January 23, 2019

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.

Howard Rosenman: Award-Winning Producer Opens Up

What’s it like to be a gay Israel lover in Hollywood? To act with Sean Penn? To be on top of your game at 74? Hollywood wunderkind Howard Rosenman shares his life’s scoops.

Follow David Suissa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Check out this episode!

Bringing a Gay Love Story to the Screen

Armie Hammer (foreground) and Timothée Chalamet in “Call Me By Your Name.” Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media

Veteran movie producer Howard Rosenman has long championed gay characters and gay themes in movies. His latest film, “Call Me by Your Name,” which made a splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, is a tender love story about a teenage boy’s summer romance with a young man.

It’s set in the summer of 1983 in the north of Italy and focuses on an Italian-American family living in a 17th-century villa. Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is a precocious 17-year-old who spends his days swimming, reading, transcribing classical music and flirting with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel).

Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a renowned antiquities professor who invites as a house guest Oliver (Armie Hammer), a charming but arrogant 24-year-old American doctoral student. Elio and Oliver don’t get along at first, but they bond over their shared Jewish identity. Over the course of six weeks, Elio realizes his desire for Oliver and seduces him.

The movie, directed by Italian director Luca Guadagnino, is based on a 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman. Rosenman, who previously had enjoyed Aciman’s 1995 memoir, “Out of Egypt,” about his Jewish family in Egypt, said he was particularly moved by a scene in which Elio’s father sympathizes with his son and tells him to treasure the time he has with Oliver.

“When I read that in the novel, I said to myself, ‘I have to buy [the rights to] this book,’ because everyone wants a father like that — gay, straight, whatever,” Rosenman said. “I didn’t have a father like that. When I came out, he was very unhappy. We eventually reconciled but I knew that scene would resonate with everyone, which it’s doing.”

The 72-year-old producer, born Zvi Howard Rosenman, comes from a long line of Orthodox Jews.

Some critics have drawn attention to the age difference between Elio and Oliver, but Rosenman dismissed those concerns. “The movie is about the Elio character seducing Armie’s character, not the other way around, so it never felt uncomfortable to me,” he said.

The film also ran into some social media controversy when Sony Pictures UK tweeted an ad for the movie with a picture of Elio and Marzia looking passionately at each other. People were quick to ridicule the distributor’s seeming attempt to fool viewers into thinking it was a straight love story. But Rosenman said he has no doubt the movie will have mainstream appeal.

“It’s resonating with straight women and straight men. And millennials, they don’t give a s—. They look at love as love,” he said. “And this is a movie that’s not about victimization, it’s not about sickness, it’s not about feeling guilt. It’s about falling in love with someone and expressing sexuality. It’s not about judgment.”

The 72-year-old producer, born Zvi Howard Rosenman, comes from a long line of Orthodox Jews. His parents were seventh-generation Jerusalemites who were born in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. They became Modern Orthodox when they came to the United States and raised Rosenman in Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y.

“When I was growing up, to be gay and religious was awful. You couldn’t admit it and everybody was awful. The entire Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities were awful,” he said. “Now I go to a Shabbat dinner here in West Hollywood with 300 gay guys wearing yarmulkes and singing ‘Shalom Aleichem.’ ”

Rosenman originally planned to become a doctor. He interrupted his medical school training to serve as a medic for the Israel Defense Forces in the Six-Day War.

“I met [composer] Leonard Bernstein, who told me, ‘You should leave medical school and go into the arts.’ And I listened to him, and he introduced me to Katharine Hepburn and Stephen Sondheim, and I worked for Katharine Hepburn on Broadway,” he said.

Thus began his long career in entertainment. Some of the more popular films that Rosenman has produced include “Father of the Bride” (1991), starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992) and “The Family Man” (2000), starring Nicolas Cage.

In May, Rosenman received the Trailblazer Award from JQ International, a Jewish LGBTQ organization, for his work in drawing attention to gay characters and gay issues in film. These include the documentary “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt,” which won the Peabody Award and the 1990 Academy Award for best documentary feature. His film “The Celluloid Closet” also won the Peabody Award and was nominated for four Emmy Awards.

Rosenman has been in Hollywood long enough to know there is a dark side to the industry. Ask him if the recent spate of sexual harassment allegations come up a lot in conversation and he’ll interrupt and correct you: “It’s the only topic of conversation.”

“The whole thing is tragic, for the women who have been assaulted, the men who have been assaulted, and the horrible things that these predators have done,” he said.  “It’s hard to wrap your brain around it. And every minute someone else comes out with another accusation. These careers are being ruined in a nanosecond now. People have spent 30, 40 years building up careers and because they were so stupid … this is what’s happening.”

The accusations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Brett Ratner, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and a widening web of powerful men in entertainment will “totally change the industry,” Rosenman predicted:

“It’ll change a lot of industries. It’s a sea change. This is a critical moment in the history of the culture, because this kind of stuff will not be acceptable anymore.”

Meanwhile, Rosenman is exploring a relatively new career — acting. He was cast by Gus Van Sant to act alongside Sean Penn and James Franco in the 2008 biopic “Milk” about gay activist Harvey Milk. He has since acted in eight other films, including one that he’s producing called “Shepherd,” about a German shepherd that saves a Jewish boy from a concentration camp.

But his focus still is very much on producing films that explore marginalized characters and themes, like the gay love story at the center of “Call Me by Your Name.” It’s one of several gay-themed movies hitting cinemas this year — including “God’s Own Country,” “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” and “Beach Rats” — and comes on the heels of last year’s Oscar-winning drama “Moonlight.” Had he tried to make “Call Me by Your Name” a decade ago, Rosenman doubts he would have succeeded.

“I could’ve produced it but it would have had a very small release and a very small resonance. But because the times have changed so drastically … a 6-year-old, 7-year-old kid today, when you say you’re getting married, the first thing they ask is, ‘Are you marrying a man or a woman?’ Kids today don’t have those judgments. It’s a different world.”

“Call Me by Your Name” opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 24.