“Idiot! What do you think you’re doing?” the policeman shouts at a Tel Avivian who has ignored the officer’s instruction to stop. “All day long they stand here and tell you not to enter your neighborhood,” the local resident, Dan, tells Haaretz. “Sometimes you can wait for 15 minutes until they let you get home. So I continue to walk. Who has the strength for this nonsense?” Judging by the empty hummus eateries near his home, Dan is not alone in his displeasure at the situation being foisted upon local residents.
For a few days last week, the small alleyways of Kerem Hateimanim neighborhood were full of orange barricades, “No entry” tape, and legions of policemen and security guards trying to impose some kind of lockdown. Several hundred meters away, at Hatachana (the Old Train Station) opposite the beach, a huge operations hub has been established where crew members with two-way radios gather and exchange mysterious messages. White trailers have been installed nearby, from which bleary-eyed people occasionally leave or enter.
But the reason for the lockdown (here and elsewhere in the city) is not for security reasons. It is because Netflix is in town.
The streaming giant is here to film “Hit and Run,” the new series by actor-writer Lior Raz and his writing partner (and former Haaretz war correspondent) Avi Issacharoff – best known as the men behind the hit Israeli thriller “Fauda.”
“Hit and Run” is an Israeli-American series, with almost 70 Hebrew-speaking actors cast alongside Americans like Sanaa Lathan and Gregg Henry.
Due to a fear of spoilers, Netflix made all those involved in the show sign a confidentiality clause, which makes it somewhat difficult to explain the show’s plot. Suffice to say that it seems to center around a tough guy, whose world is turned upside down when his wife (played by Kaelen Ohm) is killed in a hit and run incident in Tel Aviv. The search for the killers will take Raz and his scowling features all the way to New York, where he will be assisted in his inquiries by a local journalist.
Europe in Israel
The accident scene was recently filmed in the roads around the Habima national theater in the center of Tel Aviv. This time, too, the area was barricaded off to passersby.
As it happens, an Israeli series was also filming nearby for the Kan public broadcaster – creating an amusing (or saddening) comparison between the piles of money being poured into the U.S. production and the modest local project. The catering budget alone of the Netflix show would have probably funded three episodes of the latter.
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The “Hit and Run” production also stopped off at the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater in Neve Tzedek, for a scene involving the Batsheva Dance Company. Ohm plays Danielle Wexler, an American dancer who has moved to Israel after marrying Raz’s character (who is a former special forces officer called Segev Azulai). To prepare for the role, the Canadian actress received dancing lessons from Ohad Naharin and his dance troupe. A scene that shows her performing in Batsheva’s latest show, “2019,” has been filmed for the series.
Unlike “Fauda,” which airs on Netflix internationally but is produced locally by the Israeli satellite firm Yes, “Hit and Run” (which the film crew is calling “Typhoon”) is a Netflix original – and, accordingly, has a huge budget of about $4 million per episode. Netflix has invested even greater sums in other original series (up to a reported $13 million on every episode of British royal family drama “The Crown,” for instance), but it’s an enormous sum when compared to most local productions: An episode of an high-end Israeli show will cost about $290,000.
Netflix’s insane operation in Tel Aviv will eventually spawn three episodes (the series reportedly has nine episodes in total). The streaming site really must be a big fan of Raz, since filming in Israel is particularly expensive. Aside from production and insurance costs, the salaries of Israeli actors – although not as high as in the United States – are comparable to those in Europe.
Foreign productions whose storylines involve Israel are often filmed in Malta. That was the case with Steven Spielberg’s 2005 thriller “Munich” and also “World War Z” (2013), when Brad Pitt’s scenes fleeing hordes of zombies in Jerusalem were actually shot on the Mediterranean island.
500 productions a year
City Hall made tremendous efforts to open as many doors as possible to its American guest. The municipality recognized that it couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to showcase the city to the world, and allowed the crews to work without too many restrictions. (Raz himself met up with representatives of the neighborhoods where filming was set to take place and tried to soften them up before the barricades went up.) Occasionally, there were some objection, like when Netflix was refused permission to erect a crane in the middle of Habima Square – for safety reasons and for fear of angering the square’s designer, Dani Karavan.
According to the municipality, over 500 productions are shot in the city every year. City Hall encourages this as part of its agenda of promoting the local film community and encouraging creativity. Accordingly, it does not charge production companies much for using the city. Instead, it levies a symbolic fee of just 250 shekels (about $75). However, when municipal services are required, the municipality does charge the production team rather than local taxpayers. In the case of “Hit and Run,” Netflix will pay about 13,000 shekels to hire municipal inspectors and an additional sum for sanitation services, calculated at the end of the shoot. The production also has to pay the Israel Police for any road closures.
