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Jewish Journal

Hollywood-Israel link flourishing

by Tom Tugend

May 15, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Jerry Seinfeld;Â Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO and director of Dreamworks Animation and Simon Wiesenthal Center trustee;Â Israeli President Shimon Peres; and Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the garden at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, December 2007. Photo Sasson Tiram. Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

A group of hotshot Hollywood television executives sit around a table sipping Evian water, working their cellphones and bemoaning the lack of fresh ideas for a series to pull their network out of the cellar.

Suddenly, one participant dispels the gloom by saying, "I've got the solution. My cousin in Tel Aviv is sending me a batch of DVDs of the latest Israeli hit shows, and we'll just adapt them."

This fantasy scenario was offered by reporter David Brinn in the Jerusalem Post last week, and the weird part is that the idea is not all that far out.

The Israeli TV smash, "B'tipul," about a middle-age psychiatrist, who counsels five different patients in regular weekly rotation, has been Americanized by HBO into the successful "In Treatment."

Four more Israel-originated projects are now in various stages of development, which can mean anything from "almost in production" to "don't call us," Brinn wrote.

CBS is considering "The Ex List," a drama about a 30-plus single woman who goes to a psychic who tells her that she's already met her beshert (soulmate). In each episode, she tracks down an ex-boyfriend to find out whether he was the right one.

At USA-Fox, it's "Loaded," based on the Israeli show "Mesudim," in which four high-tech buddies sell their startup company to an American conglomerate for a fortune and live it up with their sudden wealth.

"Touch Away," based on Israel's "Merhak Negi'a," is about a Russian immigrant family living next to an ultra-Orthodox family, and the romance that develops between the children.

TNT is into "The Ten Commandments," a 10-part docudrama, in which the tablets of the law are applied to contemporary situations. For example, "honor your father and mother" focuses on a soldier who murdered his father for beating his mother. In "Thou Shall Not Kill," a terminally ill patient asks to be removed from life support.

Not to discriminate, Israel is also lending a hand to the American movie industry, with past and future features.

"Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi," a 2003 Israeli comedy about a seemingly nebbishy 16-year-old boy who becomes the caretaker for his eccentric family, is being transformed into "Diego Ascending" by actress Salma Hayek's production company.

"Wristcutters" was adapted in 2006 from Etgar Keret's short story, "Kneller's Happy Campers."

A Hollywood production company intends to remake the Israeli comedy, "Colombian Love," with an American setting.

"A Tale of Love and Darkness," an adaptation of Amos Oz's memoir, will be directed this year by actress Natalie Portman.

The welcome mat laid out for Israeli filmmakers is a fairly recent phenomenon.

"Five years ago, I'd send out 20 faxes and maybe get two meetings" at European film festivals," producer Eitan Even said. "Last year in Berlin, I had 40 meetings. Now I call, and people return my calls."

Israel is not the only country benefiting from Hollywood's new openness to foreign productions and concepts (see television's "The Office" and "Ugly Betty"), but three main developments have boosted Israel's prestige on the international film scene.

In the early 1990s, the introduction of commercial TV and cable channels to compete with the government's monopoly provided a hands-on training ground in Israel for a new generation of producers, directors and actors. The new talent is reflected in a noticeable upgrading of production values in recent Israeli films.

Israeli filmmakers, who used to shoot mainly in Tel Aviv, are broadening their themes by focusing increasingly on their country's multicultural society.

Television producers have another advantage.

"We are serving the most impatient and tensest audience in the world, and we do it on a low budget," Brinn quoted programming executive Eva Madjiboj.

In other words, if you can hold Israeli audiences, you can hold audiences anywhere.

In the past, even the occasional outstanding Israeli film rarely got public screenings in the United States -- except at Jewish film festivals -- because no American distributor would touch them.

However, the picture has changed in the last 12 months, with Israeli films not only garnering a basketful of international awards but also commercial exposure. Among them are "The Band's Visit," "Jellyfish," "My Father, My Lord," "Sweet Mud," "Noodles" and the Oscar-nominated "Beaufort."

The success of these and other productions has Hollywood talent manager Joan Hyler speaking of an Israeli "new wave," similar to the Italian new wave after World War II, the French in the 1950s and the British in the 1960s.

Israeli expatriates have been successful in transferring their production skills to Hollywood, from the pioneering Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus to the current Arnon Milchan, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort and Ehud Bleiberg.

It has been much more difficult for transplanted Israeli thespians, mainly due to their accents. Mili Avital managed to make the leap earlier, and currently Ayelet Zurer ("Munich," "Vantage Point" and the upcoming "Adam Resurrected") seems on track to make it in Hollywood.

Most Hollywood-Israel contacts are on individual person-to-person or e-mail-to-e-mail, basis, but a more organized approach is the successful Master Class, the flagship program of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership supported by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The decade-old Master Class brings together Israeli filmmakers with established Hollywood counterparts for an intense two-week course on the nuts and bolts of their craft.

For example, Hyler, who heads the project with talent manager Danny Sussman, said that two of the favorite topics were: "How do you get anyone in Hollywood to return your calls?" and "How do you deal with rejection?"

Writer David Sacks instructs, "Never say outright that you don't like someone else's idea," which proved to be a nearly incomprehensible concept to blunt-speaking Israelis.

The next Master Class will be June 3-17 in Tel Aviv.

Of a more political nature, an ongoing quest by the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles is to bring Hollywood celebrities to Israel, especially during difficult times.

In 2002, for instance, during the height of the intifada, the consulate tried hard to get some of the top Hollywood names to come to Israel as morale boosters and for favorable publicity for the homeland, largely without success. The Israeli representatives here were too diplomatic to voice their frustrations publicly, but an editorial in the Jerusalem Post at the time vented some of the country's feelings.

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