Hollywood breakthrough

Israel's LA consulate has harnessed unprecedented public support from the film industry.

sharon stone 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
sharon stone 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
Any Hollywood producer would give his right arm to work with the stars listed in a full-page advertisement published last week in the Los Angeles Times, among them Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Danny DeVito, William Hurt, James Woods, Gary Sinise and Millie Perkins. The list isn't the cast of an upcoming blockbuster, but a plea by much of the Hollywood elite to back the fight against Hizbullah, Hamas and worldwide terrorism. The ad, which has resonated across the global entertainment industry with additional placements in trade publications Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, describes its signatories as "pained and devastated by the civilian casualties in Israel and Lebanon caused by terrorist actions initiated by terrorist organizations such as Hizbullah and Hamas." "If we do not succeed in stopping terrorism around the world," the petition goes on, "chaos will rule and innocent people will continue to die. We need to support democratic societies and stop terrorism at all costs." The wording may not be forceful by the standards of the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations, but for Hollywood, which has often remained silent in the face of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks, the statement was a bit of a bombshell. Signatory Lionel Chetwynd, a television writer and producer, said, "I've been around here for a long time, and I can't remember a time when so many people in the industry stood up for Israel. I tried something similar in 1982, when Israel was fighting in Lebanon, but I couldn't get it off the ground." While the mix of Oscar winners and celebrity magazine fixtures on the petition has caught the attention of film fans around the world - Kidman's signature in particular has been ballyhooed in the Australian media - Hollywood insiders have been most impressed by the inclusion among the 84 signatories of some of the men and women who wield the real power and influence in Tinseltown. Mega-media moguls Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone and Haim Saban each signed on to the petition, as did studio heads Amy Pascal, Ron Meyer, Meyer Gottlieb and the newly retired Sherry Lansing. So did dozens of prominent producers, directors and writers. In a professional class by herself was tennis star Serena Williams. The project was initiated by Ehud Danoch, Israel's consul-general in Los Angeles, who made the entertainment industry a special concern after arriving in California for his first diplomatic assignment in October 2004. "Everybody knows that Hollywood is important," he said in an interview at the time. "But before I jump in, I want to talk to people and find out how Hollywood works." The 36-year-old diplomat learned fast. "I started meeting with studio heads and executives, producers, directors and actors,' Danoch said Monday during an interview in his high-rise office, which overlooks central Los Angeles and is backed by the Hollywood Hills. He initially focused on the film industry's economic side, pitching Israel as a great location for movie shoots. It's been a tough sell, he said, not because of Israel's security situation, but because of the generous incentives offered by 25 competing countries, with Morocco in particular trying to corner the market on desert shoots. Danoch says he's now engaged in conversations with Israel's finance ministry about business packages it can offer American filmmakers to complement the wide-open spaces of the Negev. Currently, he said, one studio is scouting Israeli locations for a series of seven TV movies, productions that would bring an investment of $60 million. After getting his feet wet and learning the extent to which personal relationships lead to success in Hollywood, Danoch started meeting with actors and inviting them to visit Israel. "I don't ask them for anything, I don't ask them to take a political stand, only to come and see Israel for themselves," he said. His modus operandi is simple. "I was at a reception and saw Morgan Freeman," Danoch recalled. "I introduced myself and asked him to come to Israel." The approach is labor intensive, but it has paid off. Among Israel's more high profile recent visitors have been Basic Instinct star Sharon Stone, who became so interested in the country that she receives regular briefings on the Middle East from Danoch. There's nothing like star power to give millions of movie and TV fans a different view of a country usually seen in the context of terrorist attacks and political negotiations. "We invited Will Smith to come to Israel, and when he inadvertently crashed a bar mitzva ceremony at the Western Wall, it seemed like every radio and TV channel in the world reported on it," Danoch said. What is the payoff for Israel? "For one, stars shape public opinions and fashions," said Danoch. "Perhaps most important, by their very presence, the celebrities show that Israel is a safe place to visit. This helps tourism and the economy, and besides, the Israeli public likes to see them." Danoch's meeting last week with Adam Sandler and the actor's family yielded support of another kind, with the 50 First Dates star announcing he would donate 400 Sony Playstations to Israelis whose homes were damaged by Hizbullah rocket attacks. Danoch is particularly pleased that enough momentum has been built that some movie industry members are planning tours on their own initiative, including one by a prominent talent agent who wants to take a group of directors to Israel. When fighting in Lebanon started in July, Danoch decided it was time for the generally quiet Jewish sector of the film industry to make its voice heard. He was not alone. "We wanted to get Hollywood off the fence," one of the petition's signatories said. He first tapped the growing population of Israelis in Hollywood, including producers such as Arnon Milchan (LA Confidential, Fight Club), Danny Dimbort and Avi Lerner (16 Blocks), Avi Arad (Spiderman and X-Men) and David Matalon (What's Eating Gilbert Grape). The task force also included veteran supporters of Israel like Chetwynd, entertainment attorney Bruce Ramer, producer Branko Lustig and actor Gary Sinise. The core group approved the wording of the ad, drafted by Danoch, which emphasizes humanitarian issues and the fight against terrorism rather than a down-the-line pro-Israel stance. Members of the initial group then e-mailed friends and associates, who in turn e-mailed industry contacts, and so on. Given time constraints and publication deadlines, Danoch and his early partners on the project assumed that the ad would carry no more than 50 or 60 signatures. But the names kept coming in, until the organizers had to close the list at 84 names, said Gilad Millo, Israel's consul for communications and public affairs in Los Angeles. Dimbort, co-chairman of the Nu Image production company, contacted 28 people. Most signed on, he said, though "some were scared to do so." His company also paid for the full-page ad in the national and international news section of the Times - a purchase which cost $117,132, according to the paper's advertising department. With Nu Image's phone number appearing at the bottom of the ad, Dimbort fielded most of the feedback in the days after the publication. "We got hundreds of phone calls, most very enthusiastic, but about 20 to 30 percent of the callers screamed and yelled at us," he said. Meyer Gottlieb, the president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, said he received only positive feedback, with friends telling him they were moved by the ad's message. Others called to chide him for not inviting them to sign the statement. Chetwynd said he called more than a dozen people, four or five of whom declined or didn't respond. After the ad appeared, "more than 50 people called me, and I was just amazed by the response," he said. Newspaper publisher and television host Phil Blazer said that given the overwhelming number of requests Hollywood talent receives to support petitions and political causes, he was "shell-shocked" by the number and standing of the ad's signatories. Blazer also lauded Danoch's part in the project. "Ehud has really reached out to Hollywood, and he has grown rapidly in his job. We are very proud of him," he said. Though the public focus in recent weeks has been on Danoch's work with the entertainment industry, the diplomat deals with numerous other professional and ethnic constituencies, including the large Hispanic community of southern California and the surrounding states. Danoch speaks Spanish fluently, and during the Lebanon fighting responded daily to requests from Spanish-language radio and television stations for updates and commentary. It got to the point, Danoch and Millo said, that they had to call on Spanish-speaking colleagues at other Israeli consulates, or at the foreign ministry itself, to lend a hand.