When Katriel Schory took over as topper of the Israel Film Fund some 20 years ago, its domestic cinema was at a low point.

“The late ’90s were the worst in terms of audiences in Israel for Israeli films and they had mostly disappeared from festivals,” he says. “There were zero co-productions.”

Schory came in with a three-point plan: to help the Israeli film community regain their self-confidence; for the fund to completely revamp the way they read and select projects, i.e., to look for stories, projects and filmmakers from all walks of life and from all the regions and cultures comprising the country; and to divert a certain part of the budget for the marketing, distribution and release of films in Israel.

At that time, Israel had only a small number of co-production treaties. Over the years, Schory negotiated numerous others; now Israel has agreements with 20 countries. He takes pride in the fact that the amount of co-production money generated from overseas, some $90 million, almost matches the amount invested by the fund during his time in office, and that approximately one-third of the films he greenlit were international co-productions. He believes that foreign investors were attracted by three factors that came together during his tenure: the power of the stories, the number of directors who graduated from Israeli film schools and skilled producers who knew how to deliver their films on time and on budget.

Schory, who is now stepping down from the Israel Film Fund, will receive Variety’s Creative Impact Award on May 20 at the Cannes Film Festival. Lisa Shiloach-Uzrad, a veteran TV producer, will take over as the CEO of the Israel Film Fund.

When Schory travels to big international film festivals, he always brings along filmmakers and producers with projects and he supports the Israeli films financed by other funds. At the Cannes, Berlin and Toronto festivals, the fund hosts annual receptions where Schory’s networking skills are legendary.

Producer Adar Shafran (“Maktub”) jokingly notes, “If you stand beside him, be ready for bruises on your arms because he grabs you firmly by the elbow and connects you with all the people in the room.”

During his tenure at the fund, more than 300 full-length features have been approved for production, a number twice that of the fund’s previous 20-year history, as he championed projects from every corner and culture in the country and in almost every genre. Meanwhile, the annual domestic audience for Israeli films has grown from 100,000 a year to more than 1.5 million. International audiences have also expanded, with fund-supported films regularly nabbing kudos at prestigious international festivals and selling widely abroad.

But the charismatic Schory, one of the most respected figures in the international film industry, will be remembered for much more than his success with the core activities of the fund. Indeed, his reputation also rests on how broadly he conceived his mandate.

U.S. independent producer Jim Stark says, “The passion, intelligence and chutzpah that Katriel brings to the promotion and defense of Israeli films and filmmakers is absolutely unique. The entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that he brings to his job is in large measure the result of his training and experience as an independent film producer. When there is no established way of accomplishing his goals for Israeli films, Katriel improvises.”

Oscar-nominated Israeli helmer Joseph Cedar (“Footnote”) says, “The job of the person running the Israel Film Fund has to be one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. It’s not only the obvious tensions that exist when you are forced to say no to so many people who are competitive and ambitious, but on the other side, balancing government money and the policies that come with that government funding with the artistic community is an extremely thin line to walk. There’s something about Katri’s personality that made him perfect for that job.”

Schory, who also has a background as a professional mediator, credits his success at the fund to the way he established the tone of the organization vis-a-vis the industry and vis-a-vis the government.

“The filmmakers and the film community are our allies and partners, but they are also the people we are here to serve,” he says.
Helmer Yaelle Kayam (“Mountain”) makes note of Schory’s responsiveness to his constituency.

“In 2011, a group of female filmmakers formed a forum to achieve equal opportunities,” she says. “At the time, women directors constituted only 10% of feature film directors and our aim was to change that. Katriel acknowledged the importance of the forum straight away. He met with us, and promised as a first step for equality to always keep the same amount of male and female readers in the fund. He kept his word. Since Katriel started to maintain gender equality in the project readers, the number of female directors increased from 10% to 25%.”

Although the Fund uses public money for its production investments, it was created as a fully licensed NGO in 1979. That status was meant to keep it at arm’s length from the government, but that didn’t stop politicians from trying to interfere. Schory notes diplomatically, “For people in the government and the Ministry of Culture, we’re always seen as way too independent, but the number one thing is to safeguard the complete creative freedom of the filmmakers.”

Many filmmakers regard Schory’s constant struggle to maintain the full independence of the fund and its choices as his greatest contribution to the industry. Helmer Talya Lavie (“Zero Motivation”) says, “He is one of the main figures to whom we Israeli filmmakers are indebted, for the exposure that Israeli film enjoys in the international arena and for our artistic freedom, for which Katri fights fiercely and proudly whenever challenged.”

Schory continually seeks opportunities for Israeli filmmakers to meet foreign funders. The Fund partners with the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the Jerusalem Film & Television Initiative on the Pitch Point Jerusalem during the Jerusalem Film Festival, a platform for Israeli filmmakers and producers to present their projects and meet with key figures in the world film industry. The Fund collaborates in a similar way with the Haifa Film Festival.

Haifa fest artistic director Pnina Blayer says, “Katriel Schory’s role in our story goes beyond duty to include consultation, connections, a word here and there, and a ceaseless flow of ideas. He feels like a host himself, arriving to meet, escort, tour and present our industry in his unique approach to people. Katriel suggested our mini-EAVE workshop, among others, lures various film delegations to our arena, and while brainstorming generously, he is always available should we need to extend our support to the filmmakers.”

Schory is also known for his generous advice to other film funds on ways to restructure their public funding systems. Edith Sepp, head of the Estonian Film Institute, says, “He always has good hints to make things happen and introduce better schemes. He never takes sides or is judgmental; he always sees the bigger picture. He is one of the wisest men I have come across.”

And what does the future hold for Schory? He says, “At the request of my board of directors, I have agreed to stay on in the fund as a consultant and consult on international. This is something that will take time for someone else to step in because it is based so much on personal relationships developed over the years.”