Life & Culture

Meet the woman behind some of Israel's best TV

Sharon Levi, the new head of Yes Studios tells us how she picks winning shows


At the end of The Godfather Part III, Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, hands the mantel of power to his nephew, Vincent Mancini, played by Andy Garcia, making him the new Don, or head of of the Corleone family. Something similar happened last year at Israel’s Yes Studios (without any mafia connection, of course).

When Danna Stern stepped down as managing director of Yes Studios at the beginning of 2022, she quietly suggested Sharon Levi as her successor.

“I had heard Danna was leaving and we met,” says Levi when we meet.  “The original idea was that we would try to work together, but it didn’t work out. Then at some point I got a phone call saying you’ve probably heard she’s left? Danna had told them, ‘there are not a lot of people in Israel who can do this job, reach out to Sharon.’”

Taking over from Danna Stern required a person with significant talent. Yes Studios now has a huge international reputation with hits like Your Honour, Fauda, Shtisel and The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. Levi’s background in just about every aspect of the entertainment industry more than fittedthe bill.

At that point in her life, Levi was on the cusp of change. “I took a deep look inside as I think many people did during Covid”.  She had been head of international sales at a TV production company, Armoza Formats, for eight years. Armoza, again hugely successful, was acquired by ITV studios in 2019. “Two years ago, I decided I need a change,” Levi says, “I wasn’t getting any younger. I really loved the company and it was great working with Avi Armoza. We had such a great team, I thought I would take it to pension, you know, just stay there.

“With Covid and the acquisition, suddenly I wasn’t so sure. It was a private company until that moment and then it became corporate. So, I made a decision to leave which was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to do. It was really emotional. Avi was so great at hiring really good people, we had such an amazing team from many countries, different backgrounds and ages. I’m still in touch with everyone in the company, they are like family to me. Avi and I speak on a regular basis.”

She had made that decision before the Yes offer was on the table. “I thought maybe high tech was the place to be and had to gone to work for an interactive gaming company. But on the other hand, Yes is such an amazing company with such amazing content and Danna did an amazing job to build this brand from scratch. I was torn a little but, not sure if I wanted to get back into the industry after leaving it. It took a few months to decide but I’m here.”

Levi  comes over as super organised, and practical and passionate about her job. She’s all of this and is as equally passionate about being a mum of three and maintaining the traditions of Judaism. She’s friendly and open but suspect she won’t stand for any nonsense. There’s a rock chick though inside her who every now and again breaks out.

“The 70’s is my favourite era, music wise, fashion wise, design wise, furniture, everything,” she says.

“Music was my first passion. That’s what I grew up with, we always had music at home. Remember the eight-track? I had an eight-track player in my room. I was seven or eight years old, and my dad took me to see Grease. Then he got the eight-track for me and I was just playing that record again and again.  My dad had bought me my first two records. One of them was Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And the other one was Rod Stewart. Do You Think I’m Sexy?” Our mutual love of Sir Rod Stewart means our interview digresses for a while as we exchange stories of our 70s heroes.

That passion led to her first significant career role. “A friend called me and said that Hed Arzi, which was the first real record label in Israel were looking for somebody. She didn’t even know how to describe what the job was. But I said, ‘Wow, it’s a music company. I would work there for free! I went in for an interview. I didn’t have any previous experience besides my English and my passion for music. I was up against much more experienced people. One of them was a radio DJ. Another one was working for Sony in the UK. I didn’t think I had a chance. Somehow, I got the job.”

By the time she left Hed Arzi, ten years later, she was head of international sales.  During that time she met many of her teenage heroes and has a wealth of stories like escorting REM’s Michael Stipe around Tel Aviv when he was on a private visit to Israel, calling up her girlfriends to go out to dinner with him. Or being with legendary record producer Clive Davis when his then protégé Alicia Keys sang at a party. Or being in the room the first time Santana’s 1999 record Supernatural was played. “You pinch yourself. You can’t believe that you’re there, that this is going out tomorrow worldwide. You’re the first one to hear it. It’s mind boggling.”

Levi was born in New York where her family were very traditionally observant Jews.

“We lived first in Manhattan and then in Queens. We were conservative, went to a conservative temple, my brother wore a yarmulke to school, I wore long skirts, our school was a yeshivah. I learned Hebrew at school which was good because when I was nine we made aliya.

“All of a sudden you live here in Israel and you don’t go to synagogue on a regular basis. You go at Yom Kippur. Because you’re here already. You don’t have to prove yourself.”

Her life in Manhattan had glamour. Her father was a fashion designer working for Sassoon and Jordache. “My parents always had parties when we lived in New York,  I was at Studio 54 when I was seven because my father had a fashion show.I didn’t even know at the time that it was legendary place. My parents had a great social life, they knew a lot of people. My dad had a very exciting life but he passed away unfortunately when I was twenty-four, he was only fifty two. He was a very creative person.”

