Giora Chamizer, the showrunner of The Greenhouse Academy, a new series that premiered on Netflix (including the Israeli Netflix service) on September 8, looked perfectly calm as he sat down in a Tel Aviv cafe last week.
The Greenhouse Academy is a reworked, English-language version of Chamizer’s hit Israeli tween series Ha Hamama (The Greenhouse). While other Israeli shows have been remade into hit international series – Homeland and In Treatment are the two most prominent examples – The Greenhouse Academy was actually filmed here, in a production overseen and co-written by Chamizer. This is the first international television series filmed in Israel by Israelis (Chamizer worked with American writer Paula Yoo, an American editor and a few American actors, but most of the cast and crew are Israeli) but intended primarily for the American market, as well as Europe and everywhere else that carries Netflix.
The show is entirely set in the US, but is filmed in parts of Israel that look like Southern California.
So you might expect Chamizer to be just a little nervous, and as I spoke to him, there were moments where he looked like a man in the ocean facing a huge wave coming straight toward him. But they were just moments, and they passed.
“It’s a universal story,” Chamizer said of the difficult-to-characterize show, which mixes suspense, adventure, heroics and teen romance, with the young actors always holding center stage and the adults in the background. Like the Israeli series, it opens when a teen brother and sister suffer a horrible tragedy, as they watch their astronaut mother die in a spaceship that explodes. To honor her memory, they enroll in the titular school, where two rival clubs put aside their differences to fight an external enemy.
“The idea for the original show came out of how I imagined living in a world without my parents. Kids have an unconscious urge for that and are terrified of it at the same time... [in the show] the kids will save the world, or rule the world or make a change happen.”
With cliffhangers designed to keep viewers tuning in, a method adopted for the Israel VOD experience but well suited to Netflix binge-viewing – all 12 episodes will be released the same day, as is usual on Netflix – it’s no surprise that the Israeli show was popular with adults as well as the 9-14-year-old tweens who were the target audience.
“It’s unique with this age group where you still feel OK watching a show with your dad or your mom.”
Chamizer comes from a family involved in the brainier side of show business – his father, Dan Chamizer, created the daily “Chamizer Riddle” radio quiz – but never dreamed growing up that he would be a writer or that he would work in television.
A musician, he went to the US to study, but supported himself by developing Israeli television formats. After moving back to Israel in 2004, he tried to write soap operas.
“There’s a lot of storytellers in my family,” he said.
Eventually, he found his way to the Israeli tween market, and has never looked back, creating several high-profile hit series, among them Ha Shminiya and Ha-E (The Island
But in spite of his experience, creating The Greenhouse Academy
was a challenge.
“It’s a complicated production... there are very few things to compare it to,” said Chamizer. “It’s constantly challenging the viewer. I wanted to keep that feeling from the Israeli version. The problem with remakes is that you want to keep the DNA of the original show.”
Working with Yoo, he was able to figure out “when to step in and when to keep the story as it was. It’s not an easy thing to do, but we managed.”
One aspect of the show that survived intact was an invention to keep it from becoming dated: characters still communicate via the so-called “Louie stick,” a kind of hologram/smartphone that comes out of a tube. “We invented a gadget so it wouldn’t get dated,” he said.
The only “meaningful change,” said Chamizer, was “how bad the bad guys are.” There was a subtle softening of some of the evildoers for the US version. But the essence of the show remained the same, he said.
Another part of The Greenhouse Academy story is how Netflix acquired it, and why it took the unusual step of producing it in Israel.
Orly Atlas-Katz, the CEO of Ananey Communications, which owns Nutz, the production company behind The Greenhouse Academy, said that Adam Berkowitz, the co-head of television at the US-based Creative Artists Academy, is a “very good friend of Israel.” He saw the show and worked hard to get Netflix interested in it. Berkowitz convinced the Netflix executives that the show would fill a gap in their programming – there weren’t any adventure shows quite like it for tweens – and that it could be made more cheaply and better in Israel than in the US.
“Budgets in Israel are relatively low,” Atlas-Katz said. “To get things done, you have to be better and more creative.”
One example of that creativity was “shooting horizontally.” Typically, series are shot one episode at a time. With The Greenhouse Academy, the producers shot all the scenes from episodes throughout the series in a single location at one time, saving a great deal of cash.
In an unusual and encouraging move, Netflix did not commission a pilot, but gave the green light for two seasons to be filmed. Season two will be available on Netflix in March 2018.
For the Israeli television industry, this precedent-setting series is very good news.
“There was a crew of 200,” said Atlas Katz. “We’ve created something locally that can travel and brought a lot of jobs to Israel.”
Chamizer, who is finishing up editing the second season, seemed to sense that once The Greenhouse Academy starts streaming, his life will never be the same.
But, like his young heroes and heroines, he stared down that wave heading toward him without blinking.
“We were able to work with limited resources to deliver something great,” he said.