Master Class: Israelis and Angelenos learn the secrets of show business

How do you get anyone in Hollywood to return your phone call? How do you sell an idea at a pitch meeting without seeming arrogant, desperate or, worst of all, boring? How do you protect your idea or script as it makes the rounds of producers and agents? And when that agent or producer finally returns your call, how are you supposed to behave?

Such quintessential “biz” questions proved to be hot topics for a select group of 25 film and television professionals from Los Angeles and Tel Aviv as they sat in a conference room July 13 at The Jewish Federation’s Goldsmith Center. It was still early in the morning on the first full day of the ninth annual Master Class in Cinema and Television, but already people seemed to be in the throes of furious note-taking as they listened to tricks-of-the-trade advice from several Hollywood veterans.

“I want to help you get through in Tinseltown,” summed up Joan Hyler, a prominent talent manager and former senior vice president at the William Morris Agency. “The ‘let’s have lunch and never call you back’ experience happens to so many people, but it doesn’t have to happen to you.”

“We’ll give you the inside track of the inside track,” promised Danny Sussman, another formidable talent manager who co-chaired the class with Hyler. And to the Israelis present, he added: “As pertains to film and TV, you have the thirstiest community.”

Taking place for the first time in Los Angeles rather than Tel Aviv, the master class has become one of the flagship programs of The Federation’s decade-old Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership — a city-to-city exchange of culture, education, health and human services. Spread out over 10 days, the class offered its mostly midcareer participants a whirlwind itinerary of panel discussions, lunches and dinners with seasoned Hollywood artists, executives and agents.

This year’s lineup of experts included David Sacks, who’s written for shows like “The Simpsons” and “3rd Rock From the Sun”; Gail Berman-Masters, former president of Paramount Pictures; Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, and Jon Avnet, director and producer of films like “Risky Business” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

“Not everyone in Hollywood is willing to jump on a plane and fly to Israel for two weeks,” said Jill Hoyt, The Federation’s senior director of international programs. “We wanted to provide even more opportunities for entertainment people to share their expertise.”

Calling the master class “a very successful model for engagement with Israel,” Hoyt pointed to past participants who went on to achieve significant international acclaim, like Nadav Schirman, whose award-winning film, “The Champagne Spy,” recently received its North American premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and Dror Shaul, director of “Sweet Mud,” which won this year’s Sundance grand jury prize.

“I firmly believe that the next zeitgeist in the movie industry is coming from Israel,” said Hyler, who traveled to Tel Aviv in May to give a “mini” master class. “Israel is starting to experience in film what Italy did after World War II, then the French in the ’50s and England in the ’60s. Feeding and growing this exploding industry in Israel is very important to me.”

Hyler presided over that first morning’s proceedings, which included Q-and-As with Sacks and producer Zvi Howard Rosenman, who spoke about the difficulty of getting Jewish-themed work produced in Hollywood and how “this business is all about tenacity.”

“I’ve made 29 movies,” he said, “but I still wake up every morning praying to God to get me through the day, because 99.9 percent of the time, you’re dealing with rejection.”

Sacks focused on Hollywood etiquette.

“You never sit down and go right into your pitch,” he said. “Look at the person’s office. Comment on their paintings. The more they like you, the more they’ll like your idea.”

When discussing the dynamics of a television writers’ room, Sacks emphasized the importance of “never speaking definitively and outright saying you don’t like someone else’s idea.”

This elicited some incredulous yet understandable responses from the Israeli contingent, since “no” simply means “no” in their country.

“Look, this is the culture of Hollywood,” Sacks added in his defense. “If you use the Israeli model, you’ll get nowhere.”

For the most part, both the Tel Aviv and Los Angeles participants seemed very eager to learn from whomever took the podium. “We’re still in our baby steps, and they’re in middle age,” award-winning Tel Aviv-based actor and director Oded Kotler observed of Hollywood professionals. “These are the top people in the world for my field, and I feel that Israel still has a lot to learn from them.”

Arik Kneller, an established Tel Aviv-based agent who represents top Israeli talent like Joseph Cedar and Etgar Keret, decided to submit an application for the master class because

“I’ve gone as far as I can in establishing my network in Israel. Now I need to meet people in L.A.,” he said.

Other participants mentioned that it’s equally, if not more important, for them to network with colleagues and peers on similar rungs of the professional ladder.

