How Danna Stern Helped Turn Israel Into a Global Television Powerhouse

THR - Danna Stern - Photographed by Ilia Yefimovich - H 2019
Ilia Yefimovich

The head of Israel’s Yes Studios talks turning "hyper-local" shows like 'Fauda' and 'On the Spectrum' into international hits: "We’re?making great television for ourselves."

If anyone has inspired Danna Stern, managing director at Israeli production and distribution company Yes Studios, it was probably her grandmother, Lisa. "She worked, doing shorthand for every Israeli defense minister, until she retired, age 88," recalls Stern, smiling at the memory.

Perhaps following her grand-mom's stenographic example, Stern started in journalism at age 18, working as a news producer for Israeli Army Radio. That segued into a six-year stint with Reuters Television in Jerusalem. "It was the 1990s, a crazy time," she says. "I'd wake up to the sound of sirens." Stern exchanged sirens for series in 1999, joining satellite network Yes TV as an acquisitions exec, but after 18 years of buying U.S. and U.K.-made dramas, the 48-year-old mother of three decided to do it herself. In 2017, Stern took over as managing director of Yes Studios, the company's production and international sales arm, and dove deep into original production. The political thriller Fauda, one of the company's first drama series (and made for around $200,000 an episode) became the most watched drama in the history of Yes and was the first Hebrew-language show picked up by Netflix worldwide (season three bows in December). Yes, which has five full-time staffers — all women — currently has three U.S. shows in production based on its Israeli originals: Showtime's version of Your Honor with Bryan Cranston; 68 Whiskey, based on Yes' Charlie Golf One, which Imagine is producing for Paramount Network; and On the Spectrum, a comedy about 20-somethings, all with autism or Asperger's syndrome, which was ordered to pilot for Amazon. Yes Studios also has about a dozen international adaptations in the works, including German, French, Italian and Russian versions of Your Honor and an Indian take on Fauda.

Stern invited THR to lunch at Yes Studios' quiet, tidy offices in Tel Aviv to discuss why international production is booming, what the streaming wars will mean for global producers, and why she'll keep betting on first-time writers.

We've seen a consistent wave of Israeli series getting U.S. adaptations, not just your shows but In Treatment, Homeland, Euphoria. Why is Israel so good at TV drama?

Well, it's definitely not the money. But we have a lot of things going for us. This place is crazy in a good way and in a bad way. We live interesting lives. We all have stories to tell. Take [Fauda creators] Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz: They were real-life soldiers, that is their story. A lot of what we do is passionate storytelling from someone who takes inspiration from their own lives.

It's hard to imagine a show like Fauda or On the Spectrum being greenlit as an original in the U.S.

I don't want to diss American television, which I love and which was a good chunk of my life for a long time. We were, and I think we still are, as Yes TV, the biggest buyers of American studio fare [in Israel]. But American TV is a real industry, it's a business first and foremost. The projects that people end up developing and producing and putting on air are the ones they think will appeal to the widest possible audience. We're free from that. It makes it easier for us to take risks. Most everyone we work with is a first-time creator. In the U.S. that's unheard of.

What's a typical budget for your shows?

They range from maybe $260,000 per hour on the top end, maybe $300,000, but that's an anomaly. We can also do a one-hour drama for $200,000. A half-hour like On the Spectrum is $170,000, but it's expensive because there's a lot of postproduction on that.

How do you keep costs so low?

We shoot on location and we don't have writers rooms. A lot of our shows are written by a single writer. Sometimes the writer is also the director, and usually the creator too. For Charlie Golf One, Zion Rubin created, wrote and directed all 40 episodes of season one and all 40 episodes of season two, all on his own. Fauda is the only show where we have a writers room. But this approach takes time, which is why our shows aren't on a schedule like you have in the U.S. We don't get a new season every year. We get a new one every three years.

Is that changing now that your shows are selling internationally? Are you under pressure to increase production?

We won't let international schedules run the way we do production. We might spend a little more, like on Fauda, because we know it's going to be seen and we don't want to disappoint, but we won't speed things up. And we're not going to cast someone because we think they might have more international appeal. That's not what we are doing here. We're making great television for ourselves. And then selling it to the world.

Fauda is the first Israeli series to portray Arabic characters — Palestinian terrorists, in fact — in a sympathetic or at least complex manner. Were you expecting a backlash?

We were expecting a ton! We were panicking before Fauda launched [in Israel]. We thought we were going to get it from the left and from the right. It was terrifying. But I remember seeing the first rough cut. I thought: "Oh my God, this is so good! I just hope other people think so, too." We were also worried because the story feels like something that's constantly in the news here — we see Palestinians and Israeli soldiers every day. Would people want to be entertained by what they see every day on the news?

A lot of your shows seem ripped from the headlines.

Yes, everything we do feels very current. We don't do sci-fi, we don't do period, because we don't have the money for it. Even procedurals are a question of money because you need a lot of cast. The structure that has built up here, because of the budget constraints, has made us much more open for current stories and for new talent and new forms of storytelling.

How important was it, in the U.S. adaptation of On the Spectrum, to have a writer with a first-hand knowledge of autism? 

