Friday, November 23, 2007

A little bit of Hollywood
By Nirit Anderman

"We saw only a small excerpt of the film, but, wow, it was impressive," says Hollywood producer Donald De Line ("The Italian Job") to actor Oshri Cohen. He describes a scene from the movie "Beaufort" that he watched only a few hours before. "Oh, that was you?" He is surprised to discover that Cohen played the role of the outpost commander in the film. "That was so powerful. I can't wait to see the whole movie. It is a troubling movie in the positive sense of the word."

The conversation between the two took place last Saturday evening in a Tel Aviv restaurant, at a reception in honor of several Hollywood bigwigs, who came to Israel for a five-day visit. De Line asked when "Beaufort" was released to local movie theaters, wondered how it was received and was surprised to hear that despite Cohen's tender age (he is 23 years old), he has already starred in a number of feature-length films. Cohen, for his part, took advantage of the opportunity to introduce De Line to his friend, actor Ofer Shechter, who stood nearby them throughout their conversation.

Even before that, on Saturday afternoon, the Israeli actors, directors, writers and producers thronged to the Tel Aviv Cinematheque to meet the guests from Hollywood. They wanted to ask the visitors how to find work in Hollywood and hoped to hear professional advice. Some probably also fantasized about making a new acquaintance who would open a few doors in Los Angeles.

On the stage at the Cinematheque, alongside De Line and moderator Oded Kotler, sat other important people from the city famous for filmmaking: Sony Pictures Entertainment Chair Amy Pascal; David Guggenheim, the director of the Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth;" producer Nina Jacobson, former president of Buena Vista Motion Picture Group; director Brad Silverling ("City of Angels," "Casper"); agent George Freeman; as well as the delegation's organizer, David Lonner, of the William Morris talent and literary agency. The group had come at the initiative of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

The visitors entered the auditorium after listening to a review about the status of filmmaking in Israel, accompanied by the screening of excerpts from four selected films: "Beaufort," "The Band's Visit," "Jellyfish" and "Noodle." The audience in the hall bombarded them with questions. Each time a different person asked a question and each time the question was worded differently, but it seemed that overall, the content remained the same: What do we need to do for Hollywood to read our screenplays, see the films we have made and let us be a part of the American productions, asked the local artists.

Pascal, the delegation's most senior member, clearly stated that Hollywood is currently increasing its investments in films made in various place around the world. "These days a lot of money is coming from international films, so we are aware of the importance of actors from abroad and international casting," she said.

De Line tried to offer hope to those present by mentioning "Body of Lies," directed by Ridley Scott, which is currently being filmed in Morocco, with American stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, and Israelis Alon Abutbul and Clara Khoury. The other panel members agreed that today, more than ever before, Hollywood is looking for talent beyond America's shores.

Still, the artists in the hall wanted to speak in practical terms - whom should they approach in Hollywood to find work in the filmmaking industry there. The guests made it clear that there is no point in sending them a script by regular mail or e-mail. They do not read such scripts, for fear of future law suits and claims that they stole ideas. "We read only those scripts that we have ordered," said Lonner, but hastened to remind everyone that there is no barrier in Hollywood that personal connections cannot overcome.

"If [Israel Film Foundation director] Katriel Shechori or [head of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem] Renen Schorr, professional people whom we know and trust, were to phone us and say, 'This is something very special that is worth reading,' we would read it," said Lonner.

Pascal was the most forthright and direct of all the members of the delegation and reminded everyone of Hollywood's main guiding principle. "We do everything we believe will make money," she said. "We are constantly looking for good artists who are different, who have a special voice. They are the people who make a lot of money." As befits someone who heads one of the big studios, she stressed the word "lots." At Sony they are always looking for people with talent, she said, adding, "Not only because of the strike. Whoever writes, I will be happy to accept his [business] card."

Although the audience laughed in response, Pascal was later asked if she had been serious. Her answer was disappointing - she had been joking. This response may not have gladdened the local screenwriters, but at least it breathed a little life into the somewhat drowsy event. Pascal then proceeded to present the position of the studios' heads concerning the screenwriters' strike, in the clearest terms ("The writers want more money, and we don't want to give it to them"), expressed her lack of enthusiasm for the subject ("Do we have to talk about this?"), and spurred a reaction from Silverling, who hastened to present the striking screenwriters' position.

Toward the end of the event, Ofer Shechter, who had been sitting in a back row of the theater, stood up and asked what an Israeli actor has to do to be noticed in Hollywood. The visitors explained that the best thing for him to do was to continue working and wait for someone to notice him, to try using connections, or to come to Los Angeles himself, in order to try and blaze a trail for himself there.

Only Guggenheim felt the need at some point to object to the dialogue being conducted around him. "Before we came to this hall we watched excerpts from four Israeli movies, and all of us agreed that they were really good films," he said. "All of the clips we saw contained pure cinematic moments, the kind we don't get to see often. This is rare for us, just as it is rare here. I want to tell you that in my early years in Hollywood I tried to find a way to break through, but today I think it is a waste of time. What you have to do is that hardest thing - to sit and think what my next story will be, how I will find it, how I will make it my next film. Leave your thoughts of how to get into Hollywood, and simply make your movies. If you make a good one, even if it is a small, personal film, if it is good enough, enough people will see it.