Producers drawn to character-driven, low-coast fare

TEL AVIV — Hollywood has taken note of the Holy Land, and Israeli TV shows are fast becoming the country’s most popular export.

Local bizzers woke up to the prospect of selling content to the huge U.S. market after HBO optioned hit therapy drama, “B’Tipul” from cabler Hot and bowed the format in 2008 as “In Treatment,” starring Gabriel Byrne.

HBO tapped the show’s creator, Hagai Levy, to work on “In Treatment,” which ran for three seasons Stateside, one more than in its Israeli incarnation.

“There is a lot of talent here in Israel,” says producer Zafrir Kochanovsky, whose TTV Prods. is working with DreamWorks on a sci-fi series. “It’s very exciting to get notice from a big (American) channel. It’s validation.”

Production arm Fox 21 is trying its hand this fall with “Homeland,” modeled on “Prisoners of War” (Hatufim), a Keshet Broadcasting skein that follows two Israeli soldiers who return to their families after 17 years in a Syrian prison. In its American incarnation, set to air on Showtime with Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin attached, a female CIA officer becomes obsessed with the idea that intelligence leading to the rescue of a U.S. soldier was, in fact, part of an imminent Al Qaeda plot.

David Nevins, Entertainment Prexy for Showtime, says Israeli dramas work because their dramatic potential runs deep.

“Israel … is very psychologically attuned,” he says. “The fireworks come from fraught and provocative dramatic situations, not from tons of exterior production value.”

But remakes aren’t always successful.

Last year Fox bought rights to “Traffic Light” (Ramzor), an Intl. Emmy-award winning sitcom created by Adir Miller that airs on Keshet’s Channel 2. It bowed the show, which centers on three friends who have been buddies since college, in February, but viewership was tepid and Fox pulled it in May after 13 episodes.

No matter; companies have set up shop to foster links between Tel Aviv and Tinseltown.

Mickey Yerushalmy is chairman of culture for the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, which is sponsored by the United Jewish Federation. He says his jobs is to bring “Hollywood types to Tel Aviv and make them fall in love” with the country.

The org runs the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Workshops, which promote Israeli entertainment content to an American audience as well as educating Israeli film students on how to market their work internationally. “Sex and the City” producer-director Darren Star is among the regular lecturers.

The Operating Room, a Los Angeles talent management company founded by Israeli expat Oded Turgeman, opened an office in Tel Aviv last year with script and content editor Yoram Mandel at the helm.

Mandel insists that Israeli TV tastes are practically the same as Americans.

That may explain why Israeli versions of so many foreign reality shows — “American Idol,” “Survivor,” “Beauty and the Geek,” “Cash Cab,” “Million Dollar Money Drop,” “Israel’s Next Top Model” and “Wipeout” to name just a few — do well here.

“American TV can teach us a lot,” Mandel says. “We are the kids, they are the parents.”

But breaking into the U.S. presents unique challenges for TV creatives in Israel, working within the financial straits of a market of just 5 million viewers.

“The world is open to Israeli producers now,” Kochanovsky says. “We cannot compete with the budget that U.S. shows have, so instead we have to be very clever.”

When exec producer Clyde Phillips, who is under contract at Lionsgate, chose Israeli crime series “The Naked Truth” to be his first post-“Dexter” project and shopped it to HBO, the central tenet of the show — confining all action to the interrogation room — stayed the same. This put a fresh spin on the old crime drama conceit and saved producers millions in production costs.

Phillips liked the challenges posed by these restrictions. “As confined and claustrophobic as it is,” he says about the project’s setting, “it gives me more freedom as a storyteller.”

HBO signed on to the still-untitled project.

The concept of “In Treatment,” which stayed behind closed therapy doors and under budget, was born of the same financial reality.

“Poverty is not always a sign that you will fail,” Kochanovsky says. “In fact, poverty forces you to be more creative.”

Israeli directors are now experimenting with format-blending, which can be both novel and frugal.

Docu-reality series “Connected” (Mehubarim), which has the highest ratings of any cable TV show in Israeli history, cut the cameramen and lets its subjects — five complete strangers who share their life stories — do the filming.

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