Netflix launches ‘Greenhouse Academy,’ remake of Sabra tween drama

Netflix launches ‘Greenhouse Academy,’ remake of Sabra tween drama

The media giant trusted the Israeli creators to produce the American version of the boarding school show

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The main characters of 'Greenhouse Academy,' the remake of the Israeli show for tweens, from show runner Giora Chamitzer (Courtesy Ronen Ackerman)
The main characters of 'Greenhouse Academy,' the remake of the Israeli show for tweens, from show runner Giora Chamitzer (Courtesy Ronen Ackerman)

When “Greenhouse Academy,” Netflix’s latest Israeli purchase, launches Friday, September 8, it will mark the first time the giant entertainment company allowed one of their shows to be shot outside the US.

The entire show, two seasons of 24 episodes, was made in Israel, and filmed on Israeli beaches and streets, as well as on backlot studios.

“The production was in our hands,” said Giora Chamizer, the show runner and writer of both “Greenhouse Academy” and its Israeli predecessor, “HaHamama,” or “Greenhouse” in English. “The actors came here.”

Selling Israeli television content? That’s almost run-of-the-mill. But producing it in Israel? That’s no small feat.

Israel, more often known as a hothouse of political and religious strife, is internationally recognized for its small screen content. From “In Treatment” (originally “B’Tipul”) and “Hatufim” (which became “Homeland”) to “Shtisel” (soon to become “Emmis”) and “Fauda,” the Israeli methods of writing and producing television shows have won fans and viewers worldwide.

More importantly, the television studios that appreciate what Israeli television has to offer, in this age of serial binge-watching, are product of the new technology era, including Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO.

Still, it’s highly unusual to host a remake in Israel. It’s a technical and logistical nightmare, involving the creation of sets and scenes that need to look American, while on location in the Middle East. But taking control over that part of the process was a must for the creators of “Greenhouse Academy.”

“We wanted to keep the Giora formula,” said Orly Katz, CEO of Ananey Communications Group, the Tel Aviv-based TV firm that is partially controlled by Viacom, and has worked closely with Chamizer for years.

“Keeping the formula was of the essence,” said Chamizer, “as well as building trust and letting Netflix know they could trust us. They liked it and liked the fact that the show had been such a huge success in Israel.”

It was Katz who managed to persuade Netflix to let the Israeli team produce the show in Israel, along with Ananey agent Adam Berkowitz, said Chamizer.

“This is the make-or-break of most remakes,” he said. “Once you let it go, someone else comes and does whatever he wants. If this someone is talented, then you have a ‘Homeland.’ If not, then you have 100 different examples of shows that never translated. We had discussions that we’d rather lose the deal than lose control of the show. There’s nothing worse for us than watching our show that has one chance.”

Giora Chamizer, the show runner for ‘Greenhouse Academy,’ the tween drama remade in Israel for Netflix (Courtesy Giora Chamizer)

Chamizer is known as a genius in local TV circles, or so Katz likes to call him. He’s a show runner who has created and written a long list of successful Israeli shows, including “Shchuna,” “Ha-Shminiya” and “Ha-E,” as well as “HaHamama,” the original, Israeli version of “Greenhouse Academy.”

His production counterpart is Katz, and together, they’ve produced several of Chamizer’s shows, shaping and honing this unique genre of live action drama for the 9-14 age group, a type of television series they say was essentially invented by Israelis.

“It proliferated a lot here,” said Chamizer. “If you look all over the world, there’s no content for this age group. It’s either sitcoms or very childish comedies, and all the sophisticated dramas start for the 15-year-olds.”

It’s the space Chamizer has occupied for the last 12 years, and one that is tremendously popular among the tween set, who then convince their younger siblings to watch once they come of age.

The cast of ‘Shchuna,’ or ‘The Neighborhood,’ another Giora Chamizer show that may be turned into an American series (Courtesy Shchuna)

“We created binge-watching before there was Netflix,” said Chamizer. “Israeli kids are used to binge-watching season after season, and they watch our old shows too.”

In Israel, original content is usually created and aired on cable channels Yes and Hot, both video-on-demand systems in which two to three episodes are already loaded at the start of a new season. Viewers can immediately watch several episodes of a new show, without waiting for the season to be released, episode by episode.

It’s TV-watching that is geared for tweens and teens, viewers who can spend many hours watching shows that they love. The original “Greenhouse,” for example, was shown on the Nickelodeon channel for Yes viewers.

“Netflix is the perfect partner that understands the binge-watching need, and that we had something original that hadn’t been seen before,” said Chamizer.

“Greenhouse Academy,” and the original show, the Israeli “Greenhouse,” mix a high school drama with action, suspense and an intricate plot. The 2012 series is about a prestigious boarding school in the Galilee attended by a brother-and-sister pair, and is full of intrigue, teenage angst, and romance.

