The ever-increasing demand for online content has created a new market for niche programming, and the latest to try its luck is Jewzy – a Jewish film and television streaming service that launched in the United States earlier this month.
“We’re a one-stop shop Jewish add-on,” CEO and founder Jeremy Wootliff tells Haaretz, speaking from his office in London. Though the Jewzy.tv site will offer 100 ever-changing titles, there’s no pretence at replacing the big boys dominating the market. “We’re absolutely not instead of Netflix,” the 59-year-old says. “We’re not in competition with them. We’re a ‘nice to have’ Jewish virtual community for people who like Jewish-oriented entertainment.”
Cheekily announcing that it supplies “chicken soup for the eyes,” Jewzy’s tagline to reflect its range of content is “From Oy to Joy” – from award-winning festival dramas to an exclusive, digitally remastered version of the 2003 cult comedy “The Hebrew Hammer.” Wootliff points out that the product tends to lean more toward “joy” than “oy” these days, “because we all need a good laugh right now.”
A British television producer who previously worked at Reuters and CBS, Wootliff has been in the production business for 30 years. In the mid-1990s he established Worthwhile TV, which became the U.K.’s biggest producer of Jewish-oriented programming, mostly creating films for Jewish charities.
For years, though, his dream was to establish a platform offering solely Jewish content.
“About 15 years ago I tried to start a project like this, but the technology wasn’t really up to it and it was very expensive to get something like this off the ground,” he recalls. But as streaming took off, the idea reemerged – alongside mounting frustration about existing content.
“I was increasingly aware of the fake news about Israel, about Jews,” Wootliff explains. “I saw complete nonsense in various outlets and thought, ‘Where’s the Jewish response?’ In the U.K., Israel didn’t have a voice outside of the Jewish community – certainly not on television.”
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Wootliff believes that the visual medium has the power to reflect diversity and change mind-sets. “It’s where you can show the breadth of who we are,” he says. “Clearly, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly, but most Jews are good people and mean well, I’d like to think.” This will be reflected mostly through self-referential humor in series such as the Middle Eastern stand-up show “The Cradle of Comedy” and previously unseen clips from the BBC’s “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”
Another feature lacking in today’s Jewish media landscape, he believes, is content aimed at younger audiences.
“When you look at what’s available on American TV for Jewish viewers, it isn’t very modern or cool,” Wootliff argues. “One of the ways to get people engaged with their Judaism is to offer them things they want to see and do, things that are attractive to them. And there wasn’t anything like that on television anywhere in the world. That’s how the project began.”
When the technology caught up with his ambitions, Wootliff decided to pursue the streaming option – backed up by a survey he conducted showing that over 70 percent of Jewish Americans said they would watch and pay for such a service.
The Jewzy concept was finally established about a year ago, with seed investment coming from four private businessmen from northwest London. Extensive curation of content followed, with more team members coming on board from all over the globe – including Hollywood-based Todd Lituchy as licensing and acquisitions executive, digital director Hallel Silverman from Tel Aviv, and head of production Yan Fisher-Romanovsky in Florida.
Similar initiatives are already available, including Izzy – an Israeli streaming platform specializing in Israeli movies, TV shows and documentaries – but Wootliff believes his brand is different enough to stand out. “We do the Israeli as well, and the American and the French and the Spanish,” he says, noting that Jewzy has a more diaspora-oriented flavor “so you get more bang for your buck.”
Perhaps muddying its brand a little, he adds that Jewzy doesn’t necessarily show “Jewish” television or films, but instead content that the curators deem to be of interest to Jewish audiences.
Jewzy’s initial slate includes “Dying Laughing,” a documentary analyzing stand-up comedy, starring Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman; an award-winning 3-D animation short called “Hamsa,” by Pixar animator Daniela Dwek; and Hollywood features such as “Dark Horse” and “The Double,” the latter starring Jesse Eisenberg.
