Special Report on Israel: Inching toward the global marketplace – As Israel’s networks bump up their doc quotient, non-fiction programming is becoming a cornerstone of the country’s fledgling broadcasting system.

Israel's Big Five-Oh...
October 1, 1997

Israel’s Big Five-Oh

This fall, Israeli producers are hoping that non-fiction fare tapping into Israel’s 50th anniversary will sell well in the marketplace. Local producers are also banking on Millennium-theme films such as Jerusalem Syndrome, a one-hour documentary about visitors to the Holy Land who are convinced they are the Messiah. Directed by Erin Sax and produced by Jerusalem Captial Studios (JCS), the intent of the film is to explore the plausibility of prophecy in the 21st Century. jcs is also gearing up for larger projects, including a one-hour documentary with Ronit Reichman and investigative journalist Yaron Svoray (In Hitler’s Shadow) chronicling the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Producer Nadav Schirman promises explosive scenes, including ‘the live training and penetration of a female infiltration into a West Bank extremist group.’ The anniversary of Rabin’s assassination does not seem to hold much interest for international buyers, unlike the resulting breakdown of Middle East peace talks. But in that context, jcs is hoping for big sales abroad.

In lieu of drama series, Israel’s public broadcaster (IBA), has commissioned a 22-hour documentary strand, entitled Tekuma which tackles Israel’s fight for independence and its growing pains as a state. Belfilms is getting a big piece of the iba action. Veteran producer Katriel Schory is producing five documentaries in the series including one on the Six Day War, and another which looks at the years preceding the Yom Kippur War.

Noga Communication’s contribution to Israel’s golden anniversary is a documentary pegged to the history of Jerusalem’s famed King David Hotel.

Production partners include Israel’s Amythos Productions and ndr-arte, Channel 4 U.K. and Ikon in the Netherlands. The company is skirting hard-nosed political films about Israel’s turbulent past, in favor of a trilogy exploring Israeli babyboomers and the effect of the Holocaust on Israeli art, philosophy, culture and psychology. In the coproduction arena, Noga owner, Ehud Miron, is seeking international partners for a series called Do You Know What Your Father was Doing between 1939-45?

With financial backing from private investors in the U.S., Movi’t has approached Barbra Streisand and Larry King to host In War and Peace. The seven-part series will look at the American involvement in security and peace-talks in the Middle East over the last half-century.

EO in Holland partnered with Biblical Productions to produce To Touch the Sky, a one-hour documentary chronicling the 50-year history of the Israeli airforce. While Biblical Productions and Transfax take the tried-and-true approach, pitching films about the airforce, Matar Productions has a different spin. In addition to a 12-part series on the history of Israeli rock-and-roll, Matar will produce a six-part documentary that focuses on crime and the Mafia in Israel. Producer Arik Bernstein is pragmatic about his chances of selling the rock-and-roll series abroad: he might sell one episode to foreign channels.

On the documentary sales front, distributors are hoping that Israel’s 50th anniversary will whet buyers’ appetites for historical films about Judaism. With this in mind, Argo Films is pushing Legends of the Lost Tribes, 13 half-hour films about Diaspora Jews and Praying to the Same God, a one-hour documentary about the Holy Ark.

Israel: Inching towardthe Global Marketplace

Just four years ago, Israel subsisted on a one-channel regimen. Production opportunities took a giant leap forward after the Israeli parliament finally approved licenses for one new commercial station and several cable channels in 1993. Now, the country is on the verge of becoming a player in the international TV scene.

Owners of Israel’s new broadcasting concerns and upstart independents are gingerly taking their first steps into the international marketplace. Meager license fees – ranging from US$10,000 to $50,000 (usually on the lower end) – make it difficult for producers to structure real coproduction deals. In addition, the government offers a simple stone soup in the form of roughly $2 million in production financing for all tv production in the country. And it’s not much better on the licence fee front: Israeli broadcasters pay a paltry $500 to $1,000 for foreign documentaries, and between $1,000 and $2,000 for one-hour dramas.

The bad news is that there is little money for co-ventures. The good news is Israeli producers have developed a real expertise in low-budget production. Over the years, they have crafted good recipes by spicing content with biblical themes, conspiracy theories and war footage, as well as cloning popular international dramas and soaps such as Baywatch and The Bold and the Beautiful.

Noga Communications, owner of both the Children’s Channel and the Science, Culture and Nature Channel, is actively pursuing production, as well as purchasing over 750 hours of programs from outside suppliers. With an annual production budget of $2 million, Noga has deep pockets by Israeli standards. This season’s big-ticket item is a coproduction entitled American Fame in the West Bank, with U.S. BNN (producers for CBS’ I Witness program). The documentary will follow the progress of a family of American settlers who move into the West Bank. arte in Europe is a favorite partner, who Noga has teamed up with alongside Great Performances USA to record the 60th anniversary gala of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Jerusalem Capital Studios (JCS), a vertically integrated company servicing foreign news suppliers and producing the Sports TV channel, is also throwing its weight behind documentary production. In February of this year, the company sent a film crew to record behind-the-scenes events at the Oscars in Los Angeles. It is hoping to also find a market for the very popular local film Maytal. Aired on Israel’s commercial channel last season, Maytal is the story of the 27-year-old victim of a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv, who lost one leg and shattered another when a terrorist blew himself up outside of a shopping mall in the city centre.

