The two most important Jewish creations of the 20th century were Hollywood and Israel. They are both the products of a primal Jewish impulse: the need to escape. To paraphrase my editor Rob Eshman, Jews created Israel to escape the world, they created Hollywood so the world could escape reality. Historically, the relationship between them has been fraught. After all, the Jews who created Hollywood aimed to escape their Jewish identities, and Hollywood, through its cultural shaping of American ideals, became a mechanism to do so. But the Jewish reality today, more than a century after the creation of Hollywood, is much changed; traumas have receded to memory, Jews possess power and influence. By most accounts, this is the most propitious moment in Jewish history to be a Jew, rivaled only, some say, by the era in which the temple was extant. The relative prosperity of modern Jewish existence has no doubt made it easier for Jews to shed past shame. The Jews of Hollywood are no exception, and though it isn’t a steadfast relationship, it is an evolving one.
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.