The company hopes funds will roll in from subscriptions, investments and sponsorships, with a subscription to the site costing either $7.99 a month or $59.99 yearly. “If we have 8,000 subscriptions within a year we’d be very happy,” Wootliff says, adding, “that’s modest, but it’s a realistic start.”
Jewzy is joining the streaming market at a time when the sheer abundance of options – Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV, Disney+ and HBO Max, to name but five – is threatening to overload American viewers and their pocketbooks. Despite the apparent saturation, Wootliff insists that where there’s demand and a good product, people will still buy into it.
“In the niche or special interest streaming market, there’s more or less every interest catered for: fishing, horse and country, tennis, sci-fi. There are Muslim and Christian [stations]. Even Hamas has its own channel,” he says. “And I’m thinking – where are the Jews? So, here are the Jews.”
Existing Jewish channels such as Chabad TV or Shalom TV are mainly religion-focused and aren’t particularly exciting or mainstream, according to Wootliff. “None of them are catering for a young millennial audience,” he says – and a key part of his target audience.
With a logo and color scheme bearing a striking resemblance to a certain streaming giant, Wootliff admits that the U.S. company with annual revenues in excess of $20 billion was an obvious point of reference. “We’re trying to stay away from Netflix and yet we’re obviously inspired by Netflix,” he explains. “But what we’re trying to do is be different – because everything in the Jewish community is blue and white and we want to stand out” graphically.
What makes a show Jewish?
We shouldn’t compare niche online services like Jewzy and Izzy to the Netflixes of this world, but instead look at other small-scale services, says Neta Alexander, assistant professor of film and media at Colgate University, New York (and a former Haaretz writer). These range from BritBox, for British television series, to Shudder, for horror films.
“The difficulty is that unlike, say, English drama, which is easy to define and distribute, it’s hard to tell what makes a specific show Jewish or of interest to Jewish audiences,” Alexander says.
She also highlights unsuccessful streaming ventures such as FilmStruck, an online niche service that existed between 2016 and 2018 and was supposed to be a “one-stop shop” for cinephiles, but wasn’t able to convince enough people to fork out for a subscription; or Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s short-lived streaming platform that was supposed to be the next big thing for short-form content on smartphones, but famously collapsed after burning through some $2 billion of funding.
“Because of the pandemic, we’re all spending more hours in front of the screen and streaming content much more than we used to,” Alexander says. “But at the same time, it’s a very competitive industry.”
While currently focused on curation for the American Jewish market, Wootliff hopes to bring in high-end Hollywood content alongside in-house production of original content – aspirations that will only materialize if and when he receives extra funding.
Without original and exclusive content, Jewzy will have to fight hard for its existence, according to Alexander. “The ‘big boys’ already offer selected categories,” she points out. “If I’m a Jewish American, I can go to Netflix and just search for Jewish shows and watch ‘Unorthodox’ [about a Hasidic woman trying to leave the community], so technically I can have my own private ‘Jewzy’ on my Netflix homepage.”
For Jewish communities who would like to rekindle or strengthen their connection with Israel or the Diaspora, there may be several thousand in the United States willing to pay the subscription fee, Alexander believes. “But for a broader audience that can make that viable in terms of a long-term business model, I think they’ll need to keep having more investors,” she observes.
Wootliff’s ultimate goal is broader than just U.S. households. He sees his mission as to bring Jews together, from all walks of life and all levels of faith, by providing everything from comedy to drama, news to Holocaust-related programming.
“With community centers and synagogues forced to curtail their activities as a result of the pandemic, Jewzy will be a new way to connect to and celebrate our heritage now and long after this crisis,” he says.
Other exclusive content includes “Funny Monday,” an original English-speaking stand-up show by Israeli comedian Shahar Hason, and “J-Town-Hall America,” a talk show featuring politicians, academics and community leaders speaking on topical matters of importance to Jewish audiences worldwide.
Wootliff concludes with a big promise. “We’re going to bring the Diaspora together. We’ll link American Jews to the Jews in Israel and France and Britain,” he says, while pointing out that “one doesn’t have to be Jewish to like what we’re doing.”