Israel comes of age

Gran PlanAs the global market attracts ever more of Israel’s television talent, the question of how its programming travels overseas has taken centre stage. With Focus on Israel events scheduled at MIPTV, Jesse Whittock talks to local producers and distributors and checks out the latest wave of hits in the making.

The title of Keshet International’s runaway post-MIPCOM success Rising Star could quite easily double as a moniker for Israel’s new found status on the inter-national programming scene. Though the country has little over eight million inhabitants and just 2.1 million TV homes, according to Informa Telecoms and Media data, the volume and quality of programming flooding from its borders has been nothing short astounding.

It is not surprise, therefore, that the territory has been selected for an Israel in Focus series of events at MIPTV this year. This will include a Co-Production Marketplace: Success Stories from Israel session on Saturday, April 5; a Business Opportunities in Israel event at MIPFormats the following day and a main event on Tuesday 8 April in the Palais des Festivals during which Virginia Mouseler, CEO of The Wit, will outline hot new programmes from the country.

Rising-Star-behind-the-screen--Ronen-Akerman“The interest and the focus of the international market is totally on Israel, and we’re feeling it clearly as parties from different companies visit each month enquiring about what’s new, it has given a boost to our efforts to create more,” says Assaf Gil, owner and managing director of Israeli indie prodco Gil Productions.

Though companies such as Dori Media Group and Armoza Formats have been shopping the territory’s wares to the international market for several years, it was the Keshet International-distributed scripted format Prisoners of War (aka Hatufim) – best known globally as the basis for Showtime’s spy drama Homeland – that really opened the floodgates.

Homeland was the big breakthrough and it created incredible momentum in many aspects – it was a gamechanger not only for us but the whole market,” recalls Keshet International’s managing director Alon Shtruzman.

homeland-620x397Dori Media’s CEO and president Nadav Palti agrees Homeland (above) represented a crucial moment but notes the trend harks back further to instances such as when his firm shopped In Treatment (known locally as BeTipul) to HBO. The difference is “more and more people now understand we create great shows”, he adds.

According to Hedva Goldschmidt, managing director of Jerusalem-based boutique TV and film distributor Go2Films, Israel is producing a high volume of high quality and widely-distributed formats because “it’s a hot house for great stories with so many cultures, religions and conflicts”.

DMG_ShtiselThough it is focused on festival and theatrical distribution Go2Films is a regular at MIPTV, and will be in Cannes helping Dori Media sell religion-themed drama Shtisel and cableco HOT shift miniseries Mekimi, which is based on a best-selling book about by Noa Yaron-Dayan, who was a popular figure and celebrity in 1990s Israel.

Shtisel (left) is a gentle family drama for Yes that’s focused on a father and son who are the only remaining members of an ultra-Orthodox family still living together in a Jerusalem neighbourhood.

The series picked up 10 Israeli Academy Awards in January and Dori Media is now rolling it out internationally, with France’s Pretty Pictures and Swedish cultural pay TV channel Axess TV the first buyers. A deal with a Finnish free-to-air channel is understood to be in the works.

The format has also been pitched in the US, and there is understood to be widespread interest. “You can adapt it to the complicated issues of other countries and people will get the humour too,” says Dori Media’s Palti.

Shes With MeMeanwhile, Keshet’s latest scripted effort is She’s With Me (right), a comedy-drama about a poor baker who has a relationship with an Israeli ‘It’ girl. “It’s a refreshing light comedy and I’m certain it can translate into different languages,” says Keshet’s Shtruzman.

Another Israeli scripted comedy with US remake potential is Gil Productions’ The Life of Maya Dagan, which had previously been under option with Lionsgate but now has ICM working on a new adaptation deal. It’s loosely based on the memories of an Israeli comic and uses animated flashbacks to draw extreme humour out of her awkward teenage years. “When we’re pitching it, we’re looking for the local Maya Dagan – the same age and with certain youthful elements,” says Assaf Gil.

Elsewhere, Red Arrow International has July August Productions’ comedy dating show She’s Out of My League, which is based on Will Smith romcom Hitch; and Dori Media is offering Channel 10 series Power Couple, which Palti says “could be a hit like Rising Star at the last MIP”, in Cannes.