“I want to meet people who struggle with the same issues as I do,” said Ravit Markus, an Israeli documentary filmmaker who now lives in Los Angeles. “I’m really looking to form good relationships of support and friendship.”

Markus echoed Hyler when she first welcomed the group and issued her “most important” piece of advice.

“Take the time over the next 10 days to schmooze with each other,” she commanded. “This business is all about relationships.”

For more information about the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership Master Class, visit

The Master Class

Not all of them were Jewish, but they were definitely the chosen people — five Los Angeles and 33 Israeli film students brought together for a two-week “master class” in screenwriting at Tel Aviv University. Held under the auspices of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles partnership, the class was designed to give a boost to Israel’s film industry by improving the capabilities of Israel’s future scriptwriters. A further aim — a subtext, to use the screenwriting term — was to strengthen sympathy for Israel among American film professionals.

The “master class” consisted of two weeks of all-day classes, nearly as many contact hours as two semesters. Aimed at “teaching writers to write,” the class was taught by two Emmy Award winners from Los Angeles, Alan Armer of Cal State Northridge , who created and wrote the TV series “The Fugitive” and “The Untouchables,” and David Howard, founder of the USC screenwriting department, whose writing credits include “My Friend Joe” and the animated series “Rugrats.” The overall project was organized and coordinated by Dr. Judy Marlane, chair of the Radio, Television and Film Department at Northridge and author of the newly published, “Women in Television News Revisited.”

Does Israel’s film industry need big brothers in Hollywood? It certainly couldn’t hurt. Israel’s film industry is small and produces few feature films — only seven or eight a year, estimates Israeli director Eli Cohen, who has collaborated on projects with American filmmakers. Typical budgets for Israeli films are well under $1 million, a fraction of what most Hollywood films cost. And these films do poorly at the box office, even in Israel, says Tammy Glaser, another observer of the local film scene.

The scripts for Israeli feature films, Glaser adds diplomatically, “leave a lot of room for improvement.” Israeli-based Glaser, a former Angeleno who produced “It Was a Wonderful Life,” the story of six middle-class, homeless women, also noted that lack of money, an emphasis on documentaries and the appeal of television, make it “virtually impossible to get a feature film made here.”

With that in mind, the 33 aspiring Israeli screenwriters knew they were storming the battlements. Consequently, they were thrilled to learn that the half-dozen best scripts to come out of the class — as well as attached writers — will be brought to Los Angeles. The writers will have a chance to work on their projects under the supervision of leading Hollywood professionals.

They might also find, suggests Cohen, that in Israel, their most likely market is not in feature films after all, but in television. Calling the idea of the master class “very valuable,” Cohen suggests that it would give a boost mostly to Israeli TV, which is constantly hungry for good writers for documentaries, soap operas and dramas.

For all participants, the class was an exercise in culture-jumping. The Israelis, all majors in screenwriting at local universities, constituted a diverse group that included Tel Aviv cosmopolitans and kibbutznikim, Jews from the Galilee and the Negev, and even a Maronite Christian woman from an Arab village near Safed. For the American students and faculty, culture shock was even greater. After they were set down jet-lagged into foreign territory, they had the challenge of integrating with or teaching students whose background and training was unfamiliar to them.

But by the end of the first week, all initial apprehensions had been set aside. After American students were paired with “adopting” Israeli students, the group came to feel itself as an integrated whole, and everyone was working hard. Things were going so well, in fact, that students, faculty and coordinators were developing plans for a second master class.

For next year, participants see a need for smaller groups and more teachers, since, they all agree, writing cannot be taught effectively in a lecture format. Another necessary improvement will be better and quicker translation. Although all the Israelis spoke English, they wrote in Hebrew, creating a logjam in preparing their assignments for class use and evaluation. It was also too bad, participants felt, that the American students had no background in Israeli films and filmmaking (the Israelis knew American films quite well), and that none of the teachers came from the Israeli industry. Nonetheless, everyone agrees, this was a pilot project that is likely to take off.

The five Los Angeles students who participated in this year’s master class were Maria Berns (UCSD); Robert Davenport (UCLA), winner of the UCLA Screenwriters Showcase Award in 1997 and 1998; Fullbright scholar Tony Kellam (UCLA); Beverly Neufeld (UCLA), head of the Drama department at the Compton Magnet High school for the Visual and Performing Arts; and Jaime David Silverman (UCLA).

The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles partnership is sponsored by the L.A. Jewish Federation and the Municipality of Tel Aviv.