On the archeological/biblical front, Argo Films is producing the six-part underwater archeology series, Diving Through Time, with Canada’s Great North Productions, as well as developing a biblical heritage series with Landau Entertainment of Los Angeles for The Learning Channel. Alona Abt of Argo Films is developing a documentary for the bicentennial of Napeoleon Bonaparte’s adventures to the Middle East. She is looking to broadcasters such as arte for financing. ‘The local scene is very limited because the budgets you raise are so tight, so we put most of our efforts into the international marketplace,’ says Abt.

Biblical Productions has teamed up with u.s. distributor Powersport Millennium to make a string of half-hour films documenting unique archeological finds in the region, including new material on the Dead Sea Scrolls. This summer, the company will complete a film about political espionage, featuring jailed Israeli activist Mordecai Venunnu.

As Israel’s public broadcaster continues its attempts to deflect government criticism and threats of more cut-backs, its appetite for mows and series decreases. Drama production is now left to the commercial channel, which is run by three separate companies – Keshet, Reshet and Tel Ad. During the past three years, the consortium pushed game shows and talk shows into the primetime hours. But as the 1999 date for license renewal advances, the three companies are scrambling to put more indigenous documentaries and drama into peak hours, in order to meet license requirements. ‘It’s the year of fear,’ says Marek Rozenbaum of Transfax Film, whose company has benefited from the programming rush. He is producing six half-hour films about the Israeli airforce. Transfax’s track record includes distributing the popular documentary Emile.

Despite ‘no budget’ license fees of us$120,000 per hour, producer Amitan Manelzon of Movi’t has found a winning formula by aping Baywatch. Like its American predecessor, Deep Blue is built around babes in bikinis. The premise of this Hebrew-ized rip-off is a lifeguard/ security force patrolling the Tel Aviv beaches. His series is finally getting some decent ratings in Israel, but Manelzon has no plans for selling the series until his company has 26 episodes under its belt. Movi’t is already gearing up for a second cheesey series, Boot Camp, featuring young and sexy army recruits. In their own ‘look back’ on Israel series, Movi’t is targeting the u.s. market.

Like the U.K. and Canada, satire is hugely popular in Israel. Hartzufim, a puppet show modeled after Britain’s Spitting Image, continues to draw the biggest Israeli audiences. The ever-popular Cameri Quintet by Matar Productions also ranks high at home, and the company has plans produce two more sitcoms. Matar producer Arik Bernstein describes one of his new shows, Puzzle, as ‘Seinfeld in Jerusalem.’ But, despite this catchy pitch, selling comedy and drama internationally continues to be elusive. Matar has translated one episode of Cameri Quintet and sold it to Finland, Germany and Switzerland. ‘The top 10% of shows in Israel are just as good as the top 10% of shows in other countries, but the language barrier will never be solved,’ says Bernstein.

Some producers navigate the language barrier by producing films entirely in English. Producer Yaron Ben-Nun’s documentary, Hell’s Angel, about a Jewish prostitute living in Amsterdam, was executed with the international marketplace in mind. ‘Israeli producers find it difficult to sell. Unfortunately, the North American market is not interested in a subtitled version,’ says Orit Karen of Cinephil. Although Cinephil is primarily a distribution company, it sent a film crew to Ghana to record Dr. Bill Clarke’s crusade to save the elephants. Wildlife films sell everywhere.

As production opportunities increase in Israel, storm clouds are already gathering. The Likud government recently accepted a communications report calling for sweeping changes in the broadcast sector. The most dramatic is the call to open the skies to direct satellite broadcast – an option that chills the blood of cable operators. ‘Now the commercial channels are still trying to produce some quality programs,’ says Yair Stern, director-general of iba. With the advent of dbs, Stern predicts that ‘there will be more trash on tv brought into our homes.’

Finding good partners on the international scene may be one way terrestrial channels can fight the onslaught of new channels. ‘What we have learned in the last year is that we have to find our legs in each country. We’ve discovered that it’s much easier to approach broadcasters through local producersÉ So we are looking for friendly partners in other countries,’ says Noga’s Udi Miron.

For independents, the future still holds plenty of skirmishes – both with cable operators who want to produce as well as broadcast, and with government officials who are ducking financial issues. ‘On one hand, we are facing a tremendous revolution,’ says Belfilms’ producer Katriel Schory. ‘On the other, we are facing one of the most difficult periods concerning government participation in arts and culture – including film and television. We have a government that doesn’t seem to sympathize with arts.’

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