Yes Studios MD Danna Stern On The Israeli Drama Boom, The Future Of ‘Shtisel’ & ‘Fauda’ & Actors On The Rise

Fauda, Shtisel, Your Honor, On the Spectrum and Magpie—these are just a few of the hit series shopped globally by producer-distributor Yes Studios, Israel’s powerhouse drama conduit. Launched only four years ago, the international arm of local broadcaster Yes is on a roll. Not only does it cut remake rights around the world on its biggest properties, but it’s also seeing a growing appetite for the original versions of its shows.

Shtisel, for example, first aired locally in 2013, but has taken off globally thanks to a Netflix deal. In June, the company launched period drama The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem—its biggest investment to date, and one of Israel’s biggest ever series. Set in the early-to-mid 20th Century, the ambitious show charts the history of a family living through such storied milestones as the end of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate for Palestine, and then Israel’s war of independence.

Yes Studios’ managing director Danna Stern discusses the boom in Israeli drama and what’s next for the company…

DEADLINE: Looking back, Israel has been a growing force in the drama world for more than a decade, but there seems to be a real boom at the moment. Is the world finally catching up, or is this a particularly fertile period for Israeli drama?

DANNA STERN: Looking back, Netflix going global back in 2016 was a big technological shift—there are so many more opportunities for foreign language shows now. In Treatment [2005-8] was the first big Israeli show to get multiple adaptations. Then there was Prisoners of War [2010], which became Homeland in the U.S., and in 2016 Fauda really took off as an original-language show. Before Netflix, we were really looking to the U.S. alone, but now the audience is global. Fauda’s biggest fanbase by far is in India and Brazil.

We follow the performances of all our shows internationally. Although Netflix tends to launch them at the same time around the world, we can really see when local interest spikes, because we run our social media in English and we often get a very strong reaction. So, for example, Shtisel, which first launched years and years ago is experiencing a big Italian wave right now. It has caught on in Italy like wildfire—interviews, articles, Facebook pages, and so on.

DEADLINE: What other factors beyond Netflix account for the boom in Israeli drama?

STERN: We all produce under regulation in Israel. In the pay-TV space, Yes TV, our owner, and our pay TV competitor HOT, have to spend 8 percent of our revenues on original Hebrew-language production. Free-to-air channels have to spend 15 percent. In the last few years, the state broadcaster KAN has started to do very well in scripted content. So, there’s a consistent flow of money into production. There’s also a generation now who grew up with these broadcasters showing Israeli, U.S. and British shows, so that generation thought, hey, we could do that. We have more film and TV schools per capita than any other nation—I think we’re into double figures. When I went to school there was only one. So, there has been a lot of change, and these conditions have given creatives an avenue. And it’s not just Netflix, Apple TV+ has had two significant Israeli series this year, including Tehran.

DEADLINE: At the same time, are you seeing a growing demand for foreign-language shows in Israel?

STERN: Don’t forget, all English-language shows are foreign language for us. But there’s a lot beyond that too. For a long time, it was very sequestered to certain genres and certain types of channels. Suddenly everybody is discovering French drama and comedies, for example. In the past, you didn’t need to exert yourself and read subtitles for a French crime show, because every country had their own. I would say that our own series are often a hybrid of genres. They’re really just kind of their own world.

I think there’s something about Israelis—we’re naturally drawn to storytelling. We’re sharers. We’re very open as a nation, very warm. We also go through a lot. Just look at the last couple of months in Israel. What we’ve gone through and what we’ve seen. It’s just… it’s mind-boggling.  There has been a war, rockets, sirens, the world turning against us, back to us, there was a tragic stampede at an Orthodox festival that killed dozens of people. There has been a lot. That musters creativity, to an extent. There is drama all around us.

DEADLINE: How are the changes in the market impacting what executives can achieve?

STERN: Money is coming in earlier for development and production. In the past, we had to take on all the risk ourselves on the broadcast side, but now international revenue really helps and it can be relied on.

DEADLINE: But at the same time, surely, there’s a balancing act — you don’t want to water down culturally specific material in a bid to reach global audiences….

STERN: That is absolutely true. How much explaining do you do? The first season of Shtisel was in 2013, five years before Netflix picked it up. We didn’t have to explain everything. We didn’t need to spoon-feed you the information. That puts pressure on the creative proposition. We’re on the cusp of that, and I hope we know how to reign that in.

DEADLINE: And because there’s more money coming into Israel from outside, is there more pressure to create for global?

STERN: Right. So, two things are happening at the same time. There’s less money in this [local] market, which is 8 percent decreasing because of decreasing subscription and advertising revenues. But there are also great opportunities abroad.

DEADLINE: How many subscribers do you have compared to Netflix?

 STERN: They have more than a million subscribers, according to our tracking. In a country of nine million people, that’s a lot, considering up to five people might watch each sub. We’re at around 560,000 subscribers. At our height, we were probably 640,000. I think HOT has the most subs among the multi-channels at around 700,000. Again, those are our estimates. The more players in the market, the greater squeeze it puts on everyone else’s subs numbers. There are two newish OTT players in the market that aren’t subject to the same regulation and don’t have to produce any local Hebrew content. That puts a squeeze on the local production sector. Between them, they have at least as many subs as us. Their money isn’t going into making Shtisel or The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.

Fortunately, we’re very interesting to international players. KAN’s series Tehran, was exactly that—it was Cineflix coming in during production and offering an MG against distribution that helped make the show much bigger. Off the back of that, they did very well when it was sold to Apple TV+.

DEADLINE:Fauda was really the game-changer for Yes, right?

