Bollywood actors Jacqueline Fernandez and Sushant Singh Rajput touched down in Tel Aviv last month, accompanied by an 80-strong crew, to shoot scenes for “Drive,” the first Hindi film to be set in Israel. The film, an Indian-style spin on “Fast and the Furious,” was partly funded by a number of Israeli government arms, including the Tourism Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. When “Drive” premieres on the subcontinent in 2018, Israel’s leaders hope it will provide a priceless advertising opportunity for tens of millions of potential Israeli tourists from India.
“We’ve done research and we know there is film tourism around the world. I taught for a year at Georgetown and everyone wanted to see where ‘The Exorcist’ was filmed,” says Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. “There’s a diplomatic benefit to just having their film stars here.”
“We had a terrific experience shooting in Israel,” says Apoorva Mehta, CEO of Dharma Productions, the producers of “Drive.” “We had tremendous support from the tourism office there, especially from Hassan Madah, India director at the Israel Ministry of Tourism. He was very helpful in ensuring that everything we required was accessible very easily. The line production company we dealt with, Tifferet Films, was very apt because they have done some big films.”
The India-Israel film collaboration is not a one-off project. Its model is almost identical to a similar multi-pronged outreach model that Israel honed with China following the 2014 Gaza War, which had temporarily laid waste to tourism. The war also struck a devastating blow to Israel’s efforts to lure American television productions: FX’s “Tyrant” and USA’s “Dig” both had to frantically relocate in the midst of that crisis, which was both humiliating and expensive for Israeli showrunners.
U.S. executives remain cautious of filming in Israel. “Homeland,” which filmed much of its second season in Israel, has opted for Morocco as a locale in later seasons, and “Transparent,” despite most of its Season 4 plot taking place in the Holy Land, insisted on filming its scenes in Hollywood studios and in the vast California desert.
Israel, in turn, has shifted its efforts to a different continent. Hoping to use Israel’s temperate climate, thriving nightlife and diverse landscapes as incentive, it believes it can now lure productions from Asia to its shores. The formula is simple: Israel offers investments and attractive tax rates to productions in exchange for guaranteed footage of the country’s landscapes and cities in the final product that will be shown, on screen, to millions of potential tourists from Asia.
It’s worked with China: “Old Cinderella,” a sudsy Chinese rom-com about a divorcée searching for a fresh start, filmed a number of its scenes in Israel after accepting a $130,000 cash injection from the Israeli government. The film, a hit in China that reached millions of viewers, premiered around the same time that Israel unveiled three new weekly nonstop flights from Beijing to Tel Aviv and significantly relaxed visa laws for Chinese visitors.
By 2016, Chinese visits to Israel had increased 93% over the previous year. Now Oren and his colleagues are hoping for similar luck with Indian audiences.
“There are several states in our area, including Jordan, Morocco and the UAE, that are generating significant income and jobs by hosting film productions. And Israel, in many ways, has significant advantages over those countries,” Oren says. “We’re a very small country with great diversity of topography. We have a world-class film community and world class facilities.”
Mehta says Israel is a viable option for future shoots and what could solidify a deal is a “rebate structure.” He believes that “would make it a more competitive platform.”
Indeed, Oren is petitioning the Israeli government to offer a tax rebate between 25% and 35% of costs upfront to foreign productions, and to bolster its insurance offerings to calm the nerves of producers who worry about a repeat of the events like those that shut down productions during the 2014 Gaza war. He also hopes to create a film board that works specifically with coordination of foreign productions.
“My political party [the Kulanu party] wants to create jobs, and we know that for every million dollars of a film production, we generate 180 jobs,” Oren says.
India currently holds 14 bilateral film treaties, and if Oren gets his way, Israel will become the 15th: he hopes for a signed film treaty between the two nations by next spring.
When Indian prime minister Narendra Modi shared an exuberant visit with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu this summer, a film production partnership was on the discussion agenda for the longtime allies. Continuing the momentum in Mumbai last month, Oren also sat down with execs from Yash Raj Films, Dharma Productions, Eros Intl., Red Chillies Ent., Balaji Telefilms and Fox Star.
Indian productions are particularly alluring for Israel, Oren says, not just because of the sheer size of Bollywood’s influence, but also because of the demographic makeup of its vast audience.
“This is about how important it would be for Israel to have a Bollywood film shot here watched in Muslim countries,” he says.
Naman Ramachandran contributed to this report.