Yes Studios - Secrets of Success of Israeli Drama
BY Stanislav Kimchev
Launched less than two years ago, Yes Studios already ranks among the biggest exporters and creators of content coming out of Israel. Recent international success stories include Your Honor for Showtime and Applause Entertainment in India, 68 Whiskey – a remake of Ta’agad currently filming for the Paramount Network, multiple award-winning On the Spectrum and Magpie, as well as global phenomenon Fauda.

Danna Stern, Head of Yes Studios, tells Stanislav Kimchev what makes Israeli drama content so successful internationally and what new projects her company is currently developing in Israel and around the world.
Danna, we’ve all witnessed the success of not only fiction but also formats coming from Israel. Why is Israeli content so successful, especially drama series?
We’re all doing very well. And not just us. There’s a lot of producers doing some excellent work. One of the basic reasons is we all have to produce. We have to spend money on Hebrew-language programming due to regulations and there’s a continuous stream of production coming in and we’ve been at it for a really long time. Our platform has been producing original content for nearly 20 years and 8% of our income goes directly to that sort of programming. We have experience, but most importantly, we have great storytellers and we have very interesting lives. Also, success begets success. I think going back, if we go back to In Treatment, which was already probably 13-14 years ago, its success opened the way for Israeli drama, and we got Homeland and Fauda.

Do you also consider the international potential of a project when commissioning it?
I want to say no, but that’s not entirely true because it’s there. Once you’ve succeeded, there’s a natural expectation from the channel, from the producers, from the writers, from the creators to do the same for their project. And we often find ourselves on the international part of the business, which is what I run, being called in earlier and earlier and earlier to meet with writers. And I keep saying, no, please don’t, because if it’s a good show in Israel, we will take it and we will make it a great show internationally too. But everybody wants to be international. So, I wish I could say no, absolutely not. But there’s more and more of that going back and forth. But the basic thing is, you have to have shows that you know, in a language that you know, a country that you know with characters that you know; any attempt to do it otherwise is unnatural. It’s not going to be great storytelling.

Yes Studios has many successful and award-winning series like the global phenomenon Fauda and many others. What are your newest projects that you are currently working on and what have been your most-successful projects in 2019 so far?
It’s hard to say just one year because this is a long process. And even with Fauda, which premiered in 2015, season three just launched a few weeks ago. It’s still an ongoing project for us. We just announced a remake in India. We’re going to do another remake soon in Europe somewhere, which is going to be announced later.

Your Honor had its Season 2 this year, but next year we’ll go into production with adaptations in Germany, France, Italy and Russia. This year we did adaptations in India and they’re shooting the US version right now, which will premiere in 2020. There’s a lot going on.

Another one of our very successful projects has been On the Spectrum, which won every award this year; Series Mania, Monte Carlo, Seoul Drama and now it has a U.S. adaptation on Amazon as a pilot and I’m sure there’s going to be more opportunities with this show.


What are the budgets of your shows?
Our budgets on a big, big drama would be around $240-260K. A smaller half-hour show would be about a $150-160K. We have comedies that are a little bit cheaper because they are shorter and they’re mostly shot on location. Unlike the U.S., for example, where they do it in blocks, and it’s much more expensive. The way we produce is much, much cheaper. But like everywhere our budgets are rising.

Most of your drama projects are current and contemporary. Have you planned exploring other genres as well?
You’re absolutely right. We’re doing a lot of contemporary things that feel relevant and urgent and deal with the here and now as far as its themes. We on the studio side are working on a period piece right now, but it’s a European piece that has nothing to do with Israel. The story inherently is about the founding of the Jewish state, but it doesn’t take place in Israel, and it is not in Hebrew. It takes place 120 years ago. That’s going to be our first period drama.

I can tell you things we won’t do so much of - I’m not sure we’ll do a lot of horror. I don’t think we need a lot of that. I think television for us does want to feel realistic. We probably also won’t produce sci-fi, just because we don’t have the budgets.