It was in the brief. The original creator, Dana Idisis, her brother is autistic. We said that whoever we chose to do the U.S. version would have to have a first-hand connection, be either a father, a mother, a sister or a brother [of someone on the spectrum]. You can't tell this story from a distance. Jason [Katims], because he's the father of an autistic child, brings a whole perspective to the story.

There are so many details — even the diet of people who are on the spectrum: They have a very limited, very carb-heavy diet, [so many of them] tend to be heavier-set — I wouldn't know. But Dana knows because she knows how her brother eats. [People with] Aspergers tend to be very thin, very active. So things like that, that may seem superficial, but you need it to make the story work.

The series gives a very different view of people on the spectrum than we're used to seeing on TV.

Yeah, like on The Big Bang Theory or The Good Doctor, you've got people on the spectrum but they're all savants. You're showing the “pretty side” of having a social disorder. Sheldon [on Big Bang Theory] gets married! He has sex! This is not the reality for the majority of people on the spectrum. So I think definitely in the U.S. you see a watered-down version. But everything on American television is beautified. Everything we do is rawer. People don't wake up on our shows in full makeup.

Are you forced to glam your stories up when they get adapted for America?

We have those conversations. We usually lose out. That's not just true for our shows but for other adaptations. There is a lot of spoon-feeding going on in American television. There's a tendency to think U.S. audiences are not as smart as they are in other places in the world. 

But on the U.S. version of the show, you are actually casting actors on the spectrum, something you didn't do in the original. 

That was something Jason was very passionate about —he was talking about getting a lot of opportunities for people from the community, both onscreen and behind the scenes — in music, in editing, in payroll — to help people on the spectrum enter the industry. We had those same discussions here, but the pool of talent in Israel, because we're a tiny country, is very small. It was a demographic challenge. On the other hand, for Magpie — our new thriller — we had a trans character and we did the right thing and cast a trans actress. It was her first role and she's great. She's the best character on the show. In general in Israel, we're not as PC, as mindful of these issues as they are in the U.S. Maybe we should be. But we're working on it. 

What other cultural difference do you find between the American and Israeli industry?

The pilot system. We don't do pilots. Ever. We don't have the money. Or the time. We hit the ground running. But we spend a lot more time developing. I was on the set of the American version of The Good Cop and was shocked when [showrunner] Andy Breckman excused himself to go and write episode seven. "But you're already shooting episode three!" It's a very different way of doing things.

Netflix canceled The Good Cop after a single season, which seems to be happening a lot these days.

It seems to happen more often than not. That was not a fun call. But we were expecting it. I have google alerts out on all our shows; I see what people are writing, what the response is. You get a feel for a show, especially now with social media. All Netflix said was it hasn't found enough viewers. We knew it was something new for them — to do a wide, broad, family whodunit — but that is what Andy does. It was a throwback, it was nostalgic, but unfortunately didn't find enough viewers.

Are we at the end of the era of the long-running series? We've seen two of the last big ones — Game of Thrones and The Big Bang Theory — wrap up this year. 

I think so. Everyone now wants to do an event series, a limited series. In the past, you couldn't even pitch a miniseries. It has changed. Really rapidly. But that's what we've always done. When you pitch to us, there's never that conversation of, what's the second season? We are fine if you come to us and say: "I've got an amazing story and it's 10 episodes and it's done." Even as a broadcaster, we're shocked when we commission a second season of a show. Though Fauda has had two seasons and a third is coming; Your Honor has two and that'll be it. We've commissioned a second season for On the Spectrum, but that's not how we planned it. 

Netflix buying non-English-language shows for the global market has had a huge impact on your business. Do you see a boom coming as the new streaming services launch worldwide? 

We're talking with them all, but it is still early days. I don't think the first thing you do if you are an HBO Max or a Peacock, or Disney+ is go out to the international market and find the best Israeli show. It's not on your top 50 things to do. Netflix was the same, by the way. I think those conversations are starting to happen now. But are we at the top of their minds? No. 

Is there a big difference among streamers in what they want from international shows?

Netflix says: "If you do an original for us, we want something completely different, something you would never do as a broadcaster." You go to Amazon and you hear the opposite: "We want to be the best in class of whatever is working in your territory. So if you are a Japanese producer of game shows, we want to have the best Japanese game show." With the others, I don't know yet. We'll see.

Some of the studios, particularly Disney, reportedly are holding back their series for the international market to feed their new streaming services. Does that open an opportunity for local producers like Yes?

I think the streamers, the global players who are distributing directly to consumers, will in the future take care of the big, ubiquitous shows and, depending on their strategies, do some local productions in individual territories. As domestic and local producers and broadcasters, you have to go hyperlocal because the rest is hyperglobal. You have to go the opposite of that and make shows that speak to the culture and the history and the zeitgeist of where you are … and if your main office is in Los Angeles, you aren't going to get it. It will just play differently.

You know the whole talk about globalization and how everybody's the same? We are so not. The more I travel, the more I realize how vastly different everybody is — our history, our music, our references. Everything. We're not the same. There is no one-size-fits-all. If you are really trying to connect on an emotional level, you have to do it locally.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.