Life & Culture

'What makes Israeli TV 
so good? Our interesting lives!'

Danna Stern, of Israel's Yes Studios, has made global hits of Israeli TV shows like Fauda and Shtisel


Many of us would agree that Israel has a problem when it comes to communicating with the rest of the world. And yet, Israeli television drama is massively popular with a global audience, giving nuanced insights into life in the region. Shows like Fauda and Shtisel are international hits and their commercial success is largely thanks to Danna Stern, managing director of Yes Studios, the hit-making company.

Our interview had to be re-arranged when, three days into the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, Stern had to dash home at our selected interview time as another wave of Hamas rockets were threatened to hit Tel Aviv. But when we do speak, she is sanguine: “Honestly, although I have lived here for my entire life, it doesn’t feel scary on a day-to-day basis. Yes, it’s a great inconvenience to have the sirens go off but it’s not like you’re running for shelter all the time.”

The political situation feeds straight into the dramas. “When people ask why is Fauda so original and does so well and travels so well? Or how do you get these ideas and like? Well just look at where we are now and also what goes on most of the time even if not at this current level.”

Fauda of course is the first Hebrew language TV drama series picked up by Netflix. When Series Three was streamed in April last year, it was immediately watched by a massive global audience. The series, created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, is based on their own real-life experiences during military service in a Mista’arvim unit, a counter-terrorism unit of the Israel Defence Forces. Its success was followed on Netflix by another very different Yes Studios series, Shtisel, set in the Charedi community.

Fauda broke the mould in Israel when it first aired there in 2015. Never before had an Israeli series told a story from both the Israeli and Palestinian point of view.

“We were worried what the reaction may be, we thought there may be a backlash because we were sympathetic to the Palestinians,” says Stern who at the time was the vice president of acquisitions and channelling for the Yes distribution arm. “By the second episode, everyone was talking about it!” Stern, already a panellist and moderator for INTV, an annual international conference and show case for innovative television, used her considerable charm to persuade the organisers to put Fauda on the viewing list.

“Long story short” she explains, “we had interest from the US for them to make an American version of the show but then Netflix came along and wanted it as is and it aired with them in 2016.”

Series four is now in production with the format being sold all over the world. Filming had begun on an Indian Fauda about the Pakistan and Indian conflict but that is currently halted because of Covid.

Stern reveals however that a UK version will go into production in 2022. “My lips are sealed as to what and who,” she says smiling and you know she really does want to tell you. “But I just can’t because our UK partners like to lead the competition!”

Stern is warm and engaging when we meet on Zoom. She and her partner, leading Israeli journalist and TV anchor-man, Dov Gil-har are without doubt one of Israel’s power couples in the media. Yet, Stern is down to earth and open; showing me the giant water bottle she bought by mistake on Amazon for her children. The couple have three children; Ellie 18, Lenny 15 and Tommy 12, who at times during our conversation pass by the camera and wave.

Growing up in Tel Aviv, Stern wanted to be a doctor like her father; “Funnily enough Lenny wants to be a doctor, she’s quite serious about it. I call her Dr Stern!” Suddenly you see her as a proud mum, especially when she adds, “I hope Ellie will be prime minister”.

She juggles an international TV career and being a mother with help but in many ways she is hands on, helping with homework, making Purim costumes and taking the children to school. She is also probably one of the coolest mums on the planet as her work gives her children many opportunities to experience fabulous events.

“I do try to integrate the kids, where I can and take them with me. Tommy was five weeks old when he had his first trip with me to LA; I took my mother in law with me. It was literally amazing. He was born on March 31. In May, he came with me on his first overseas trip. We’ve all been multiple times. You know whenever I can, I try to add them to business trips or conferences. They’ve gone to great experiences because of what I do. My oldest has been on a set of Harry Potter and we went to the première in Leicester Square.”

For Stern’s 50th birthday this February, the children produced a four minute video ‘birthday card’ for their mum with soundtrack, graphics and cutaway and insert techniques. She almost blushes when I mention it.

“Oh you saw it? I love that video so much because I think it’s so lovely. I think I kind of did well with them for them to do it. I think they’re proud. That’s why I let them put it on YouTube. To be honest, seeing it, I felt like a queen!”

Stern’s army conscription was spent being a news producer on Israeli army radio which led to six years at Reuters TV. In 1999 she joined Yes as an acquisitions executive working her way up to vice president. Three years ago, she took over as managing director of Yes Studios for production and international sales. She believes her experience on the business side of TV makes her perfectly placed to be in a role which is more creative and hands on.

“As an executive you have to know what works, what sells, what will work in which market. It may be you have a great script or idea but will it transfer to the screen and be marketable?”

Her marketing successes include Your Honor, a massive award winning Israeli hit with adaptations being made in India, Germany, France, Italy and Russia and most recently by Sky Atlantic starring Bryan Cranston. Another major Israeli show, On The Spectrum, a drama comedy looking at the day to day life of people with autism has recently been adapted with a US cast for Amazon Prime.

“I do want to be clear though. We first and foremost make TV for the Israeli market. If it sells or is successful elsewhere, that’s great.

“People do ask why Israel makes such good TV. I think we’re natural storytellers, live interesting lives, are well travelled and we watch a lot of TV in Israel!” she laughs.

Yes Studio’s latest production is an epic saga The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem adapted from the Israeli best seller written by Sarit Yishai-Levi. It’s a period drama spanning decades from the 1920s. Filming was originally going to be in the Ukraine but Covid meant the production had to shift to Israel.

“Our cast formed a bubble, and all lived together during filming”, says Stern, “as such there’s just a great genuinely warm close relationship between them all.” The show will be aired in Israel on June 6 and Stern hopes it will also be taken up by a global streamer like Netflix or Amazon. It’s Yes’s first period drama and the ensemble cast is led by Michael Aloni.

Which brings us to Shtisel, which also starred Aloni as sensitive artistic Akiva. Set in a small, strictly Orthodox community in Jerusalem, no one could have imagined the family drama would become the colossal worldwide hit it has, making international stars of many of its cast like Shira Haas, currently making a film about Golda Meyer.

“The show launched back in the tail end of 2018 on Netflix. It was first shown here in 2014. They also aired Unorthodox with Shira which was very, very successful. It was like an algorithm after that and the craze for Shtisel grew. Everywhere! Brazil, Argentina — Korea of all places! In France and Italy it’s also huge.”

Shtisel has millions of fans now passionate about the show. When JNF brought Michael Aloni to the UK for a fund-raising tour in 2019, the venues sold out in minutes. The show has spawned several social media groups, many with tens of thousands of members across the world; “I try to interact with them,” says Stern, “I know how they feel about the show and I try to give them bits of information.”

Series three landed on Netflix this March. The fans — including me — are crying out for more. Will we see more of Akiva and Shulem, Lippe and Gitti and all the family?

“Ahhhh” says Stern, suddenly cautious. “I will say this, for us it’s been almost a decade, working on this show since the idea and original production. That’s a long, long time, everybody’s grown up, moved on. I mean Shira was 18 when she started working on it. The writers and certainly cast have many other projects…” She tails off but sees my look of hopeful anticipation and laughs. “Let’s say, we love the characters and it may be we haven’t seen the last of them but I can’t say more than that.”

Fauda and Shtisel are currently available on Netflix. The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem debuts in Israel on June 6.


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