Seeking to woo TV and filmmakers, Israel offers 30% rebate to sweeten the deal

Producers say long-sought effort coordinated by several government ministries will bring in big budgets from foreign production companies

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

American television host, comedian and producer Conan O’Brien filmed an episode of his travel series 'Conan Without Borders' in Israel in 2017, working with local Israel producer Asaf Nawi. (Courtesy Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
American television host, comedian and producer Conan O’Brien filmed an episode of his travel series 'Conan Without Borders' in Israel in 2017, working with local Israel producer Asaf Nawi. (Courtesy Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Local filmmakers and TV studios have been shooting award-winning movies and series in Israel for decades, taking advantage of the country’s desert vistas and ancient cities.

But it’s expensive to film in Israel, which may serve as a deterrent to foreign production companies. Now the country is marketing itself as a location for international shoots with a 30 percent rebate incentive for foreign productions.

Announced jointly by the ministries of culture and sports, foreign affairs, finance and tourism earlier this month, the two-year incentive will offer reimbursement of up to NIS 16.6 million ($4.9 million) for film and TV series shot in Israel.

“We know that Israel is known as an expensive country, but this is a country with great locations,” said Raz Frohlich, director general of the Culture and Sports Ministry. “You can access green hills, desert, history and cities within short distances and there’s plenty of English here. There’s lots of reasons to come here, but the [new] tax return is a big plus.”

It took many years for the five government ministries to work together to offer the incentive, said Frohlich.

Production companies have until August 22 to send in their proposals for the first round of tax incentives that are being offered for the next two-year period.

The rebate can be applied to projects with local Israeli animation studios as well as post-production work on films, such as editing and sound.

Frohlich said the ministries researched the industry thoroughly, investigating what kinds of rebates are offered by other countries. Israel is offering a 30% rebate, while some countries give 40% and others only offer 20%.

“We’re entering into a kind of competition with other countries,” he said. “We know that sometimes a producer who is setting a scene in Jerusalem goes to Greece instead. We learned about the costs of productions.”

The ministries are currently trying to market Israel as a potential location, placing ads in industry publications and reaching out to networks of film and television professionals.

“I’m already getting calls from the US and Europe about it,” said producer Asaf Nawi, who has handled several foreign productions in Israel, including Conan O’Brien’s 2017 episode, as well as filming for “Homeland” and USA Network’s mystery “Dig.”

The rebates just make sense, said Nawi, pointing out that if a company has a $1 million budget to film, and then pays just $750,000 with the government incentives, it offers good business value.

Nawi recalled filming the 2019 Netflix series “The Spy,” about Israeli espionage agent Eli Cohen, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, and the French company that produced the show ended up shooting the Israeli scenes in Morocco and Spain, because of budgetary issues.

“It’s a national story that should’ve been here and there would’ve been money in it for Israeli industry,” said Nawi, who is also a partner in New Legend, which finances Israeli film and TV content. “There’s hotels, and restaurants and taxis and caravans, and other kinds of jobs that need to get filled for a shoot.”

It’s an opportunity that the Israeli government is adopting very late, said producer Amir Harel, whose latest film, “Valeria Is Getting Married,” is nominated for several Ophir Awards. “There’s many countries fighting over this industry.”

When the incentives work, said Harel, it creates employment for the entire “food chain of film production,” from crews to caterers, hotels and restaurants.

“It’s a tool that really needed to happen already,” said Harel.

Industry insiders like to point to several foreign productions, such as the 2017 Conan O’Brien special, the fourth season of Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” and the first and second seasons of “Homeland,” which were partially filmed in Israel, as successes that need to happen more often.

Nawi said that crews for “Homeland,” “Dig” and “Conan” “were in shock” about the mix of locations in Israel and how easy it was to access each one within a relatively short drive.

“It can do amazing promotion for tourism in Israel because viewers say ‘wow, look at these places,'” said Nawi. “There’s high-tech offices and then the desert and the Dead Sea and all the history.”

Frolich added that Israel offers a safe, stable environment for work, although there have been times when filming was paused or pulled from Israel due to  unrest. The third season of “Homeland’ was switched to Morocco in 2013 because of concerns over the uncertain situation in Syria

The Israeli production company that arranged the location shots reportedly lost tens of thousands of dollars on the cancellation.

Still, it’s a source of potential income that’s well worth pursuing, said producer Marek Rozenbaum, who has worked on dozens of Israeli films for nearly 40 years, and has been working on this idea for the last 25, he said.

“I’m so happy it’s finally happening,” said Rozenbaum. “It’s important, not just financially but also because it improves our technical skills. The industry will have additional budgets and everyone will learn new skills.”

It will take time for productions to consider Israel as an obvious location for filming, akin to Toronto or Athens, said producers.

“It works in all kinds of ways,” said Harel. “It could be that Israeli producers will be working on something and bring the production here, or foreign producers will connect with an Israeli team. It’s very personal, what makes this kind of thing work.”

It will take time to figure it all out, agreed Rozenbaum.

“What’s important is to get this started and fix things along the way,” he said.

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