Made in Israel
For 20 years, Israeli series have demanded attention from global audiences – both in their original form and in the remakes they have inspired. DQ speaks to those behind shows such as Fauda, Prisoners of War and Tehran about their recipes for success.
Israel has become one of the television success stories of the streaming age – and its accomplishments are even more surprising when you consider that until the early 1990s, the country had just a single, government-run TV channel.
Today, the compelling stories to come out of Israel are told not only as remakes – such as Homeland and The A Word – but also, to the surprise of many of the country’s producers, in their original Hebrew language.
It was the massive success of Homeland – an American version of Keshet’s 2010 series Prisoners of War (Hatufim) – that Israeli TV executives pinpoint as one of the key turning points for the success of the industry in the past decade.
That had followed the huge popularity of Dori Media’s 2005 BeTipul, which was remade stateside as the award-winning In Treatment. The drama, about a psychologist who requires psychological help, has been adapted in 17 countries ranging from Argentina to France, Brazil to Italy and Japan to Canada.
Together, the success of the two shows alerted executives in the US and other countries that Israel was a place that could come up with fantastic stories that could travel.
“It has been a decade that has seen huge growth,” says Karni Ziv, head of drama and comedy at Keshet, Israel’s biggest TV company, which operates a TV channel as well as local and international production arms.
As the producer of Prisoners of War (which can now be seen on Prime Video), Keshet has always been at the heart of that growth. More recently, it has been behind successful coproductions of Rough Diamonds – which was a big hit for Netflix – and National Geographic and Disney+’s similarly successful A Small Light, about Miep Gies, the woman who helped hide Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis in 1940s Amsterdam.
“What we have seen change is the way it has gone from people adapting Israeli formats,” says Ziv, “to Israeli shows appearing on television and to our companies coproducing for the big streamers.”
Israel is a small country, with a population of nine million people. Many of its inhabitants don’t even speak Hebrew as a first language, with Arabic spoken by 20% of the population and Russian by around 15%. That is one reason why Dori Media, another of the country’s big hitters, chose to make many of its shows in Spanish – the language spoken by half a billion people around the globe – when it first launched 30 years ago.
The company may have its headquarters in Tel Aviv, but it also has offices in Argentina, Mexico and Indonesia. Notably, of the 7,000 hours of TV in its catalogue, 4,000 are in Spanish. It is presently remaking its biggest ever hit – the 2007 Argentinian comedy drama Lalola, in which a womanising magazine editor wakes up as a woman. The show has been adapted in 12 other countries.
Dori is also creating ever more Israeli content, with an eye on the international market. Its hit thriller Losing Alice, which was shown on Apple TV+, is filming a second season, while spooky army thriller Hammam is likely to be the next to air.
It was the streaming revolution and, in particular, Netflix’s openness to foreign-language shows, that helped move Hebrew-language series into the mainstream. “The call went out from Netflix that it wanted shows in a foreign language, and it put Israeli series on the map – and not just Israeli but Asian too,” says Keren Shahar, CEO of Keshet International. “In the last five years, we’ve seen that people around the world are willing to hear different languages and are curious about different places in the world.”
Two shows in particular changed everything. Dori Media’s Shtisel, which was originally shown in Israel in 2013, and Fauda, which first aired in 2015, both took on new lives when they were added to Netflix. Shtisel, a love story set in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox community, and Fauda, about a commando unit that goes undercover to pursue a terrorist, could not be more different, other than the fact both are firmly rooted in Israel-specific experiences – and yet they became huge hits all over the world.
Shtisel became so popular that a third and final season was made in response to the international community of fans on Netflix. A Turkish version, with the religious Jews transposed into religious Muslims, recently aired to acclaim.
Meanwhile, Fauda, which was created by its lead actor Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, became a genuine phenomenon when it landed on Netflix in 2016, a year after it had aired in Israel. Interestingly, it has been a top 10 hit in many countries traditionally hostile to Israel, including Lebanon, Syria, Iran, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar.
“Neither of us can really explain it,” says Issacharoff, who set up Faraway Road Productions alongside Raz. The company has more shows in the works with Showtime, Netflix and Apple, as well as a fifth season of Fauda being planned. “We think some of the reason Arabs like it is that half the show is in Arabic, so people feel pretty comfortable watching it. And I think they like that both sides are shown as very human. And we like to think the script is pretty good too.”
New local versions of Fauda are also being made, after an Indian adaptation launched earlier this year.
Donna & Shula Productions, the firm behind another big spy hit, Apple TV+ series Tehran, about a Mossad agent undercover in Iran, has had a similar experience, with the show’s stars and producers receiving many positive messages about Israel from fans in Iran. The company first found funding for the series after meeting investors at C21Media’s Content London, and when they put out their first two episodes there was a bidding war.
The third season of the show has just been filming in Athens, which fills in for Tehran, and is a coproduction with Apple. It has become such a huge hit that it has attracted an international cast, with Glenn Close featuring last season and Hugh Laurie starring as a nuclear scientist in S3, which is due out later this year or early next year.
“Tehran is like a Hollywood Cinderella story,” says producer Dana Eden. “We’ve moved things on by being an Israeli company that is producing for an American streamer. And we are now producing to Hollywood standards, attracting huge international stars.”
All the producers cite different reasons for the success of Israeli television. The first is, prosaically, cost: an average Israeli episode for even a drama with guns and tanks can be made for around US$300,000 – a fraction even of many European budgets. Those tight margins mean scripts are often worked on for years to ensure there is no wastage.
“We can’t use money to cover stories that aren’t quite good enough so the writing has to be really good,” says Ziv. “We devote a lot of time to the writing process. For one of our recent shows, A Body That Works [which is in talks to be adapted for another market], the scripts were being worked on for more than three years. And it shows, because when the series, which is about surrogacy, came out in Israel, it was a huge success and also a huge talking point.”
Perhaps the final element is that many of these shows have authenticity. The two Fauda writers were in the military unit the show depicts, and many of the adventures seen on screen are ones they – or members of their unit – lived through. For Rough Diamonds, which was coproduced with Belgian production company DeMensen and is a top 10 show in 70 Netflix territories, the Israeli writers spent years getting to know the religious Jewish community in Antwerp they were writing about.
“When I’m speaking with writers, I tell them not to think about the international market, but just the market they know,” says Ziv. “The most successful stories find their ways to different cultures and different territories. The important thing is the drama; we have learned that if Israelis love a show, it is likely the rest of the world will too.”
tagged in: Apple TV+, Avi Issacharoff, Dana Eden, DeMensen, Donna & Shula Productions, Dori Media, Faraway Road Productions, Fauda, Homeland, Karni Ziv, Keshet, Keshet International, Lior Raz, Shtisel, Tehran