Foreign Productions Dig Jerusalem Because of Mayor’s Film-Friendly Policies

Holy Jerusalem and sin-ridden New York may not have much in common, but that didn’t stop Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, the high-tech millionaire turned two-term civil servant, from reaching out to Gotham counterpart Michael Bloomberg several years ago when Barkat was trying to learn the ropes of the movie business.

New York, after all, has defied its own congestion and sky-high real estate costs to become a magnet for film and television production, and Barkat, a close friend of the former mayor, thought he could beat the same kind of odds in Israel’s contentious capital. Jerusalem, he felt, had all the elements of a good filming location — breathtaking scenery, mild weather and plenty of creative brainpower — but it lacked infrastructure, and its global reputation as a political hot spot made it a risky bet.

Cut to 2014, and it seems Barkat has learned well. Producers Gideon Raff (“Homeland”) and Tim Kring (“Heroes”) are due to arrive in Jerusalem this spring to begin shooting NBC’s “Dig,” a thriller for USA Networks. Natalie Portman is filming her directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” in the city. And several of the most critically acclaimed Israeli films of the past five years, including Joseph Cedar’s Oscar-nominated “Footnote” and Yuval Adler’s “Bethlehem,” were made within walking distance of Barkat’s office.

One of the mayor’s first moves upon being elected in 2008 was to establish the Jerusalem Film Fund, worth 9 million shekels ($2.6 million) the first such regional funder in Israel, which has injected more than $11 million into the local industry and has drawn more than 40 new film projects to the city in the span of just five years. In 2013, Barkat went back to the table and raised the stakes, asking the Israeli government to establish an
ambitious tax incentive for Jerusalem-based films.

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Despite the government’s reputation for interdepartmental strife, several Israeli ministries got behind Barkat’s plan, chipping in coin from their own coffers to fund a $6.2 million grant to one big-budget production per year. The first winner, Raff and Kring’s “Dig,” was announced Feb. 20.

“It’s a big move, a very bold move by the Israeli government and by us,” Barkat says. “We’re spearheading it. And we want to eventually solicit Hollywood movies. I think there’s a reasonable chance we’ll be able to do that.”

Barkat puts in plenty of miles to get Jerusalem on the radar as a filming destination. He makes routine trips to New York and Los Angeles to get face time with producers, and encourage philanthropists to remember Jerusalem when they are writing checks.

“Bloomberg showed me the way,” Barkat says, referring to the former mayor’s Made in NY project that serves as a one-stop shop for productions filming in the five boroughs. “This is a very creative city with huge potential, but we were not practiced in the film business.”

There have been bumps: Shortly after NBCUniversal Cable announced it had signed a six-episode deal with the producers of “Dig,” Barkat was quoted in the Hebrew press saying that the program would be shot in East Jerusalem’s City of David National Park, part of the area Palestinians have claimed for a future capital. Barkat had personally taken producers to visit the site, but his announcement caused an uproar in the Arab community and left NBCU Cable and exec producer Keshet — both of which insist location scouting hasn’t even begun — scrambling for damage control.

Nevertheless, Raff, who grew up in Jerusalem, has only warm words for the mayor and the support he has thrown behind “Dig.”

“Mayor Barkat is doing an outstanding job of facilitating production in Jerusalem,” Raff says. “ ‘Dig’ is an archeological thriller that will benefit enormously from the city’s unique culture and palpable energy, which are extremely difficult to re-create anywhere else.”

Raff has such strong ties to Jerusalem that he invited his parents to join him in October for INTV, a confab hosted by Israeli media giant Keshet. Despite the fact that Keshet is headquartered in Tel Aviv, the conference — which drew the likes of NBC’s Bob Greenblatt, WME’s Rick Rosen and Hulu’s Alex Kruglov — was held in Jerusalem.

Barkat co-chaired the event with Keshet CEO Avi Nir. On the conference’s opening night, the mayor opened the doors of his lavish home in Jerusalem’s upmarket Beit HaKarem neighborhood to Hollywood’s VIPs.

“We have good chemistry, Avi Nir and I, mainly because we think alike,” Barkat says, noting that both men are working with partners in the U.S. and making inroads at home.

“I understand the power of one great film,” Barkat explains. “They say a picture is worth 1,000 words? Well, one great film is worth a million words.

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