Who says Hollywood doesn’t support Israel? They sure like Israeli TV

The Israeli series “Life Isn’t Everything” which has run for a whopping nine seasons in Israel, has been picked up by CBS. The series, based on the Israeli sitcom Hahaim Ze Lo Hakol, was created by Daniel Lappin, who will also write for the U.S. version, and was brought to Hollywood by none other than Noa Tishby, who was the first to bring an Israeli format to American television with the sale of “In Treatment” to HBO. That sale was a kind of Columbus-like epiphany for Tishby, who realized that the translation of Israeli formats to an American audiences was an untapped market.

According to Deadline.com’s Nellie Andreeva, “Life Isn’t Everything” revolves around:

a middle-aged, recently divorced couple who were bad at marriage and discover they are now really bad at divorce – messy, can’t help but being involved in each others’ lives, still have sex, etc. “It is a romantic comedy about a couple who are divorced but can’t get out of each other’s lives,” Lappin said. Added Tishby, “you can’t divorce your ex.”

Ain’t that the truth. Andreeva adds:

This is the second broadcast project based on an Israeli format this development season along with mystery drama Timrot Ashan, aka Pillars of Smoke, at NBC. Additionally, HBO is developing an adaptation of another Israeli mystery drama, The Naked Truth, with Clyde Phillips. Over the last few years, there have been four U.S. scripted series based on Israeli formats: HBO’s In Treatment, CBS’ The Ex List, Fox’s Traffic Light and Showtime’s Homeland.

The Journal’s arts editor, Naomi Pfefferman, recently interviewed “Homeland” producer Howard Gordon, the man behind Fox’s “24” about the nuances of adapting Israeli formats for an American audience. She writes:

While the first season of “In Treatment” was translated almost verbatim from its Israeli counterpart, “Homeland” — also from Keshet Broadcasting — required much more transformation. “In Israel, the issue of POWs is in everyone’s consciousness; Galid Shalit has been at the front and center of a national tragedy,” the 50-year-old Gordon said. “So, in ‘Hatufim,’ the homecoming of two longtime captives launches a domestic drama that becomes the heart of the show.”

For audiences in the United States, however, where the immediate threat of al-Qaeda has appeared to recede, a psychological thriller seemed a better approach. Gordon and Gansa added a female CIA officer to the mix and created a cat-and-mouse game between the flawed agent and the former captive. “We posited that the returning soldier had possibly turned into a terrorist and had been sent back here as the tip of the spear of a major attack on U.S. soil,” Gordon said.

There are a handful of producers eager to build a creative and economic bridge between Israel and Hollywood. Insiders have alluded to establishing an official structure for funneling content back and forth, involving Israelis in the American iterations of their shows and vice versa. While “In Treatment” was a success on U.S. television, the show’s American helmers were accused of exploiting the Israeli writers of “BeTipul” who were not properly compensated or credited for episodes that were translated for the HBO series almost verbatim.

In April 2009, Pfefferman addressed the issue in a piece at the start of “In Treatment’s” second season:

Even though many of those episodes were taken almost verbatim from “Be’Tipul,” the Israelis were refused “written by” credits, which would have allowed them to receive additional compensation, because of rules dictated by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), Levi said.

Literary agent Arik Kneller, who represents a number of the “Be’Tipul” scribes and helped bring “The Ex List” to CBS, had several telephone conversations with WGA officials about the matter. “They were very polite, and explained that they understood my frustration,” Kneller said by cell phone from Tel Aviv. “On the other hand, the WGA rule is that if you did not write in English, you cannot get a ‘written by’ credit; the episode is considered to be ‘based upon’ your source material. I hope to work with them to achieve a better standard in the future,” he added.

Levi was also unhappy with the situation. “When the translation was word for word, I thought the fairest thing would be a shared ‘written by’ credit for the writer and adapter [who now receives a ‘teleplay credit’],” he explained. “I wrote a lot of letters and tried to talk to HBO and to the lawyers, through my agents and attorneys; in fact, I almost worked more on this than as a consultant during the first season.

“This matter is not only about the writers receiving proper credit, but about residuals and royalties, and that’s a shame — it’s unfair. I did everything I could think of to solve the problem, but in the end there are restrictions for source materials written in a different language.”

Now it seems the lesson was learned. The industry is increasingly showing its support for Israeli writers by giving them production credits on the shows they created, and, in some cases, creative input. So now the big question is: How to translate economic parity into political support.