yes Studios goes to the next level
Sharon Levi, MD of yes Studios, talks to Yako Molhov about the company’s growth during her first year at the helm of one of the most prolific producers in Israel. Besides the US where yes Studios remains the biggest Israeli producer, the company is looking to expand its business in Europe, Asia and Latin America, both in terms of production and distribution, and the first projects are already in the pipeline.
Sharon Levi, MD of yes Studios
Sharon, you are the new Managing Director at yes Studios, one of the leading producers of original content in Israel. How satisfied are you with the performance of the company since your arrival? Where do you plan to build up your efforts?
It’s been a very exciting year for yes Studios and for me personally. Two of our newest shows won prizes at the recent Series Mania competition: Fire Dance which was created by Rama Burshtein-Shai won the Best Actor award for Yehuda Levi’s outstanding performance, and Bloody Murray, created by Stav Idisis, won Best Comedy. It was amazing to celebrate these wins during my first year at the company. Given my background in distribution and sales, I plan to expand our reach as far as sales are concerned, leaving no stone unturned and finding new companies to work with both from the finished tape potential and the format perspective. Part of my responsibilities also include seeking co-production partners for projects we have in development. This is a new line of business for yes Studios which I plan to explore and expand in the months to come.

How many projects do you currently have in the pipeline? Will you continue to focus mainly on drama?
There are currently dozens of projects in the development pipeline from various genres including crime, thriller, comedy, daily drama and docu reality projects. Some are based on true events, some on established IP such as bestselling books and some fiction. We are working closely with our drama department to give creators and producers the creative and financial support they need to bring these projects to fruition. For some, we have already collaborated with companies outside of yes TV to be co-producers and others will still be fully financed by us. We are not only open to drama projects but are happy to also look at social experiment and more docu reality projects that align with our audiences and that have international potential.

We know that despite being small the Israeli market is among the most competitive. Now international players have also entered the country. How do these developments reflect on the work and budgets of your company?
The Israeli market is definitely a challenging one (smiles) but also one of the most creative markets out there. Any success coming out of Israel brings pride to our industry and the international interest in our market just shows how much potential there is here. The competition to stay a market leader is always on the table. It affects the technology we develop, the collaborations we have and, most importantly, the content we produce. We find creative ways to work together when it makes sense and bring in partners to help finance our projects in order to compete in the marketplace. yes Studios and yes TV have built a very strong brand both internationally and within Israel, which brings many creators, producers and streamers to want to work with us. The budgets are increasing on a global aspect and we’re finding ways to still produce premium shows with high production value but for costs that are much lower than most US or Western Europe budgets. It’s all about being creative in production.

Do you plan any co-productions with an international streamer in Israel?
At this point all options are on the table and it strongly depends on the project, the budgets, the windowing, the creative dialogue and more. As the co-production arm of yes TV, our main goal is to bring the best content to the Israeli viewers and if this is possible by collaborating with streamers, then the door is always open.

yes Studios has turned into a brand identified with hit series like Fauda, Your Honor, On the Spectrum; etc. To what do you attribute the immense international success of your shows?
First off, the content speaks for itself. Fauda is an on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller and even if the viewer is not completely familiar with the background story, they still identify with the characters, the emotional stories and appreciate the suspense in every episode.

Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

Your Honor is one of the most traveled scripted formats to come out of Israel. Apart from the American version featuring Bryan Cranston with the second season launching in December on Showtime, we have 9 other versions available including Spain, Italy, Germany, Korea, Turkey and more.

On the Spectrum tells a beautiful story from a very unique point of view, the view of 3 people on the spectrum and how they deal with day to day situations. The stories we develop and produce all have truth to them, all are relatable and viewers can create an emotional attachment to the characters and storytelling.

Second, yes Studios was founded by my predecessor, Danna Stern, who believed in the potential of these shows and worked tirelessly to find the right home for them and many others on global streamers and local broadcasters. These success stories paved the way for yes Studios to become a global brand, which is identified with premium series. Each of our shows have global potential either as finished tape, as a format, or both. Even shows that started off as very strong tapes like Fauda have succeeded in receiving an adaptation, which is soon to be aired across India.

Lastly, a lot of effort is put into marketing, PR and social media. We bring engaging content through the various social media pages and make a point to respond to our followers via our Beauty Queen of Jerusalem page, Shtisel page and of course, Fauda page.

What have been some of your latest major deals and what are you bringing to this year’s MIPCOM market?
There are several deals we are very excited about. Our comedic drama Significant Other has been adapted in the UK and is shooting this month. The series, originally created and written by Dana Modan, Assi Cohen and Ram Nehari is being produced in the UK by ITV Studios’ owned Quay Street Productions, headed by Nicola Shindler, and is set to air next year on ITVX.

Fauda’s Indian adaptation Tanaav, produced by Applause Entertainment, is set to air next month on SonyLIV. Our edgy comedy Johnny and the Knights of the Galilee has been adapted in France by Oberkampf and Story Nation productions and is set to air on Amazon very soon, whilst the Spanish version of Your Honor is filming now and is set to air next year. We are also developing a show with Apple which hopefully we’ll be able to share soon and so much more.

This MIPCOM we are bringing our two Series Mania winners Fire Dance and Bloody Murray.

Fire Dance is the coming-of-age story of Feigi, a young, troubled woman, in a tight-knit ultra-orthodox religious sect who grew up in a broken home, without a father figure. She attaches her future happiness to Nathan, the 35-year-old married son of the leader of the ultra-orthodox community in which they both live, who she grows dangerously close to. Feigi’s feelings and her longing for a relationship with Nathan can never materialize and creates a delicate tension, somewhere between passion and fulfillment that is set on the backdrop of a conservative, devout community.

