February 25, 2020

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 http://www.jewishla.org/Film_and_Television_Master_Class.cfm