the country were to attend. In raw numbers, the Israeli population could barely support the work of even one major Hollywood studio each year, and the number goes down even further when you factor out Arabic-speaking Arab-Israelis and Palestinians (about 1.6 million people), and ultra-Orthodox Jews (about 1 million), who are not entertainment consumers.
“The Israeli market is bound by two parameters that are unchangeable,” said Tishby, who is now based in Los Angeles. One is size, the other is taste. Tishby should know — she, along with Rosen, is credited for selling Hagai Levi’s “BeTipul” to HBO, where it became “In Treatment,” the first Israeli format to be reworked for the United States. On the one hand, commercial possibilities are limited, because Israelis cannot support expensive entertainment. But on the other hand, “The palate of the viewers is highly sophisticated; Israelis are a very tough audience — highly educated, very opinionated — and will turn off the TV and give you crap in the forums on the Internet within five minutes if they don’t like what you do. When you put these two parameters together — highly sophisticated palate and no money — you have to come up with great scripts.”
There are currently five film schools in Israel, but the television industry is relatively young. At Israel’s founding, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion resisted the introduction of television into Israeli society, fearing it would “undermine his attempt to create a unique Israeli culture,” according to Weizmann Institute of Science scholar Nechemia Meyers. But history would soon demand it: During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Ben-Gurion launched a single, state-regulated channel to “combat Arab propaganda,” according to The Wall Street Journal. But it wasn’t until 1993 that that same channel — now known as Channel 2 — became a commercial enterprise, airing American television shows such as “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” The government quickly realized that the popularity of American TV was a threat to local productions, however, so in the early 2000s, it began regulating how much airtime could be devoted to local and how much to foreign broadcasts; today, the government mandates that 40 to 50 percent of Israel’s broadcast content must be produced locally.
“We’re dealing with a lot of limitations that actually force us to be more creative,” said Lisa Shiloach-Uzrad, a producer with Israel’s July August Productions and a creator of the NBC game show “Who’s Still Standing?” which completed its first run on Jan. 30. As it turns out, an expanding industry in a limited economy is not such a terrible problem. “Culturally,” Shiloach-Uzrad said, “we are narrowing down.” In fact, the globalization of entertainment has made possible Israel’s reach beyond its own borders. “For Israel to be successful, their ideas have to travel around the world,” said Ben Silverman, CEO of Electus. “Hollywood is just one stop on that journey.”
The television format industry is one way to play on an international stage. With the buying and selling of formats, a concept from one place can be replicated to suit an audience half a world away. “Most Americans don’t know that ‘Ugly Betty’ started as a Colombian soap opera, that ‘The Office’ started as a British TV show, that ‘Big Brother’ started as Dutch, that ‘Survivor’ was a Scandinavian show created by a British guy,” Silverman added. As happened with the high-tech industry, Israeli ideas are now sold as a kind of intellectual capital around the world.
“Any format, any TV show, is a like a start-up,” explained Avi Armoza, a leading Israeli television producer who was seminal in packaging shows for the global market. “What we are doing is selling the brain.”
This course, Armoza pointed out, is safer and more secure than expanding at home. Although government and city officials long have been trying to lure Hollywood production to come to Israel, the costs of working there are astronomical. Insuring a production in one of the most volatile regions of the world is deterrent enough, but the country has also failed to incentivize film production with enough tax breaks to mitigate the time and expense of extensive travel.
As with anything, there can be dangers in success, and the goals of the two industries do not always align. On the American side, there is concern that Israelis will be compromise their product in order to make a sale. “You don’t build a company and think about the exit,” Tishby said. “Writing a show with the intention of selling it to America misses the point, because a lot of times [Israelis] will write things that are ‘American,’ and they lack the authenticity of a creator who’s writing something from the heart.”