North American Studios Look to Israel for Next Animation Hit
JNS.org – In 2008, Yoram Honig was a producer and director living in Jerusalem, fresh off his first international hit, when the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) came to him with a challenge: build a film industry from scratch in Israel’s capital.
“When we started here, was nothing in Jerusalem,” he said during an interview in his office in the Talbiya neighborhood.
Now, the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, which Honig heads as an arm of the JDA, pumps 9 million shekels ($2.36 million) a year into the local cinema industry and shells out millions more to international companies filming there, and his office is decorated with posters of films produced and shot on his watch in Jerusalem.
This week, the fund announced the opening of its newest frontier. Beginning this year, it will connect Israeli content creators with three major North American animation studios to turn local intellectual property into globally marketed television series.
In October, representatives from two Canadian children’s television companies — Nelvana-Corus Entertainment and DHX Media — along with Sony Pictures Animation are set to come to Jerusalem to scout content from Israeli artists.
“It’s great to see a universal medium like animation expanded with production capabilities and growing talent in places like Jerusalem,” Sony Pictures Animation producer Rick Mischel said in a statement.
The fund’s Los Angeles-based representative Oded Turgeman helped hammer out the Hollywood deal.
“Think about Jerusalem as a development hub for the next big idea – like the next Pokemon being developed in Jerusalem,” he told JNS.org, referring to the blockbuster Japanese children’s gaming franchise.
Turgeman said the animation deal builds on a free trade agreement between Israel and Canada that allows studios working between the two countries to reap the benefit of subsidies in both.
“Quite amazingly, we realized that doing a co-production on animation between Canada and Israel is the best financial opportunity in the world,” he said.
Ken Faier, senior vice president and general manager of DHX Media, said in a statement that the partnership would draw on the enterprising spirit of both nations.
“[We’re] looking forward to seeing how the JDA and the animation community in Jerusalem grows based on the right mix of private enterprise and government incentives,” he said. “Canada has proven that with the right mix of entrepreneurialism, creativity and an encouraging financial subsidy system, great companies can grow.”
Between now and October, Turgeman and Honig are briefing Israeli artists on what the studios are looking for in their next animation hit. The hope is to duplicate the success of Israel’s tech scene — which relies heavily on intellectual property revenues that pay long-term dividends — in Jerusalem among animators.
“All these companies are starting to look at Israel as a content powerhouse,” said Turgeman.
The fund already offers a 35-percent cash rebate on animated films produced in Jerusalem.
But the upcoming partnerships offer Israeli companies the chance to take a share of revenue from their content, instead of just getting paid for their work. Successful pitches will also receive $100,000 in development funds from the studios.
In his office, a retrofitted lepers colony, Honig used Disney as an example.
“When you get from Disney money for your work, it’s okay — but it’s money for your work,” said Honig. “If you’re partners with Disney, the sky is the limit.”
If the sky is the limit, the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund has been a ground up enterprise.
Before he set up shop, Honig estimates that of 700 films produced in Israel, just 30 had been shot in Jerusalem — less than 5 percent. Since it was established in 2008, the fund has helped bankroll about 50 feature films.
The formula for success, it turned out, was a simple one: for every dollar a qualifying film spends on production in Jerusalem, the studio gets back 60 cents in the form of a simple cash rebate.
The 60-percent cash rebate turns out to be the margin that separates a profitable film from an unprofitable one, particularly in the small market for Hebrew-language films.
That’s the case for “Ha’Edut,” which is expected to be released this fall, according to its producer, Yoav Roeh.
“[The fund] believed in this film before anyone else believed in it,” Roeh said.
“Ha’Edut,” which translates to “The Testimony,” tells the story of a Holocaust researcher, Yoel, fighting to stop construction on a shopping mall he believes would stand atop a mass grave in Austira. Much of the plot necessarily takes place in Jerusalem.
“People like Yoel work in places like this,” Roeh said.
But the cash rebate certainly didn’t hurt when selecting a location: Roeh projects the fund will have contributed 1 million shekels ($260,000) to the film’s bottom line by the time it premiers.
As far as Honig is concerned, his original charge to establish a film industry in Jerusalem is a mission accomplished. As more films have been shot in Jerusalem, the necessary infrastructure has grown up around them, such as editing rooms and sound stages, he said.
The coup-de-grâce came when Natalie Portman last year chose Jerusalem as the site of her directorial debut, a Hebrew-language adaptation of the Amos Oz novel “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” More than a year later, Jerusalemites still trade in stories of sighting the star amid the capital’s winding alleys.
But as each consecutive subsidy program has manifested as a success, a Hydra-like proliferation of new projects has sprouted up.
Currently, the fund is working on launching an eastern Jerusalem counterpart to bring Israeli Arabs into the animation sector.
In addition, it’s partnering with haredi colleges to train animators under the hypothesis that the flexible hours and solo working conditions fit the unique needs of haredi workers, Honig said. Overall, he said he hopes to more than double the number of animators working in Jerusalem from 120 to 300 by the end of 2016.
His newest project is stoking the virtual and augmented reality industry in Jerusalem, hoping to make it a powerhouse for the nascent technology. Combined with the traditional animation sector, he estimates on a five-year horizon the industry will employ 2,000 people in the capital.
“We’re really going to not only be the leading city in Israel, but we’re going to be one of the five leading cities in the world in this area,” Honig said. “Write it down. Come and check me in five years.”