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We’re in a golden age of Israeli films and TV series. So why is “Holywood” doing so well?
That sounds like another terrible portmanteau – please explain. It’s the Holy Land, Israel, meshed with Hollywood. Tortured, but you get the gist. Israel is the new place for making films that make money. Increasingly big money.
How big? Difficult to nail down, but big enough to interest Netflix, a company with a reported revenue of $25bn last year. Seven Israeli movies and TV shows are available on its UK site: Shtisel, Fauda, Mossad 101, When Heroes Fly, Sand Storm, Hashoter Hatov and Maktub. According to The Telegraph, one of the burning cultural questions on social media during the last lockdown was: “When does Shtisel season 3 start?” This unpronounceable (“Schteezel”) and once-obscure series about an ultra-orthodox Jewish family, with dialogue in Yiddish and Hebrew, is typical of the diverse content coming from Israel. First aired in 2013, it was picked up by Netflix in 2018 and now has a devoted global audience of millions. That it attracts such viewing figures, says the Telegraph, “almost beggars belief”.
Who are Holywood’s biggest stars? The most well-known Israeli actress is 36-year-old Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot, a former Miss Israel from Rosh Ha’ayin who is estimated to be worth more than $30m. Quentin Tarantino, who has made about $120m from his films, married the Israeli singer and model Daniella Pick in 2018. The couple recently spent a year living in Tel Aviv and Tarantino has said they plan to split their time between the coastal city and LA. Formerly unknown Israeli actors are moving up the fame ladder, too: Shtisel star Dov Glickman is in the HBO feature film Oslo, executive produced by Steven Spielberg; and Michael Aloni, who plays the son in Shtisel, is a cult heartthrob with 117,000 followers on Instagram.
And isn’t Simon Cowell getting in on the action? Yes and no. He was all set to pop up on TV later this year for the first time since breaking his back (while trying out an electric bike) as a judge on the Israeli version of The X Factor. “I can barely wait to see what the Israelis have to offer,” said the music mogul. The recent Israeli/Palestinian conflict in May has delayed that, but Cowell is a man who can be relied upon to always follow the talent trail – doing so has earned him more than $600m.
So how did Holywood begin? Humbly. The Cinema of Israel was launched in 1948, the year the country was founded. And until 1986 Israel only had one TV channel. Most of its films are produced in Hebrew, and over the years it has won more Academy Award nominations for best foreign-language film than any other country in the Middle East. In 2000 the Israeli government passed a law that provides funding for Israeli cinema. In a country of nine million people, there are 10 film schools and seven international film festivals.
But what supercharged its success? Fauda, which first aired in Israel in 2015. Within a year it had arrived in America “like a krav maga chop to the jugular”. The series follows the exploits of a counterterrorism unit who dress up as Arabs to infiltrate terror cells. After that “things changed”, says Danna Stern, managing director of Yes Studios, the country’s equivalent of Sky. The streaming giants are now bankrolling homegrown Israeli ideas. “We don’t have natural resources to take, like diamonds or oil, but we have art,” Ester Namdar, a writer and head of drama at Artza Productions, told the Los Angeles Times. Now Netflix, Disney and co are bringing “larger budgets here for us to make our shows”. Last autumn, Apple TV+ aired the international premiere of the Israeli-made spy thriller Tehran. Following its success, it was announced it had been renewed for a second season.
Are more lucrative collaborations on the way? Indeed. Last September the Abu Dhabi Film Commission signed a collaborative agreement with the Israel Film Fund and Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, which includes plans for a new regional film festival. There’s surely also a Shtisel cookbook in the works, to reflect, as the Telegraph puts it, “a booming global interest in Israel in the vein of the Scandi obsession of recent years”. Tens of millions of dollars could be earned when Israel eventually opens its borders to groups of fully jabbed tourists. Tarantino told Israeli journalists before lockdown last year: “Really, my life here is so wonderful.” He is now more interested in making TV series than films and is planning to refurbish a historic Tel Aviv cinema.
Once upon a time in Holywood, as Tarantino might say.