The Netflix version takes place at an elite Southern California boarding school, where students from two rival dormitories combine forces to thwart an evil plot.

When Chamizer and Katz set out to sell “Greenhouse” abroad, it was clear that Netflix was their only possible buyer. Following Disney’s decision to stop making original TV content, and a gradual slowing of new shows from Nickelodeon, there are fewer studios creating original TV content for tweens, said Katz.

Netflix aims to fill that space, said Katz, and a show like “Greenhouse Academy” fits their need for content. But it’s a different kind of tween TV show.

The pace in “Greenhouse Academy” is intense and the plots are dense, with multiple storylines included in each episode, lacking any of the lingering downtime often found in kids’ shows, with scenes placed just to pass time.

“I’m not sure they 100 percent understand the show today, because it operates differently than other TV shows,” said Chamizer.

A foursome of ‘Greenhouse Academy’ characters on set in Israel, with lead actress Ariel Mortman at the center (Courtesy Ananey Communications)

“There are a lot of layers in Giora’s genre,” said Katz. “All the characters have so many sides, they’re complicated and rounded. It’s something that kids can watch again and again and understand something else and relate to something else in this same character.”

It’s also seen as a show that can be watched by the entire family, enjoyed as much as “Game of Thrones,” said Katz.

Still, there were changes to be made. American shows for this age group are less violent, said Chamizer, so tasers replaced guns in the Netflix version of “Greenhouse,” and the nastier, mean characters were softened, at least slightly.

Those changes were necessary in order to match American standards, said Katz. They also had to consider that the show will appear on the Netflix screen alongside other shows geared for even younger kids.

Californication in Tel Aviv

The Netflix discussions about “Greenhouse Academy” began two and a half years ago. Once the entertainment company bought the series, their management team came to Israel to view sets and get a sense of local studios.

“It was nerve-wracking to take them to a set, but they were amazed by the efficiency of the Israeli production,” said Katz.

Unlike American shows that are usually shot in linear fashion, Israeli shows often work on much tighter budgets, with entire series written prior to shooting. The first, seventh and thirtieth episode can be filmed in one day, unlike American productions which first have to be approved, aired, and earn ratings before they are fully written, making the filming take far longer.

“We have a small amount of money for production and we have to produce creatively and with great quality, so that a show will eventually be considered for Netflix,” said Katz of the Israeli method. “We save a lot of money, and they were amazed by that.”

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Chamizer and the show’s American writer, Paula Yoo, began working on the scripts, translating the cultural differences that were patently obvious. Netflix is a global platform that wants to hear voices of other cultures, and were respectful of the Israeli influences, said Katz, but their producers also wanted to review every scene, making sure it fit their standards.

“We tried to convince them that someone needs to die,” said Katz, referring to the original show, but we didn’t succeed. It’s a very hard process.”

Casting was done in Los Angeles and Israel, with plans to bring the group of American actors to Israel for 10 weeks over the summer in 2016, which necessitated a rush to obtain work visas and permissions for the US actors.

“We saw every actor with a workable American accent,” said Chamizer.

The Israeli cast was led by Ariel Mortman, a New York-born actress with Israeli parents, who studied acting in Israel at Nissan Nativ and the Cameri, and was cast as the lead actress.

The show was filmed last July, with interiors shot in Holon television studios and exteriors around the Palmachim beach, streets in Petah Tikva and Tel Aviv dance center Suzanne Dellal, whose white stucco buildings are used as the exterior of the California boarding school.

They also needed to recreate a realistic American boarding school, down to bunk beds of the right height — Israeli beds are taller than the standard American bunk bed — electrical outlets that looked American. They imported some 200 food items for the school cafeteria.

Filming the Israeli remake of ‘Greenhouse Academy, with a cast of of Americans and Israelis who mixed seamlessly, including during off-hours (Courtesy Ananey Communications)

“We tweaked a lot of locations to seem more American,” said Katz, “and that we’re very proud of. The characters look and feel like they’re in a California setting, but it has the heart and warmth of an Israeli show, something we managed to translate.”

The editing process took another year, along with dubbing, for the show is being simultaneously broadcast in 190 countries.

Now the team is biting their nails in anticipation of Friday’s launch, when “Greenhouse Academy” will appear on the Netflix screen without much promotion or introduction. They’re hopeful that viewers will connect with the show, particularly since they have another 175 scripts ready to be adapted from the original version, for future seasons.

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Promoting the show on Netflix offers different challenges, given that it isn’t shown on a particular day or time.

“It’s a very different and weird experience,” said Katz. “You worry about promoting it, because you can’t. You don’t know who’s going to see it, or when.”

In the age of on-demand TV, they have to rely on the complex Netflix algorithm that pushes viewers to watch certain shows.

“The code of Netflix is so smart,” said Katz. “They work more as a high-tech company that a TV company. It’s a new way of consuming TV.”

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