We are now in the times of the “streaming wars”. What are your expectations from the new players on the SVOD front? Will they be picking up and commissioning Israeli shows?
So first of all, it’s a very important, relevant topic and multi-faceted right now. I don’t like calling it streaming wars. It’s not. You can’t have one service and just call it a day with only one “winner”. These services all seem to be really different from each other. I think the real battle, if we want to use military terms, is for awareness. How are you made aware of what to watch and how within this unbelievable abundance of content, and how do you make the right decisions for you as a content viewer. How is content delivered to you? Is it traditional, or digital marketing? Is it word of mouth? Is the algorithm going to do all the work? I think that’s the real challenge for anybody right now in this business. With the new players coming in, they all have very different international agendas. We kind of know where Netflix are as they have had an international agenda for a while. Amazon are focused on key big markets. Disney+, for now, seem to be very focused on the U.S. market and for a very specific audience; they seem to be skewing young. As for HBO Max, they don’t seem to have a very defined international strategy as yet. I think they’re focused on the U.S. launch and will be for a while, and they’re going to try to figure out what they’re doing there and whatever opportunities there are internationally. I don’t know what Peacock are doing yet on international level. Again, I think they’ll be U.S. centric because they’re such big broadcasters there. Comcast is so huge. They want to make sure they’re not losing any ad revenues to Facebook and Google.

I think localization is hard. I think understanding the regional markets is extremely complex. Netflix figured it out, but it took them some time. They are now setting up offices everywhere. Berlin, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Seoul, Singapore, Tokyo. I think it’s the only way to do it. If you want to be international, you have to have feet on the ground and now you have to have a local team.

On the Spectrum

You have also invested in a distribution arm. What is included in your catalog? Can you mention some recent deals?
We distribute everything our broadcast platform produces, and we have a full mandate to find stories that we want to tell and set them up internationally. One of the projects that we’re doing now, for example, is based on our own experience working at a shared workspace in Tel Aviv. We partnered with Erez Aviram, a very talented writer that we worked with while distributing his series The Good Cop which Netflix remade with Tony Danza and Josh Groban last year, and also licensed the original Hebrew version which is available on the service globally. We are already working with partners in Germany on local version set in Berlin. We are setting up deals pretty much everywhere there are shared / co-workplaces and thankfully there’s a lot and it’s going to be a fun little international show.

On straightforward distribution this year has been great as far as Your Honor, which is, I’m glad to say, coming to the CEE region on Pickbox. We’ve also done deals for that show pretty much everywhere: Brazil, Poland, Sweden. Asylum City, which is also coming here, has gone everywhere, including Australia. We’ve sold shows to Albania for the first time this year. It’s been fascinating to learn and meet people from all these places. Coming up we have two new big series this year; Just for Today, which has won the Jury Prize at Series Mania and the Grand Prize at the Zurich International Film Festival and has been featured in numerous festivals. It’s a very intricate, very smart drama about prisoners and a halfway house before they integrate back into society. It’s beautifully done.

And another show we’re looking forward to taking out is Magpie, a great crime thriller about two brothers, one recently released from prison after 17 years in jail where he learned to be a jailhouse informant. And he’s learned a lot of the tricks of the trade. He’s a small guy, very unassuming, unthreatening. And he also has a stutter, but he’s extremely smart. And he uses the power of his mind and a lot of tactics to manipulate everybody along the way. And when he’s released, he tries to work his way back into his family and his brother’s love. We’re just packaging that for the U.S., which is often where we start strategically. It’s a lucrative market and potential broadcasters and platforms may want to license for multiple territories. Once that’s done, we are going to take this out everywhere else. We’ve also just started filming several new shows for next year. It’ll be fun.

Just for Today

Is Yes Studios working exclusively with the Yes pay TV platform or do you have projects for other networks in Israel?
That’s a really good question. Initially when we started, we said, oh, we’d be open to everyone. Then we realized, as a small boutique operation we need to focus on setting up the infrastructure and get that right first. And I think now, two years in, I feel like we’re in a good place to pick up third-party material where it makes sense, where we can really add value; I think in areas of co-production, co-financing, formats, adaptations where we’ve been extremely strong, I think there’s definitely opportunities. And we look to work with partners that we like and like us. It’s all about people. Ultimately, the projects we end up picking up are the ones where the people involved have that passion, and it’s a long marathon so you end up working together for years. So, yes, I think we’re at a time where we think we can take on more projects. We do have infrastructure, but they have to make sense and we have to bring really value. It’s not just about having a big catalog, it’s having the right catalog.
Danna Stern is head of Yes Studios overseeing sales, distribution and development of premium Israeli content for international platforms. An international TV veteran, in her previous role at Yes, she was directly responsible for the multichannel provider’s exclusive in-house channels and managed content and acquisitions strategies for the platform’s channels and SVOD offering. She also serves as a commissioning editor of documentary and factual programming. Stern is a member of the International Television Academy.
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