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Israeli films appeal to foreign markets

Public funding program aids in industry growth

In the late ’90s, Israeli cinema virtually disappeared from the world scene, dwindling so badly that native films accounted for less than 1% of box office admissions in the country. Even Israelis couldn’t be bothered with seeing Israeli movies.

A decade later, thanks to the passage of 2001’s Cinema Law, the country has re-established its artistic identity on film, resulting in international successes as varied as “The Band’s Visit” and “Waltz With Bashir.” Fest programmers and distribs alike have been quick to embrace the powerful, personal stories now coming out of the country, but as far as the Israeli film industry is concerned, more important than the images coming out has been the money and support coming in.

In effect, what the Cinema Law did was establish a system of public subsidies, but rather than administering the funds directly, the government allocated the money to competing nonprofit orgs (most notably the Israel Film Fund and the Rabinovich Foundation), which developed their own rigorous review processes to identify and support the most deserving projects.

“Israeli cinema would not exist at all without public funding,” says Yoav Abramovich, head of productions for the Rabinovich Foundation. According to the law, such groups can finance up to 70% of any given film up to $600,000. But the money goes only so far.

According to Israel Film Fund executive director Katriel Schory, success depends on getting outsiders to embrace the resulting projects. “Seven years ago, I was chasing (foreign distributors) in the corridors in Cannes, begging them that they should take a minute to look into an Israeli film,” he says.

Today, international partnerships account for roughly one-third of all Israeli films, with France, Germany and Canada leading the way (all three countries have signed co-productions treaties with Israel, making collaborations smoother).

“Israeli films are very coherent economically,” explains Michel Reilhac, director of Paris-based Arte, the second-largest funding source for Israeli features (after the Israel Film Fund). “They don’t cost much, and therefore they can make money more easily from smaller sales.”

Though Reilhac attends the Jerusalem Film Festival each year to keep up with new Israeli talent, he cannot formally read a script until it is brought to him by a French co-producer, at which point Arte may support as much as 20%-25% of the budget, typically earning its money back from international sales.

In some cases, such as Toronto-bound “Lebanon,” Reilhac first heard of the film at the Jerusalem fest and was eager and ready to support it when a French producer came along.

No matter the project, submitting to both the Israel Film Fund and the Rabinovich Foundation is the logical first step for any producer. Because each org’s share of next year’s funds — roughly $17 million, spread among various programs — is determined according to their respective achievements, they have evolved elaborate systems to pinpoint the worthiest projects.

At the Israel Film Fund, artistic consultants review nearly 400 treatments each year, from which 35-40 projects receive funding for a first draft. Among the finished scripts considered, the fund finances 10-12 features a year, with the average budget running roughly $1 million. “From the idea to the poster — we support from a five-page synopsis all the way to the P&A and even allow a certain amount of money to the producers to launch the film outside Israel,” Schory explains.

Then there are the low-budget or independent pics from producers who don’t have the patience to go through the full public funding process. The nonprofit orgs are free to support these at any point along the road, often reviewing them for the first time at the rough-cut stage as they seek money for completion.

In the case of Toronto-bound “Phobidilia,” rather than seeking money upfront from outsiders or Israeli broadcasters (the latter, as part of their license, are obliged to invest a certain amount in local film), the producers aimed to keep costs down and try to finance the $100,000 HD film themselves.

“We managed to produce the film for a very small budget by promising a lot of the people we would pay them later,” co-producer Dafna Prenner says. Had the Israel Film Fund not immediately stepped in with half the budget, they would have proceeded anyway. However, with the org’s support, things went especially smoothly: “Every time we needed to get a print or marketing, they stepped up,” Prenner says.

These new financing opportunities also are attracting outside producers, such as Ehud Bleiberg, a former Israeli now based in Beverly Hills who made “The Band’s Visit” and “Adam Resurrected” there.

For his most recent Israeli production, a $3 million thriller called “Kirot” that stars Bond girl Olga Kurylenko and opens Toronto’s City to City program, Bleiberg pre-sold the film to 14 territories before shooting even began, partnering with Israeli broadcaster Keshet, United King (the country’s biggest distrib) and French producer Edouard Douek (who controls all rights in France).

“When the Israel Film Fund or Rabinovich Foundation put their stamp on the film, it means to the co-producers in Europe this is a good script,” Bleiberg says. And with Europe’s many restrictions, “A co-production between Israel and Europe helps penetrate that market.”

From the Israel Film Fund’s perspective, “Kirot” represents a further expansion for local cinema. “We decided to go for it because it’s one of the very few attempts to do an action movie in Israel, with car chases and guns, which is very unusual for us,” Schory says.

The next order of business is convincing foreign productions to shoot in Israel. Such location work was common before the Palestinian uprisings and Intifada, after which much of this filmmaking activity left Israel for Morocco and other nearby countries.

Last year, the Israeli government passed a 20% incentive for foreign production companies that collaborate with an Israeli partner, which could lure blockbusters to shoot there. Meanwhile, attendance for Israeli-made films is up, capturing 12%-13% of the box office at home, not to mention the accolades and auds they’ve managed to attract abroad.

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