The red carpet being rolled out for Netflix by Mayor Ron Huldai and his staff is clearly linked to the need for good public relations. Hundreds of Tourism Ministry campaigns wouldn’t be as effective for the city as a car chase through Kerem Hateimanim (which is a quintessential “old” Tel Aviv neighborhood) set to potentially reach over 160 million subscribers worldwide. This indirect marketing is a familiar and widespread tool, but not the kind that has characterized Tel Aviv until now.
Almost a decade ago, the U.S. cable network Showtime filmed parts of its hit thriller “Homeland” in Tel Aviv: The city was standing in for Beirut, which may or may not be something the White City’s marketing team would want to promote. Marketeers may have also faced a similar dilemma if legendary (and now tarnished) filmmaker Woody Allen had chosen to make a film in Tel Aviv a few years ago, after meeting Huldai to discuss the possibility. In the end, perhaps luckily, it didn’t pan out.
“For the past 10 years, we have been examining the possibility of having a major Hollywood production film in the city,” Eytan Schwartz, head of the Tel Aviv Global department at the municipality, tells Haaretz. “In every city where a production of this size is shot, the benefit is twofold: First, to the local film industry, which gets to learn practices and working methods from the world’s leading professionals. And second, there’s a tremendous image and advertising benefit – which is called the ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ effect,” he says, referring to the 2008 Woody Allen movie filmed in the Catalonian capital. “When a film is made in a city outside of the United States,” he adds, “that city gains a major advantage in the level of interest, tourism, international conferences and investments.”
Schwartz explains that the biggest problem Tel Aviv encountered as it sought to lure a Hollywood production was the harsh economic reality that anyone who wants a film in their city must pay the production company millions of dollars – and it was clear that little old Tel Aviv-Jaffa could not (and should not) be spending public money on such a project.
But five years ago, something seismic happened, Schwartz says: Netflix shattered the paradigm that only English-speaking Hollywood productions can attract large audiences. “It turns out that viewers are willing to watch a series filmed in a distant land, in an esoteric language they don’t know. ‘Fauda’ turned Lior Raz into a huge star and Israel into a legitimate and desirable venue for filming,” Schwartz says.
“From what we understand,” he adds, “Hit and Run” will be “a paean to the city – and there is no amount of money that could buy exposure like this.”
Where’s the regulation?
Schwartz’s words are right, to a point. The local film and television industry is certainly having a field day with its production crews in high demand and getting well paid for their services. The money distributed among tourism services is also significant – especially at this (off-peak) time of the year.
However, looking at the bigger picture, Netflix is essentially an imperialist organization that is chain-sawing off the branch on which local film and television industries across the world are sitting. The reason is rooted in the company’s tremendous economic power, which allows it to create an economic model of “pay a little, get a lot.” And so, for the sum of up to 61 shekels a month, the subscriber receives a huge choice of films and shows. At the same time, many viewers – in Israel and abroad – are abandoning their own television content providers, leading directly to a significant reduction in local original productions. In Israel, this is reflected by the continued decline in the number of subscribers to the local cable and satellite channels (Hot and Yes, respectively).
In the past year, for example, original productions in Israel suffered because budgets for the broadcasting companies are directly proportionate to their revenues. In other words, when the number of subscribers declines, so does investment in original productions.
The European Union has already recognized the size of the problem, informing Netflix in 2018 that it must “devote a minimum of 30 percent” of its output to European works. Netflix slammed the ruling, but was forced to cooperate in order to continue operating in EU markets.
Israel is still lagging behind. The Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council only submitted a proposal to the Communications Ministry last week to start applying regulations on internet broadcasters (such as Partner, Cellcom TV and Netflix). This is due to the belated understanding that if the present situation were to continue, it would deliver a fatal blow to original content producers.
Netflix is arguably the strongest television company in the world today. Although it jealously guards its subscription figures, according to various estimates it has acquired a dramatic foothold in Israel too, with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Some observers claim the number could be as high as 1 million.
The current situation has created justified anxiety in the Israeli television industry, which is seeing money that could have gone to original local productions going to a U.S. media giant instead. Although Netflix will doubtless visit the Holy Land every so often to shoot a couple of episodes of a Hebrew-speaking series here, that’s not going to be enough to save an entire industry that is constantly in peril.