STERN: Fauda and the Netflix deal was the big game changer for us. I was heading acquisitions for us then. I love that deal because it’s the gift that keeps on giving and it opened up so many doors for so many people that were involved in the show. Avi and Lior [creators Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz] now have a first look deal at Netflix. They just did Hit and Run with them. Director Rotem Shamir is doing a big show in Belgium this year and stuff with Hollywood. Many of the actors have gone on to do very well.

We were set up to distribute the shows that Yes was producing and developing like Your Honor, which we sold to CBS Studios. That became Show Time’s Your Honor and that has been remade for eight countries. The Italian, German and Russian versions are currently in production. We just did a deal for a Turkey remake too.

DEADLINE: Has Yes made any Arabic-language shows or dramas from Palestinian creators?

STERN: That’s a good question. Palestinian storytelling from Gaza or the West Bank would normally not go through Israel in any shape or form. Lots of our shows are dual-language, but usually from Israelis. Of course, there is a large Arab Israeli community, and we have worked with creators from that background. Israel itself is a diverse country, of course. We are a country of immigrants.

DEADLINE: We broke a story last month about Anonymous Content investing in local talent agency Kneller, which reps the creators of shows such as Shtisel, False Flag, Our Boys and Euphoria. What did you make of that deal?

STERN: I think that’s the next stage. Arik Kneller’s idea is to take the creators and connect the directly with the U.S. He is an innovator and a creative dealmaker so it’ll be interesting. But it doesn’t have to just be the U.S. I’ve just sold shows to India and Germany, for example.

There have been waves. First it was the formats that sold well, then the adaptations, then the original language version. Now it’s hybrid shows like Our Boys, which is an American-Israeli co-pro.

We’re already seeing Israeli creators connecting directly with foreign markets. Hagai Levi just remade a Swedish miniseries for HBO: The Scenes of a Marriage with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. Gideon Raff is directing a show in Spanish and English at the moment: Now and Then for Apple. Still, it’s never easy to write outside your own culture so it’ll be interesting to see how everyone meshes.

DEADLINE: What’s the next big show on your slate? The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem?

STERN: That’s the big one launching now.

DEADLINE: How will the rest of the world see the show?

STERN: Talks are ongoing. We also have a show called Embezzlement, which we’ve finally finished filming. That was a Covid casualty, because we had about five days to shoot outside of the country and we just couldn’t get on a plane. So, that’s finally coming together, and it will be one of the next shows that we launch. Probably later on this summer, I would say. It’s based on a true story of a major financial embezzlement, a woman who essentially emptied out the coffers of her bank to help her brother, who was deep in gambling debt. I’ve seen rough cuts and it’s really good.

We just announced a new show called Fire Dance, which, if you liked Shtisel, I think you’ll like a lot. It’s [also] set in the world of older Orthodox Jews, but it’s not Shtisel, either in look or feel. It’s by Rama Burshtein, who is a very well-known filmmaker. She, herself, is an ultra-Orthodox woman, and I believe the only ultra-Orthodox woman creating films for general audiences, and this is her first series. It’s a story of unrequited love that can never be consummated due to religious rituals and beliefs. It’s kind of a fantastical look at an ultra-Orthodox community that doesn’t exist. She created one, but it still observes the same rights. If you take a look at any of her films, they’re kind of fantastical. So it’s in that same world. She’s done two features that have gone everywhere on the festival circuit.

We have an amazing little show called Who Died, which is kind of a surprise. It’s a personal story of a guy who discovers he has cancer and falls in love with a girl in the cancer ward. People have been really responding well, internationally. We just completed a big documentary called Dirty Tricks. That came from an in-house idea. We produced it from scratch, and it’s doing the festival rounds as we speak. It premiered at Hot Docs.

DEADLINE: Can you tell us about some of the new talents emerging from the acting world?

STERN: There are many. The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem has an actress who is fabulous and plays the title role. This is the first thing she’s ever done. Her name is Swell. Like the wave. Swell Ariel Or. Pretty much on the strength of the trailer alone, she already has U.S. representation. That’s quite phenomenal. It’s amazing how quickly young Israeli actors are getting repped now.

There’s Reef Neeman from our shows Fauda and On the Spectrum. And the star of Fire Dance is brand new. This is her first role. Her name is Mia Ivrin. Tehran star Niv Sultan is another young actress who has signed with WME.

DEADLINE: Will there be a fourth season of Shtisel?

STERN: I don’t want to break anyone’s hearts, but I think that story has been told. And don’t forget, this cast has been together for a really long time. Almost a decade. I think we got all the stories we could without becoming overly dramatic. I feel like we’ve taken it to the limit, but, you know, we did good.

DEADLINE: So, no fourth season?

STERN: No fourth season in this capacity, but there is obviously still an appetite for that family. So, I think we’re figuring it out. I think there will be something. It’s probably not a Shtisel four. We love the story. We love the creators.

DEADLINE: A spinoff season, perhaps?

STERN: Your words, not mine.

DEADLINE: Is there an update on your show Shared Spaces?

STERN: We’re working on it. We’ve set it up. We’re writing episode three right now. It will remain as a workplace-themed show despite the new contexts of Covid.

DEADLINE: AndFauda?

STERN: Fauda season four will hopefully be shooting in the fall. After the holidays in September. And then it will be on air early next year, Q1 or Q2 most likely.

DEADLINE: And that would go directly on to Netflix…

STERN: Netflix has it. There’s a window so it airs in Israel first, but it’s been a pretty short window for global and we’re all getting better and better at delivery on international. So, yes…What else…There’s so much…The U.S. version of On The Spectrum has just wrapping for Amazon. The original version is just airing on HBO Max in the U.S. There’s other versions of that being adapted right now around the world. It’s a little too early to talk about them because they’re it’s still in development, but there are a few in the works.

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