Her mother worked for ASCAP, (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) in New York then for a computer company when the family moved to Israel.

“Like me she’s very organised. Much more than me actually.” Levi would describe herself as an “Excel creative”. “I work with lists and Excels and everything but I have that creativity. That’s how I grew up because of my parents. I’m very organised and it’s a great plus because you know, for example, my daughter has ADHD. So when I help her organise her life, it’s quite simple for me to do it. It’s much harder for her.”

Her organisation skills helped when she did her military service in Israel. “In Israel English is so important, and the fact that I speak English better than most Israelis has always been an advantage, even in the army. I had a great position because I had English, I worked for former Prime Minister Ehud Barak who was the deputy chief of staff at the time.”

She inherited the love of the traditions of religion from her parents. “Every Friday, regardless of who’s coming over for, for dinner or whatever, we light the candles, all of us, and then we go one by one and give a kiss and wish each other Shabbat Shalom. I love that. There are a lot of smart things about tradition; the shiva for example is a very smart thing. I fast on Yom Kippur. I think it’s a great day to look inside and, think about other things. I clear chametz at Pesach. There are a few things that I kept for myself that that I like. My kids are older, and they can choose whatever they want. They don’t have to do whatever they don’t feel comfortable with. But still I feel that it gives you a sense that you belong to something that is bigger than you.

“There are extremists now in Israel and they’re trying to force religion into schools. I don’t think you should force anyone to do anything. There are beautiful things about studying the Bible and if you have the chance to approach it positively and not because someone’s forcing you, then you’ll be able to see beyond that and see how beautiful these stories really are. If they’re taught in an appealing way; you can do a play about a Bible story or have the kids create a presentation.”

Levi and her partner, Ronen, have three children; a 19-year-old son currently in the army, a 17-year-old daughter at high school and a 12-year-old daughter who was just bat mitzvah.

“Ronen and I never got officially married. That’s part of being a secular person. I can choose if I want to get married.  We’ve been together forever. We met at university but got together after that. Actually, we have very similar paths because when I was working in the music industry, so was he at Channel 24, a music channel that was just being launched.  He was one of the first directors and producers to work there.”

Back to all things Yes Studios and, of course, Fauda.

“Number one in Lebanon,” she says.  “Can you imagine? The most exciting and emotional response we are getting on social media for Fauda is from places like Saudi, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco, some we have diplomatic relationships with, some we don’t. These are the most exciting responses, because it’s cross border.”

Levi won’t be drawn on a fifth season of the hit Netflix drama. “You can assume that something will happen, whether it’s a season…” She trails off then resumes. “Look, this is a very strong brand. You don’t just give up on a brand like that. Especially with all the added value it brings to us, the region, the creators who have done an amazing job. Look at them now. It’s long process. Everything here is a little bit slower. It begins and ends with budgets.”

Yes Studios’successes internationally have largely been based on selling the formats of their hit series. There are productions of its show Your Honour in ten countries and India launched  its version of Fauda to great acclaim,  with a UK version likely.

“I think that’s what I most love about the job, is to see how a format takes another shape,” says Levi.  “The style and language in other countries — it’s like seeing your babies become independent and get their own characteristics.”

Levi is also concentrating on collaborations with other companies; “It’s a whole new challenge, learning who could be the protentional partners. I’m reading so much, people are sending me everything they have in development and scripts. I love reading, normally it’s books but now every night before I go to sleep, this is my reading matter, it’s amazing. I’m loving every moment of that.”

She’s enthusiastic about the place of Israeli TV in the world.  “The content that’s coming out of Israel, not just TV but music, is amazing. We are doing it with very tight budgets which are getting tighter all the time so we’re facing a lot of challenges.

“We are surrounded geographically by countries we don’t necessarily have great relationships with and the fact there are so many different types of people living here, coming from all over the world, it’s like a melting pot. It fuses all this creativity and ideas.”

On home territory, Yes have just produced Unsilenced, a powerful drama about sexual violence in the political world, starring Fauda’s Yaakov Zada Daniel. “We’re very proud of this,” says Levi. “We are currently actively selling it internationally.”

The second series of Yes hit The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem streams on Netflix later this year too.

In the past  15 months since she’s been at the helm of Yes, Levi has shown she’s worthy of the role. It’s her role as a mother she wants to return to before she heads for for another Zoom meeting.

“I want my children to see a mother who is fulfilling herself at home as a mum and at work doing something that she loves to do. And yes, I travel a lot and when there are a lot of trips coming up, I apologise in advance.

“But I’m fortunate enough that I can choose, and I promised them after my last batch of travelling that I’ll take a few months off and I’m doing that. So I didn’t go to Miami and I’m not going to Berlin for the media festivals. I made a choice. I am first and foremost, a human being and their mom, before a career. And they will always come first. My family is the most important thing.”

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