A Cappella, which a pair former Channel 10 executives launched in 2012, also believes it has a new Rising Star on its hands in the shape of The Big Picture, which launches at MIPTV (see box below).

Traditionally, Israeli producers have looked to local broadcasters for a commission before handing over large chunks of rights and having projects sold internationally. Increasingly, however, Hebrew companies are looking at different models such as having a sales agent take the show global first and then, with international rights secured, bringing it home for an Israeli deal.

“We’ve done several pilots for the international markets by partnering with companies like Armoza and FremantleMedia. This allows us to decide how our show is distributed and to have a more flexible relationship with the seller, and to keep a larger chunk of the rights,” says Artza Productions’ partner Dafna Prenner (right).

Dafna PrennerShe claims Israeli broadcasters are “very aware of the upside of owning original formats”, and says rights ownership is a continuing bone of contention for producers. Artza’s originals include How to Be and The Gran Plan (top), both of which have sold internationally. Armoza Formats shopped the latter – a comic inter-generational unscripted format in which three grandmothers attempt to sort out problems of young people – to broadcasters including Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1 before Israel’s Channel 10 came onboard – with a smaller percentage of back end rights than usual.

Elsewhere, Gil Productions is best known as producer of local versions of Strictly Come Dancing and MasterChef but has heavily moved into original format development.

“One issue that dominates the market is we don’t have laws that limit the stake broadcasters can take in IP so you have to be creative,” says Assaf Gil. “We’ve invested in and piloted [new format] Are You For Real and will hopefully have a distributor by MIPTV. Only after it rolls out internationally will we pitch it in Israel.”

The format sees a couple assume identities and convince another pair they are real, says Gil.

Armoza’s founder and CEO Avi Armoza says the size of the territory and the instability of the broadcast market means “you cannot sustain a business that’s focused on only the local market” – hence his global focus.

The Ran QuadrupletsEven July August, which focuses on the local market, sold to a global media group and now makes about 30% of its revenues from the international market, according to its CEO Lisa Uzrad. The company has a pair of scripted formats headed for US broadcast pilot season in the shape of Armoza-distributed and CBS-bound Yes drama The Ran Quadruplets (aka The Ran Quartet) and Reshet comedy Irreversible, which ABC is adaptating with Friends star David Schwimmer starring and producing.

Armoza has gone even deeper into the global market and begun co-developing formats with international broadcasters. Examples come in the shape of Runway in My Closet, a new fashion format for Hungary’s Viasat3 that’s launching at MIPTV, I Can Do That! (below) with China’s JSBC and Do Me a Favour with Argentina’s Telefe. “It’s a much more efficient way to focus on development,” says Avi Armoza. Dori Media, meanwhile, has a well-established global telenovela production business.

I Can Do That imageWith all this said, it’s clear Israeli channels – Keshet, Reshet, Channel 10, HOT and Yes – have done much to establish Israel as a quality content producer and provider and the producers behind them on the global circuit.

Keshet International has built up a wide-ranging content pipeline and launched local productions businesses in Australia, the US, the UK and Canada to create content around the world, and its MD Shtruzman (below) says the London-based company has become “one of the engines of the Israeli market”.

Alon Shtruzman“The Israeli creative television community has been benefitting from Keshet’s overseas exports. We’ve helped them break the glass ceiling and see that success. Beyond that, we always give an incentive to creators, we always make sure they’re involved creatively and commercially in the local version and they always get a part of the back-end.”

Keshet International itself has bypassed the local market to get shows away. Set for USA Network on US cable is Dig, an action adventure series it is creating with Heroes’ Tim Kring and Homeland’s Gideon Raff. “It’s an American story but is set in Jerusalem and it might not work for Israeli broadcasters in Hebrew,” explains Shtruzman.

Meanwhile, different kinds of narratives are affecting content distribution. The country is moving the broadcasting system from the franchise model under which Keshet and Reshet share the Channel 2 slot through the week to a licence model. “It’s going to be a very interesting place and the level of competition is going to rise,” says Avi Armoza.

Insiders say it is likely two of Keshet, Reshet and Channel 10 will have to merge when the change goes through, with budgets tight and debts to pay. Moreso, the switchover may not happen until 2017 as there are options to extend the franchise system beyond the current 2015 deadline, one source says.

