David Lonner: Hollywood’s Outspoken Israel Supporter
David Lonner is a Hollywood mogul who is also an unwavering and outspoken supporter of Israel. A committed philanthropist, he’s a former and founding board member of the Phase One Cancer Foundation and a former board member of Pardes and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. Today he sits on the board of Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel.
In Tinseltown, though, he’s best known as the founder of the Oasis Media Group, where he represents writers, directors and producers. He began his career at ICM, moving on to Creative Artists Agency, Endeavor and William Morris. He is responsible for discovering and nurturing the careers of many writers and directors, including J.J. Abrams, Alexander Payne, Brad Bird, Jon Turteltaub, and the late Audrey Wells, who died from cancer on Oct. 4, one day shy of the opening of her best-reviewed movie, “The Hate U Give.”
I spoke with Lonner about his love of Israel, his long-standing career in the entertainment industry, and the passing of Wells.
Howard Rosenman: I am so sorry about Audrey’s passing. What a great talent she was, and you single-handedly nurtured her extremely successful career from the beginning.
David Lonner: Audrey was a powerful force in my professional life. She hung on for way longer than any doctor predicted and she accomplished so much while she was struggling with her illness. “The Hate U Give” is a fitting epitaph as it speaks to everything she was about — [a] loving parent and powerful social action facilitator.
HR: You worked with all the major Hollywood agencies. Did that give you a competitive advantage when you started Oasis?
“Israel is a place that has always inspired me creatively, spiritually and professionally.
As I like to say when I’m there: ‘I’m going to the Fortress of Solitude for Jedi training.’ ”
DL: I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at William Morris, CAA, ICM, Endeavor. Since I was in the trenches with all of them, agents are my closest allies and contacts. I took pride as an agent who didn’t poach. I built my business from the ground up. The predatory nature of the agency business wore me down and I wanted to get back to what I love: artists and stories. Oasis is what I wanted to manifest — a place of peace and tranquility to do one’s best work.
HR: You have discovered and represented many of today’s iconic writers and directors. Can you share any of those stories?
DL: My goal, when I became an agent, was to discover my generation of great filmmakers. I scouted the student film schools, and read and watched everything I could get my hands on. Alexander Payne’s student film, “The Passion of Martin” made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and caused me to lose sleep because of the excitement that I felt in discovering a new and fresh voice.
J.J. Abrams (Jeffrey in those days), was working as an intern for a television production company. A friend called me up and said that this intern had gotten a deal to write a script at Disney and that he needed an agent. I told him that he shouldn’t let anyone represent him until they understand his voice.
Jon Turteltaub had made a film called “Three Ninjas” that Disney picked up and there was an optimism and sweetness that was undeniable. Jon has this unique ability to make his characters funny and loveable — like him. I put him into the film “Cool Runnings” and he has been batting almost a thousand since.
HR: You are part of a handful of vocal vociferous Zionists in Hollywood. How did that happen?
DL: I grew up in a warm, Conservative Jewish home. My father escaped Germany at the age of 5 and my mother was born in Israel. I rebelled against my religious upbringing and was known in my family as the “Shabbos goy” because I would start driving on Shabbat and I couldn’t wait to taste a cheeseburger.
However, it was the semester that I spent at Tel Aviv University where I had an epiphany. The great professor Itamar Rabinovich was my teacher of the Arab-Israeli conflict and I reviewed my notes and textbook assignments like they were a Robert Ludlum or John le Carre novel. It dawned on me that I’d better do what I love or I’ll be a mediocre professional like I was a mediocre student. This is a long way of saying that Israel is a place that has always inspired me creatively, spiritually and professionally. As I like to say when I’m there: “I’m going to the Fortress of Solitude for Jedi training.”
HR: How do you advocate for Israel without offending the predominantly progressive activists in Hollywood?
DL: It’s the easiest thing for me to do because it comes from my heart. It is a part of me. I have genuine roots there and when I walk into Ben Gurion Airport after that 14-hour flight, I feel like a light socket that has been plugged into an energy source. I’m home.
As for the [Donald] Trump administration, we Israel-loving Jews should look at Trump not only as [he] relates to Israel but also as American citizens and how the administration views and treats the rest of the world. We are Jews who love Israel, and its existence is a priority, but we are also citizens of the world and tikkun olam is our central tenant.
HR: Why do you think Hollywood has an almost total disaffection about Israel, besides the loathing of the Benjamin Netanyahu government?
DL: In 2006, after Israel’s war with Hezbollah, I was very concerned about the ignorance and apathy the Hollywood community had in its understanding of Israel’s plight of being surrounded on all sides by people who want her destroyed. I made a decision to pay for tastemakers and influencers to come to Israel with me and see its magnificence in person. I was looking to build critical mass for Israel in Hollywood. After three of these trips, my competitors in the agency business who also loved Israel put together their own trips. For me, that was the point.
HR: Do you think there will ever be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
DL: Two words: Faith and diplomacy. We need faith that it will happen and diplomacy to make it happen. With all its flaws and glory, Israel is my roots and inspiration. My father would tell stories of growing up Jewish in Germany and even in Queens, N.Y., of the racism and anti-Semitic behavior he had to face before Israel came into modern existence. I’ve probably been too dogmatic in preaching that to my children over the years but Israel’s survival is the most important thing to me, next to their health and well being.
Howard Rosenman has produced more than 43 movies, including “Call Me By Your Name.” He founded Project Angel Food.