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Jewish Journal

Master class helps Israelis learn the art of film, TV

by Danielle Berrin

August 2, 2011 | 5:50 pm

Nina Tassler, center, with master class participants Boris Kievsky (L.A.) and Hadas Neuman (Tel Aviv). Photo courtesy The Jewish Federation of Greater L.A.

Nina Tassler, center, with master class participants Boris Kievsky (L.A.) and Hadas Neuman (Tel Aviv). Photo courtesy The Jewish Federation of Greater L.A.

A point of pride within the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership is the annual Film and Television Master Class, a weeklong seminar that pairs emerging Israeli creative talent with Hollywood “masters” — a handful of big names from the major networks, talent agencies and movie studios — who share trade secrets and expertise with the Holy Land hopefuls.

When the idea for a master class first percolated through Federation, it was considered a good match for the partnership: “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we create kesher — connections — between Israelis and Americans so that they can know one another?’ And the best way to do that is through an interest, a passion,” said Jill Holtzman Hoyt, Federation’s senior director for leadership development.

The master class was born when Federation decided it could offer an incipient Israeli film and television industry unique access to Hollywood. Now in its 13th year, the master class, which usually meets during the summer in Tel Aviv, took place in Los Angeles this past July for only the second time since its inception.

“We wanted to do it here in honor of our centennial celebration,” Hoyt said. In the past, Federation had to foot the bill to fly the masters to Tel Aviv. Staying local was more economical, to be sure, but also more convenient: “We can offer better and more access to the industry from Los Angeles.”

This year, Federation accepted 26 participants into the master class —14 from Israel and 12 from Los Angeles — for a rigorous week of meetings that ran daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and included visits to CBS, Warner Bros., Sony and William Morris Endeavor as well as the private production offices of producers Jerry Bruckheimer and J.J. Abrams. The highly secretive program — participants were not made privy to the following day’s schedule until the night before — was coordinated by Federation’s Entertainment Division co-chairs: CBS President Nina Tassler and Danny Sussman, a talent manager with Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Their combined industry connections scored the group an audience with a number of heavyweights, including “Two and Half Men” producer Chuck Lorre (ostensibly recouping from the Charlie Sheen debacle), the cast of the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” WB President Peter Roth and Electus CEO Ben Silverman, producer of “The Office” and “Ugly Betty,” among others. On any given day, session topics ranged from “The Impact and Merits of Social Networking” to “Jewish Communal Responsibility,” and, according to participants, these forums were dispensaries of pragmatic, if not obvious advice.

“This experience seems like a big dream,” Ofira Gold Alfenbaum, a 37-year-old actress and screenwriter, said. “When we saw Jerry Bruckheimer yesterday, I looked at him and I thought, ‘Wow, what’s more than what he’s got?’ If I was him, I’d go to sleep and never do another thing. But you know what he said? He said that you always want more. You can’t stop.”

The scope of Hollywood’s appetite, as well as its sheer size, was especially awe-inspiring among the Israelis. “Everything is so big! I mean, even the buildings,” exclaimed Shmuel Beru, an Ethiopian Israeli filmmaker who had been to Los Angeles twice before to screen his feature “Zrubavel” at local film festivals. But until this week, he had only imagined the inner workings of Hollywood from half a world away, and the glamorous images took some getting used to: “I was expecting that these people are from another planet — like, they don’t eat what we eat; they do everything different. Even their sex is not like our sex,” he said.

On a Friday morning, during a break from one of the sessions at the Federation building, Giyora Yahalom, the 36-year-old creator of the TV drama series “Reviat Ran” (“The Ran Quadruplets”), which aired for two years on Israeli television, expressed his frustration at the apparent gulf between the Israeli and American entertainment industries.

“I feel kind of depressed because most people think they have to give us advice we cannot use in Israel, because the industry is way too small; it works by other scales, other rules,” Yahalom said. For instance, the Israelis discovered that Hollywood’s strict and often tortuous formalities — no unsolicited material, artists must have representation, networks compete for shows with bidding wars, etc. — can make something as simple as pitching a project seem impossible.

“In Israel, when you have an idea, you just pick up the phone,” Alfenbaum said. “Here everything is so complicated; you have to deal with that agent, and that other agent, and the producer, and the agent of the producer, and the sister of the producer. I thought to myself, ‘What great luck I’m an Israeli because I don’t know if I could handle this.’ ”

“But,” Yahalom added, “I can also feel a bit proud because once we saw how things are made in Hollywood, we cannot believe how such a miracle as an industry of TV is existing in Tel Aviv — it is a miracle in the desert!”

Intimidation, self-assessment and comparison to one’s peers were running themes during the week. The Israelis were intimidated by Hollywood, and the local American participants were intimidated by the Israelis.

“All the Israelis are so established,” gushed Sharon Rennert, 45, an editor for the television shows “The Bachelorette” and MTV’s “The Real World.” Rennert said that, in general, the Israelis were more accomplished than their American counterparts with solid credits in television and film. “They’ve done way more [than the locals]. You’d think that if they’ve directed features and run television shows as they are done here, they’d be living in Beverly Hills.”

But even as the Israelis had more concrete credits under their belt, the Americans, who came with projects in development, could benefit more from the practical advice offered by the masters. Rennert, for example, is developing a feature documentary based on the life of her grandfather, the partisan resistance fighter Tuvia Bielski. “There’s already a feature film starring Daniel Craig as my grandfather,” she said, referring to the 2008 film “Defiance” — evidently well-practiced on her pitch-perfect selling point.

“Most of the Americans are newcomers,” Yahalom agreed. “The advice the mentors are giving them is kind of practical; they can use it, and we can only be inspired by it.”

Reasons to participate in the program were many and various. Omri Marcus, writer of the popular comedy series “Eretz Nehederet” (“What a Wonderful Country”), who recently signed a multiyear deal to partner with the European media conglomerate ProSiebenSat.1, was most amused observing the psychological impetus prompting beginners and masters alike to pursue entertainment careers. “This business is divided by people here for the power and people that are here for the money,” Marcus said. “I’m here because I didn’t have friends in elementary school.”

“TV and film are the mediums,” he continued, “but psychology is the thing that we are dealing with. It doesn’t matter if we’re doing reality shows or game shows or comedy or documentary. The question is, ‘Did it touch you? Did you learn something new about yourself?’ ”

Introspection was apparently a program requirement. Although participants agreed the week was free of any awkward political tension (Federation explicitly discouraged the interference of Israeli politics, several participants said), a heated discussion took place regarding a question of Jewish identity: Are you a Jewish filmmaker? Or a filmmaker who happens to be Jewish?

“If I can get money as a Jewish filmmaker, I’ll do it Jewish,” Beru said, only half kidding.

Not everyone was as well-humored on the topic. “The subject of being Jewish is so irrelevant for all the people in Israel because we don’t have this identity crisis [that Americans do]. For us, being Israeli and being Jewish are the same,” Marcus said.

Yahalom agreed, channeling a proclamation from “The Godfather” to make his point: “It reminds me of that famous line, something like, ‘I wanted to get out, but they put me back in.’ Because, for me, I don’t care about being Jewish; I’m atheistic. But always someone has to ask me about [being Jewish], and although I don’t want to deal with it, I’m always forced to. And this is what it means to be Jewish.”

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