So Where Were We“The Israeli market is very small and I believe that when the Israeli broadcasters get their licences there will [still] be 14 days of broadcasting [per] week – two channels. The next stage of growth is instead abroad,” says Yoav Peretz, CEO of the country’s oldest production company United Studios of Israel, whose Dori Media-sold comedy So Where Were We is in negotiations for adaptation in the US via ICM.

The local distribution business will likely heat up too, as Endemol taps into its recent 33% investment in Reshet by piping more Israeli content into the international market. Others such as cableco HOT (which will sell Mekimi (below) globally, Go2Films’ Goldschmidt says) and satcaster Yes are looking to the international market to better exploit their programmes.

“They are considering their own internal arms but at the moment they continue to give producers the choice to distribute or do it together. Endemol will sell Reshet shows but we have an exclusive deal as the distributor of Channel 10 programmes,” explains Dori Media’s Palti.

MEKIKI -main photo Go2Films“The market is now at a stage of maturity,” adds Armoza. “We were pioneers and were able to prove there was a market [for international distribution] but we always knew we wouldn’t remain alone and were ready for the competition.”

Palti suggests that though there will be new entrants to the sales scene, “only those like us who want to do it seriously and as a core business will remain five years from now”.

July August’s Uzrad, meanwhile, says being part of ProSiebenSat.1 Media-owned Red Arrow Entertainment has “opened many doors to programmes and TV executives worldwide”, while Keshet’s Shtruzman says he has “confidence in the market” thanks to the network’s strong rating performances.

Yoav PeretzHow the forthcoming changes affect conditions will depend on the local ecosystem, he adds. “For us, it’s only going to get better.”

Artza’s Prenner shares that optimism. “I don’t feel limitations with the international market right now,” she says. “We have the sense that everything is possible.”

United Studios, behind formats such as TNT’s Deal With It and NBC pilot Pillars of Smoke and producer of a 1,000 hours of Israeli programming per year, is going one step further. Backed by media investment giant Taya Communications, the company has engaged bankers to identify potential acquisition targets from the UK indie sector. CEO Peretz explains: “The UK market is very interesting to us – it’s a very similar territory but there you can keep the IP of the product. We believe we will find the right company to invest in this year.” TBI



The show: The Big Picture
The producer: A Cappella
The distributor: A Cappella
The broadcaster: n/a
The concept: Players use a giant screen to answer picture questions while viewers play along at home

There is no doubt MIPCOM 2013 belonged to Keshet International format Rising Star, which wowed buyers at a massive Cannes screening and has gone on to sell around the world.

Added to the continued success of Israeli scripted formats, just about every producer in Israel is understandably feeling they have a hit up their sleeve (or on their slate). A Cappella, which former Channel 10 programming bosses Einat Shalmir and Tal Shaked launched in 2012, has as good an offer as any of them with big-budget format The Big Picture.

“We see this as the next generation of studio-based gameshows,” says Shaked, who is A Cappella’s co-founder and VP, business development. “It combines pictures with live participation of the audience at home.”

The format, from Israeli creator and magician Nimrod Harel, sees contestants answer multiple-choice questions based on pictures projected through a massive 20 foot screen in order to win up to US$1 million. If they cannot answer a question, producers then go to a randomly selected viewer at home who has been playing along via a dedicated free-to-download app. This person becomes the contestant’s partner, and any winnings are shared between them. The contestant has three such lifelines, meaning four people winning the jackpot would pocket US$250,000 each.

A Cappella is heading to MIPTV to find broadcasters – “Our target is the big territories, big channels and big primetime slots,” says Shaked – and has a pilot episode that cost a cool US$1 million to show them. Presenter Andrew Günsberg, who is known for the Australian versions of Idols and The Bachelor, hosts.

A Cappella has purposely not aimed the format at Israeli channels before taking it to market, as this has allowed it to own more of the IP. Shaked says this faith is based on the firm’s belief that “it comes at a time where you can see things changing, with the talent show not as strong as it was” and that The Big Picture is a cost-effective and potentially long-running alternative.

“We feel there is a drift; one the one hand, scripted is getting stronger and stronger and on the other, it feel like there is desire for nostalgic, family-viewing television and this format answers those needs,” she says.