On the Spectrum

In the edgy rom-com Bloody Murray, we see best friends & roommates, Murray and Dana face struggles of single life in their mid-30’s. Their lives take a turn when Murray ditches the scene of a hit and run, and the man she crashed into, Lior, shows up at her apartment – where he meets Dana – and the two fall madly in love. Their intertwining lives bring many challenges and unique dynamics that the women experience them together.

We are launching an exciting new docu-reality project, just in time for the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest, Viva la Diva. Dana International, the LGBTQ+ ambassador and the winner of the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest has finally agreed to go on camera and talk about her life openly, without censorship, with a lot of honesty and, of course, the glam that comes along with her personality. This 14 part series will show Dana as she prepares to get back to work after the COVID era while sharing her deepest emotions and thoughts about, well, everything.

We are also launching a brand new comedy titled You Should’ve Heard of Us which tells the story of two best friends, Chava and Nava, who served in the military band in 1974, in the last golden days of IDF army bands, when singing soldiers were turned into the country’s biggest stars. Chava and Nava, though, never rose to stardom. They had big dreams starting out but the band had its own rules and hierarchy, and Chava and Nava never got the chance to shine. Upon the sudden death of Chava’s husband, the two friends meet again. Now, Chava and Nava can finally deal with what they’ve been suppressing for four decades, stare down those old “glory days”, and reclaim what was taken from them.

We are very proud of this project as it puts women in the spotlight, especially women in their 60’s dealing with issues from their past, pre METOO era. This taps into the zeitgeist of shows portraying older people in comedic and heartfelt situations such as The Kaminski Method, Hacks and Only Murders in the Building.

What are the main markets in the focus of yes Studios besides Israel? Have you planned expanding into new territories?
Yes Studios as the distribution arm of yes TV, focuses on sales outside of Israel. Apart from the US market, Western Europe and the global streamers, which is always a focus for us, our plan is to expand our reach into territories in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia. For me, a deal is a deal no matter where the country is located. I always see the growth potential in every market and how it can evolve into more business.

You recently signed a deal with Netflix for The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. How important is your presence on the US market? How big is your team and what are your ambitions there?
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is our first attempt at producing a melodrama which has succeeded to capture the authenticity of the historical period of the early 19th century in Jerusalem. The story, which is based on the bestselling book of the same name, was adapted to series by Shlomo Mashiach (Your Honor), Oded Davidoff & Ester Namdar Tamam. It was produced by Artza Productions and is our most expensive production to date. The second season just wrapped production and is set to air in Israel early 2023.

Chava and Nava

Naturally the US market is very important to us and we would normally start our distribution strategy there. We work closely with our agent (Michael Gordon, CAA) and manager (Adam Berkowitz) to attach writers and producers to our formats and to find the best home for our content. In other cases, we prefer to focus on regional broadcasters, going territory by territory, instead of global streamers, in order to enable multiple deals and increase the potential of the series to succeed. Yes Studios has the most scripted projects in the US (both as tape and format) from all other Israeli companies and this is still our biggest ambition, to stay a market leader. Having a strong sales team is key to create the relationships with potential clients, travel to the various markets and conferences and form great partnerships, all this lends itself to an innovative and “always-on-their-toes”, all-women Ninja team.

Without a doubt, Your Honor has been your best travelling format - a pan-Balkan adaptation is now also in the works. Tell us a little bit more about this deal and can viewers in CEE expect local versions of some of your other popular titles?
Your Honor is a great example of a show that has a very strong one liner and great travel potential. Ron Ninio and Shlomo Mashaich created an intriguing story, which can occur anywhere in the world. I’m not surprised it’s been accepted so well around the world. And yes, it is now travelling to Eastern Europe with two new versions in the works as we speak. We definitely see the massive potential in the CEE region with countries such as Poland, Hungary, Croatia, The Czech Republic and many more being very open to foreign content, especially formats. Adapting a format lends itself to risk averse broadcasters, it’s taking a less of a risk on a show that already proved itself somewhere else and has a track record. It’s usually much more cost effective given that the storylines, characters and scripts have already been written, which saves time and money. We have several other formats and series we are collaborating on in the region and we are pro-actively seeking more and more partners to work with.

What would you say have been the main effects of the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine besides the growing inflation? What are your expectations for 2023?
I feel that the world has grown closer together. Once realizing that we are dealing with similar challenges during COVID, we are set to become more effective in the way we work. Whether it’s working in a hybrid model, doing business remotely, becoming more efficient in productions, cutting on costs whilst dealing with the increase in cost of living which will have a ripple effect for years to come, I expect to become even more creative in the way we do business and produce content. The desire for good and high quality content is only growing and the intention across the board to is to continue to deliver amazing stories.

Will streaming “kill” traditional TV, in your opinion?
I can assume that what we call now “traditional TV” will evolve in the years to come. Eventually the viewers will consume the majority of their content via streaming, whether their favorite news apps, their online sites and reality consumption will be done via IPTV. The mix between sports, news and entertainment enables viewers to make the most out of the various media channels out there.

For me, for example, I still watch the news and local reality TV via “traditional TV” on the commercial or public channels while watching drama series on yes TV and streamers. I still think that at least for the older audiences, their preference is to consume content in their own language, especially news and entertainment shows which can be found mostly on the commercial and public channels, at least for now. I think we can all agree that the content is still the most important thing, no matter how you choose to consume it.
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