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Hollywood gets hot for Israel

Darren Star, seated, creator of TV hits such as "Sex and the City," chats with a student at a master class on film and television in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2009. (Dina Kraft)

Darren Star, seated, creator of TV hits such as “Sex and the City,” chats with a student at a master class on film and television in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2009. (Dina Kraft)

Nina Tassler, right, president of CBS Entertainment, talks to Israeli actress Leor Hashin at a master class on film and television in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2009. (Dina Kraft)

Nina Tassler, right, president of CBS Entertainment, talks to Israeli actress Leor Hashin at a master class on film and television in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2009. (Dina Kraft)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — In the dim light of an art house movie theater, Darren Star, creator of “Sex and the City” and “Beverly Hills 90210,” pauses during a talk to Israeli and U.S. screenwriters, directors and producers to let them in on a little secret: Some of his favorite creations were canceled.

"You cannot control all the factors that will make a show successful," he says.

Star was among several high-profile Hollywood figures who came to Israel this month to teach at the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles film and TV master class program sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation in conjunction with the Tel Aviv Cinemateque and Tel Aviv University.

Amid seminars on nurturing ideas to the big screen and insider views of how executives choose shows in the current economic malaise, there was a palpable buzz about the talent to be found in the Israeli television industry.

Israel is making a name for itself as a country that produces good entertainment. The first Israeli drama series adapted for American television, HBO’s "In Treatment,” was nominated for an Emmy this month. Several other Israeli-based shows have been sold to networks like NBC, CBS, Showtime and Fox. And Israel’s film industry has scored a number of recent successes, including the Golden Globe winner “Waltz with Bashir.”

"It is definitely on the radar in a big way," Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, said of the Israeli film and TV industry.

Danny Sussman, an agent representing television actors who helps organize the Tel Aviv master class, now in its 11th year, says he has gone from pleading with top executives to come to Tel Aviv to fielding phone calls from them asking to participate.

"Heads of production, directors, writers — they want to come and work and see this movement, this new wave," said Sussman, who has represented actors including
Noah Wyle, Jimmy Smits and Chloe Sevigny.

“ ‘In Treatment’ [‘Be'Tipul’ in Hebrew] is a great example of how a show successfully translated to American television,” Star said. “I think Israelis are great storytellers, and not to have a cultural prejudice, but I think Jews are good storytellers and we have storytelling in our tradition."

Star said he first visited Israel at 16 with his Jewish youth group.

Noting the attractively low cost of producing a show like "In Treatment," which chronicles the sessions of a psychologist and his patients on a two-room set, Star added, "I think it’s all about telling stories and I think being clever, especially with the economics of television today. We need to make less expensive programming.

“If you can figure out a way here to make a compelling program in a way that is entertaining on an Israeli budget and it works here, there is a good chance it’s going to work in the States as well,” Star said.

Another recent HBO acquisition from Israeli television also well regarded for its economical format is "Sceenz" ("Masachim" in Hebrew). Like “In Treatment,” all the action takes place in just two rooms with characters interacting online via their computer screens.

"Sceenz" producer Yoram Mandel said he came up with the idea in part as a response to the constraints of Israel’s low budgets for television production.

Hagai Levy, creator of the Israeli "In Treatment," said his best advice for those trying to find success in Hollywood is not to think about Hollywood while creating their projects.

“I did my own thing. I never wanted to go to America. It was never my purpose," he told JTA. "The only advice I can give is to make your own thing and focus on what you really want to say."

Israel, he said, can be a good incubator.

"If you have to work for cheap, sometimes you have to become more creative,” Levy said. “And of course it’s a very interesting place, Israel."

Tassler told the master class, which was made up of Israelis and about 12 visiting American Jews working in the industry in Los Angles, that Israel is fertile ground for good storytelling.

"Drama is conflict, and the fact that Israelis live with conflict — humor comes out of conflict, good drama comes out of conflict," she said.

Tassler said she also likes the focus on the personal and intimate stories she has seen in Israeli writing, including a show that her network, CBS, aired briefly last fall.

Called "The Ex-Files," the program was an adaptation of the Israeli show "Ha’Ex Ha’Mythologi," in which a single woman revisits past boyfriends searching for "the one" after a fortuneteller informs her she already has met the man of her dreams.

For Nevo Ziv, a 30-year-old Israeli screenwriter who has written for Israeli dramas and the Israeli version of "Sesame Street," the master classes were a place to learn but also a "an adrenalin shot of passion."

Working in the entertainment industry in Israel is not easy, he said. The work is unstable, and the pressure to quit and get a "real job" is high.

Ziv said the class “gives us inspiration to see others who have made it.”

Next year, a new group of Israeli students will join their counterparts in Los Angeles to attend workshops there and see the workings of the American TV and film industry firsthand.

"L.A. is a great experience; you have to see it to believe it," said Levy, the "In Treatment” creator. "It’s a very different place where things work very differently with the power of agents and power of money. You have to experience it once and then go back to your desk and write."

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