Steve Tisch’s $10 Million Donation to Tel Aviv U. Elevates School

Gideon Raff Tel Aviv University
James Minchin III/USA Network

NYU, USC, UCLA — and now TAU.

Just like those well-regarded U.S. film schools, the Tel Aviv U. School of Film and Television has developed its own brand of excellence, with successful alumni such as Gideon Raff (“Homeland”), Hagai Levi (“The Affair”), Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”) and Avi Nir (CEO of top shingle Keshet), all heavyweights of the Israeli film and television industry, and known for their crossover success into the American market.

And now Tel Aviv U. has something else that’s similar to its well-funded brethren — an endowment from a Holly-wood benefactor.

Last month, producer Steve Tisch (“Forrest Gump,” “The Equalizer”) donated $10 million to the school — funding that will completely transform the campus and, Tisch hopes, further position Israeli film and television projects in the international arena.

The gift wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. Last year, Tisch traveled to Tel Aviv, having been invited to serve as honorary chair of the annual student film festival. Once there, he was inspired by the talent and commitment of the would-be filmmakers.

“Every student I met at Tel Aviv U., every class I sat in on — the passion , the desire and the creativity of those students was tangible,” Tisch says. “These are filmmakers who really have a vision, and to me that’s exciting.”

Gail Reiss, president and CEO of American Friends of Tel Aviv U., was among those who helped recruit Tisch to attend the film festival. At the time, the producer — whose family endowed NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in the 1980s — had not been to Israel for several decades. But it was clear, Reiss says, that he wasn’t there as a sightseer.

“From the moment he landed, he was all ours,” she says. “He lectured and had conversations and sessions with students and faculty.”

The Israeli film and television industry is known for its relentless inventiveness and ability to produce international hits with severely limited funds. TAU’s Dept. of Film and Television is something of a microcosm of this ferocious creativity —  and it was that rawness, Reiss says, that Tisch liked.

“It was a rough cut,” she says. “It’s not a polished school. What he fell in love with was the ability to see a department grow into a school.”

Tel Aviv U. is one of a number of educational institutions in Israel with a program that specializes in the cinematic arts, but unlike its competitors, including the highly regarded Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem, TAU’s is the only one integrated into a four-year academic curriculum, giving students a well-rounded education.

“It wasn’t just a film school,” says Levi, who earned his degree from the university in the ’80s as part of a class of graduates that also included Folman and Eytan Fox (“Walk on Water,” “Yossi”). “The craft of filmmaking was not the main focus. The theoretical side was of course very important, but we studied a lot of literature and other topics. It was academic.”

Shachar Magen, a fellow alum and creator of several successful Israeli television series, including “First Family” and “Sirens,” echoes Levi’s sentiments.

“I knew all about Sam Spiegel in Jerusalem, and it’s a very good school,” he says. “But I also wanted to study other things. This is the only place (in Israel) where it’s not only about television.”

As a result of Tisch’s gift, the department has been elevated to the status of a full-fledged film school. It is currently ranked among the top 15 international schools of film and television in the world, and the donation will allow for the purchase of new equipment, and boost the school’s ability to attract top faculty, offer scholarships and increase international collaborations.

For Reiss, equally important is the department’s new appellation: the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv U. “He really gave us a gift,” she says, “because he also gave the school his name.”