Jewish Journal

How Tel Aviv became big business in Hollywood

Could Israel's newest export reshape its image?

by Danielle Berrin

Posted on Feb. 8, 2012 at 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.”

Ishai Golan, as the former prisoner of war, embraces his former lover, played by Mili Avital, who has married his brother, in “Hatufim,” the Israeli series on which “Homeland” is based.

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.”

From left: Gabriel Byrne and Irrfan Khan in a scene from HBO’s “In Treatment,” based on the Israeli TV show “BeTipul.” Photo by Paul Schiraldi

“There is a danger of people creating content as a tryout for the American market,” Gordon agreed. “It’s the whole Start-Up Nation syndrome, where the liquidity event seemed to have informed the product at some level.” But Silverman said this is a common worry — as an industry becomes more commercialized, there is always fear that creative purity will be diluted by profit.

But the reverse is also true —- power, too, can undermine content. Some Israeli creators have become embittered by Hollywood’s enormous appetite for control, especially in the area of adaptation. It is a dubious premise, for instance, that all formats are equally translatable. Tishby said she hesitates to even look at formats that deal with the Israeli military or religion. Ironically, perhaps, that was one of the most significant changes brought about by Gordon’s success with “Homeland.” “Hatufim” was about returning war heroes, but Americans, Gordon realized, don’t warm to their returning soldiers the way Israelis do, so he introduced an entirely new character in the form of Danes’ bipolar CIA agent. And instead of hailing soldiers returning from captivity, he made the returning Iraq veteran an object of post-9/11 suspicion, adding plotlines about his conversion to Islam and possible collusion with terrorists.

Adaptation sometimes leads to creative exchange: Gordon and co-writer Alex Gansa’s invention with the first season of “Homeland” influenced Israeli creator Gidi Raff’s second season of “Hatufim.” And in another ironic twist, the cable channel Yes! recently purchased the rights to air “Homeland” in Israel.

But it doesn’t always go so smoothly. Armoza said one of his shows, “The Ran Quadruplets,” which CBS put to pilot, was changed so dramatically, the show was spoiled. It was not picked up as a series. “Sometimes it seems like changes are made just for the sake of making changes, or to bring in American creators,” Armoza said. “[American network executives] need to learn to follow the success and not change it. Take the risk.”   

Altering an original format can change a show’s fortunes. “Traffic Light,” about three college friends who in their 30s find themselves in different stages of life (one is single, one has a girlfriend, one is married with a child), is entering its fourth season in Israel and its third in Russia, but was a failure on Fox. “Israeli TV tends to be more daring and edgy and little more blunt than American television,” Shiloach-Uzrad said. “The American version of ‘Traffic Light’ had to have its ‘awww’ moment. It had to be sweet and cute and feel good, and it lost its edge.”

Noa Tishby, producer, “In Treatment”

Some of these personality differences also show up in business negotiations. Israelis complain that American executives are timid and evasive. “In Israel, there are no niceties, there’s no politeness, there is no decorum whatsoever!” Tishby exclaimed. Serving as a kind of liaison between the two industries, Tishby said she often has to dance around different behaviors.

“In America, it’s a lot more subtle — I call it ‘The 17 Shades of Great.’ We know that when an American says ‘great’ it doesn’t mean, ‘Great! Let’s make a deal.’ It can mean, ‘Great! I never want to see you again.’ For someone who doesn’t swim in both cultures, it’s very hard to decipher. For Americans, Israelis can come off as extremely rude and in-your-face, and for an Israeli, Americans can come off as fake. It’s very confusing.”

Yet, from the American perspective, Silverman says, “Israel is still the hardest market to close a deal in. They’re the toughest negotiators around — when you think the deal is closed, there’s always usually one more point.”

Fortunately, parties on both sides seem to have a sense of humor about minor personality differences, because, well, 99 percent of the people involved are Jewish.

“It became so obvious to me [when I went to Israel] that Israeli networks were operated exactly like American networks,” Rosen said. “The only difference was the [Israelis] were all wearing T-shirts and flip-flops.”

Ultimately, though, the Jews of Hollywood and the Jews of Israel have more cultural similarities than differences. “In terms of values, in terms of interests, in terms of how we define ourselves as nations, we’re all very similar,” Tishby said.

“Traffic Light.” Photo by NBC

Just don’t ask anyone involved in the Hollywood-Israel pipeline whether their emotions are getting involved. “Hollywood is a mercenary environment, and you have to produce,” Gordon said, adding that the origin of “Homeland” was simply “a happy confluence.”

“I don’t believe Israel is going to get any special accommodations. I’d say if I had an Egyptian format, I’d be glad to do that as well.

“I’m a producer,” Gordon said.  “I want to make money.”

But Gordon also recognizes his reach. “It would be really nice to imagine a ‘Homeland’ sells well in the Arab world, and the people watching it from Egypt and Yemen and Saudi Arabia pause and think for a moment that this came from Israel.”

Most of these players agree that while they’re “not on a mission,” as Rosen put it, Israeli stories pouring out into the world will do their own kind of work on the world stage.

“The ability to see Israeli creativity and life in Israel through television shows of course helps to promote a different image of Israel,” Armoza said. “Many people form their image of Israel based on a 30-second report on the news, so our ability to reflect normal society through the work that we do on television is improving the image of Israel enormously.”

After a recent screening of the Oscar-nominated film “Footnote,” directed by Joseph Cedar, one woman attending was euphoric in the parking lot. “It’s the real Israel,” she exclaimed. “It wasn’t focused on the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.” Indeed, the film about a pair of competitive father/son talmudic scholars only contained one brawl — when a group of academics argue over who would receive Israel’s top talmudic prize. But the woman in the parking lot didn’t seem fixated on the plot. For her, the film’s power superseded simple entertainment: The more audiences can experience “ordinary” Israel, she seemed to be saying, the crazier Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sounds.

But, while the extra attention on Israel is useful, no one knows whether the current boon will last. “You’re still watching an industry in transition,” said Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment. “It’s evolving, it’s growing, it’s maturing.”

“There have been a lot of press releases about a lot of things,” Tishby said. “It’s going to be a reality check in the next couple of years, as we see what catches on. I was very happy I was able to be there first,” she said of finding and producing “In Treatment.” “When this whole thing looked like it was going to get real, I had this moment in which I could have leveraged myself more at the cost of losing the deal. But it was more important to me that [this show] got on the air than anything else. I remember saying to my business manager, ‘Do you understand what this is going to do to Israel?’ It was always clear to me that there were going to be a whole lot more players involved and that this was going to be an industry.”

Of course, there’s always the worry that really big success in Hollywood could prompt a creative exodus from the country, but Israelis, apparently, aren’t worried about that.

“In general, we’re really happy when an Israeli show makes it abroad,” Shiloach-Uzrad said. “It’s good for Israel; it’s good for the whole industry. When an Israeli actor makes it in Hollywood, it fills everyone with pride.

“Besides,” she added, “there are direct flights from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, so you can come home anytime.”

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