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How Tel Aviv became big business in Hollywood

Could Israel's newest export reshape its image?

by Danielle Berrin

February 8, 2012 | 3:21 pm

Damian Lewis as Sgt. Nicholas Brody in “Homeland.” Photo by Ronen Akerman/Showtime

Damian Lewis as Sgt. Nicholas Brody in “Homeland.” Photo by Ronen Akerman/Showtime

In December 2009, Avi Nir, the chief executive of one of Israel’s largest broadcasting and production companies, invited the Hollywood agent Rick Rosen to spend a day at Keshet’s Tel Aviv office. Nir, who has a reputation among his Hollywood counterparts for being an aggressive visionary, sensed an epic change afoot in the Israeli entertainment industry. Soon, it would be producing more content than the country could commercially support. So Nir turned his hungry eyes toward the American marketplace. Hollywood, he figured, could offer opportunities. Not only as an entrée into a lush foreign market, but also as a model for how to export entertainment around the world. And Rosen, he thought, could teach the Israelis a few tricks. With the right sell, Rosen, a partner at the renowned William Morris Endeavor agency, could even become an advocate.

After a handful of morning meetings, Nir took Rosen to lunch at an Italian restaurant, where he described a new Israeli series titled “Hatufim,” or “Prisoners of War.”

“Do you know who Gilad Shalit is?” Rosen recalled Nir asking, in a recent interview. “Well, imagine if there are three Gilad Shalits, and two come back as heroes, and then you find out that maybe things aren’t exactly as they appear to be, maybe one of them was working for the Mossad. Do you think that could work in the States?”

Rosen thought for a second. “Absolutely,” he said. “If the returning soldiers are Americans from Iraq or Afghanistan.” Before 9/11, Americans may not have had an appetite — or an understanding — of living in a nation perpetually at war, but suddenly, Israel and the United States had something psychically important in common. “I know the perfect person to do this,” Rosen told Nir. “Howard Gordon.”

Rosen remembers Nir’s excitement at the prospect of Gordon, the award-winning producer of “24,” working on an Israeli show. A few days later, when Rosen touched down in Los Angeles, he called Gordon from the airport. “I have your next show,” he said. And thus, “Homeland” was born.

“Homeland” is now the eminent example of how an Israeli idea can transform into an American sensation. The Showtime series, which completed its first season in December, is a psychological thriller about a mentally unhinged CIA agent, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, who suspects returning Iraq veteran Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) of having been “turned” by terrorists. Inspired by the Israeli version “Hatufim,” about three soldiers returning from 17 years of captivity in Lebanon, “Homeland” just won the Golden Globe award for best dramatic television series and has been responsible for a surge in the pay-cable channel’s subscribers, helping edge it closer to its rival, HBO. “Homeland’s” critical acclaim has been equally prodigious: The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley devoted an entire column to last season’s series finale, calling it “a clever, maddening and irresistible invitation to keep watching” — just the type of criticism every show craves. Mark Kaner, president of 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, said “Homeland” has been sold into 31 major territories around the world, and he expects the show to produce profits comparable to Gordon’s previous hit, “24,” which Kaner described as an “enormous” financial success.

“It’s sort of embarrassing at this point,” Gordon said of the effusive praise. “I only look at it as having further to fall.”

But here in Hollywood, and 9,000 miles away in Israel, everyone else is looking at “Homeland” as a paragon. As the Israeli entertainment industry becomes a font of innovation and creativity, Hollywood is serving as both mentor and marketplace, helping the tiny Middle Eastern country turn local ingenuity into an international commodity.

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in the Golden Globe-winning Showtime series, based on Israel’s “Hatufim.” Photo by Ronen Akerman/Showtime

Indeed, Israel’s popularity as a content creator has prompted a feeding frenzy in Hollywood; at least six Israeli formats (Hollywood jargon for story lines, on which adaptations are based) are currently in various stages of development, including the police procedural “The Naked Truth” at HBO, the time-travel musical “Danny Hollywood” at the CW, the divorce sitcom “Life Isn’t Everything” at CBS and the small-town murder mystery drama “Pillars of Smoke” (aka “Midnight Sun”) at NBC. Considering how hard it is to get any show on the air, some American writers have joked that they’d have better luck getting Hollywood’s attention if they hit in Israel first. Director Jon Turteltaub, for example, recently announced that he is attached to direct the remake of the popular Israeli film “A Matter of Size,” a smash on the festival circuit, which Paramount Pictures will produce. The activity back and forth has become so substantial of late that many of Israel’s writers, producers and even the major networks are now being represented by U.S. talent agencies. As content increases, so does competition.

“Every Israeli who ever put pen to paper — talented or not — now thinks they’re going to become millionaires in the United States, and it’s getting a little bit ridiculous,” Rosen said.

Inclined to play the part of the superior parent, Hollywood has responded to this escalating business relationship by downplaying it. At a recent event at UCLA sponsored by the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at which Gordon appeared as keynote speaker, he cautioned against unwarranted excitement. “Is there a story?” he asked. “Is there a pipeline between Israeli content creators and American producers? Because, sometimes stories tend to inflate themselves and become bigger than they are.”

What’s clear is this: Many in Hollywood believe it is too early to tell whether the current frenzy will last. Some say they have already begun to see the effects of commercialization on Israeli content. And so far, only two shows — “In Treatment” and “Homeland” — have succeeded in crossing over to an American audience. Others were utter failures: CBS’ “The Ex List,” which premiered in October 2008, lasted less than a month, with only half the produced episodes airing, and Fox’s “Traffic Light,” which premiered in February 2011, lasted only through May.

But anyone who knows Israelis knows that they are indefatigable. And they’re not likely to surrender to a little bad luck as long as the Hollywood connection presents a dual opportunity to triumph on the world stage. At the very least, these opportunities could inject serious cash into Israel’s economy, but the more monumental prospect lies in the ability of entertainment imagery to influence public discourse and opinion.

For people who have either a fixed or unformed image of Israel, the way Israeli life and Israeli values are transmitted through film and television could expand their impressions of the Jewish state. Because as any lover of film or literature knows, the pleasures of culture can be so powerful as to make a consumer feel connected to its creator. So imagine what it would mean for a viewer in Spain or France or China to discover that his favorite show originates in Israel, and to feel connected to the humanity of the stories Israel tells about itself. It could, as many dearly hope, illuminate Israel in a completely new way.

“God knows how many people have heard about ‘In Treatment’ and ‘Homeland’ being Israeli shows and are kind of thinking to themselves, ‘Maybe they’re not savages,’ ” the Israeli actress and “In Treatment” producer Noa Tishby said. “Maybe it’s not Afghanistan over there.”

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