Israel: The New Gay Hollywood?

When Richard Wolff, CEO of a midsize movie distributor from Philadelphia, arrives at any major international film festival, he and his team make a beeline for the Israeli booth. They go through the entire list of flicks with a fine-tooth comb; they know this is where gems can be found. They’ll buy anything they think will sell, but what they’re really hoping for is the next Israeli Brokeback Mountain.

“Their LGBT films are amazing,” Wolff says. “We want to get to them before anyone else does.”

Last September, Wolff’s company, Breaking Glass Pictures, which distributes mostly straight movies, snagged the North American rights to Out In The Dark, a gay love story between a privileged Tel Aviv lawyer and a struggling Palestinian student. Done on a “no-string budget,” Out In The Dark has already been sold for distribution in France, Austria, England, Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland.

“I wish they would produce another 10 films a year,” Wolff says. “The films are of such high quality, they cut across all borders.”

Judging by the trailer, which includes a steamy nude pool scene between the movie’s ridiculously handsome young stars, Michael Aloni and Nicholas Jacob, Wolff could stand to make a hefty return on his investment.

In recent years, pint-size Israel, a country only slightly bigger than New Jersey, has quietly become the go-to place for producers and distributors looking for fresh, innovative content—gay or straight. In Treatment, based on an Israeli show called BeTipul, ran on HBO for three seasons, winning a gazillion awards. Homeland, also based on an Israeli drama, has become one of Showtime’s biggest hits. And CBS is hoping Debra Messing will make sitcom magic again starring in an Israeli adaptation currently set for pilot.

More than 20 Israeli shows have been sold to American networks in the last few years—and that’s just on the TV side. Seven Israeli films have been up for an Oscar since 2007. Last year, two out of the five documentaries nominated for an Academy Award were Israeli.

But perhaps Israel’s biggest exports when it comes to entertainment are its LGBT movies. In the last two decades, Israel has been churning out a steady stream of critically acclaimed gay-themed films starring some of its most celebrated and, yes, sexiest male actors. From Yossi & Jagger, about a love affair between two gay soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, to Walk On Water, about a Mossad agent who befriends the gay grandson of a Nazi war criminal, many believe Israel’s newfound status as an entertainment hub is in no small part due to its early success with gay cinema.

“It’s surreal,” says Eytan Fox, the director of both Yossi & Jagger and Walk On Water. “Israel is now thought of as a greenhouse for ideas and formats. It’s crazy!”

Before there was Queer As Folk, Fox directed a show called Florentine. Named after an up-and-coming neighborhood in Tel Aviv, the show, which aired on Israel’s Channel 2, followed the lives of twentysomethings living in Israel’s bustling metropolis. Ahead of its time, Florentine became an instant hit, with credit perhaps going to its unapologetic gay sex scenes, the likes of which had never been seen on Israeli TV.

Interestingly, Israel was not exactly Amsterdam at the time. But the fledgling Channel 2 was seeking edgy new material to compete with the then-almighty government-sponsored Channel 1. When executives read the script for Florentine, they saw it as a tool to get noticed. The success of the show proved there was a market for gay-themed story lines. And in a way, it changed attitudes in Israel about homosexuality, until then a somewhat taboo subject.

“I used to watch that show alone in my bedroom at 13,” says Alon Levi, one of Israel’s rising stars. “It changed my life.” Levi, now 28, had appeared in a couple of teenage soaps when he snagged the part as the gay lead in Eytan Fox’s miniseries Mary Lou. “I couldn’t believe it,” Levi says. “He was my idol, the reason I went into acting in the first place.” On the eve of the show’s premiere, Levi took a leap of faith and came out. “Fox paved the way for me,” he says.

Perhaps part of the reason gay Israeli films do so well abroad is because they’re made on the cheap. Walk On Water, Israel’s second-highest grossing movie ever, was made for $1.5 million but raked in $3 million, a fortune by both Israeli and gay standards.

“Tel Aviv is not Hollywood,” says Udi Yerushalmy, CEO of TazFilm Productions. “Our budgets are a fraction of what they are anywhere else. That forces us to find creative ways to tell a story, and that’s appealing to buyers.” Yerushalmy’s production company just finished shooting Marzipan Flowers, about a recent widow who, thanks to a transgender woman, finds a new lease on life. The movie was shot in 10 days and cost $150,000. Instead of moving from one location to another, which would take time and money, Yerushalmy’s team used huge black-and-white prints for backgrounds while dressing its actors in colorful wardrobes, creating a unique aesthetic.

Israel has another big advantage: incredibly good-looking actors. Fox’s latest movie, Cupcakes, a romantic comedy about a gay pop star who falls in love with a closeted man, stars Levi and one of Israel’s biggest heartthrobs, Ofer Shechter. Now at the height of his career, Shechter, 32, can cherry-pick his roles. But when Fox offered him the gay lead in Cupcakes, he couldn’t refuse. “He’s one of the best,” Shechter says of Fox. “There was no way I was going to pass that up.”

Shechter says not only was the whole gay thing a nonissue, it was an incentive. “There’s a huge interest in homosexuality in Israel right now,” he says. Although straight, Shechter has probably smooched more men than women on-screen. “We don’t have a lot of action films here,” he explains. “They’re too expensive to make. So playing gay is the next best thing. We get to dive into interesting situations as actors. It’s a gift.”

Just ask Yehuda Levi, dubbed by some in the media as the Israeli Brad Pitt. He too was a soap-opera actor when director Eytan Fox cast him as the lead in Yossi & Jagger. What happened next took everyone by surprise. The movie became a blockbuster hit, sending Levi’s career into the stratosphere. The fact that the film was gay didn’t seem to bother anyone. In fact, in a nationwide Israeli survey, his gay kiss with actor Ohad Knoller was ranked the second-hottest scene in Israeli cinema history.

“I’m blessed,” Levi says. “I never thought in a million years that it would be this cool. I took on the role because I loved the script. I thought it was a beautiful love story.”

Yossi & Jagger, which was originally written as a made-for-TV movie, was picked up by international distributors all over the world, bringing in a quarter of a million dollars and giving Ohad Knoller an award for best actor at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival.

These days, Levi is starring in another groundbreaking role in one of Israel’s most popular dramas, Mom And Dads, about a gay couple raising a child with a straight woman (à la The New Normal). The show is based on the real-life story of its writer and creator, Avner Bernheimer (who also happened to write Yossi & Jagger).

Bernheimer says it was the easiest pitch he ever made. “I went in expecting a hard sell, but the network bought it in less than five minutes,” he says. The show, which airs on the cable channel Hot in Israel, has become one of its biggest hits, beating out heavy hitters like Modern Family and The X Factor.

“When we did the casting for the show, every Israeli leading actor was begging to audition for it. They were undressing and making out without us even asking,” Bernheimer says with a laugh. “It’s just not a big deal here. Israel is a small place; everybody knows someone who’s gay.”

Whether Out In The Dark will become another gay Israeli hit remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: Its stars can expect a lot of new and very gay fan mail from around the world.

“Bring it on!” says Aloni, the movie’s hunky star. “Gay men are known for their aesthetics, so if they like the movie and me in it, I’m doubly flattered.”