September 2, 2006
by Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Any Hollywood producer would give his right arm for the stars listed last week in a full-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times.
Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Danny De Vito, William Hurt, James Woods, Gary Sinise, Millie Perkins and others.
But the list wasn’t the cast of an upcoming blockbuster, but a plea by much of the Hollywood and media elite to back the fight against Hezbollah, Hamas and worldwide terrorism.
The ad, which resonated in the global entertainment industry through additional placements in the trade publications Variety and Hollywood Reporter, read: “We the undersigned are pained and devastated by the civilian casualties in Israel and Lebanon caused by terrorist actions initiated by terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. If we do not succeed in stopping terrorism around the world, chaos will rule and innocent people will continue to die. We need to support democratic societies and stop terrorism at all costs.”
The wording would not have appeared particularly militant and pro-Israel had it been issued by heads of Jewish defense organizations, but for Hollywood, often markedly silent in the face of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks, the statement was a bit of a bombshell.
“We wanted to get Hollywood off the fence,” as one signer put it.
Producer-writer Lionel Chetwynd noted that “I’ve been around here for a long time, and I can’t remember a time when so many people in the industry stood up for Israel. I tried something similar in 1982, when Israel was fighting in Lebanon, but I couldn’t get it off the ground.”
The names of the stars who signed the ad caught the attention of readers and listeners around the world — the Australian media ballyhooed Kidman’s participation — but to Hollywood insiders the most impressive among the 84 signatories were the men and women who wield the real power and influence in Tinseltown.
Mega-media moguls Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone and Haim Saban signed on, as did studio heads Amy Pascal, Ron Meyer, Meyer Gottlieb and recently retired Sherry Lansing, as well as dozens of prominent producers, directors and writers. In a professional category by herself was tennis star Serena Williams.
The man who initiated the project was Ehud Danoch, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, whose territory extends over seven southwestern states and Hawaii. When the slim, curly haired Danoch arrived in Los Angeles in October 2004, as a 34-year-old on his first diplomatic assignment, he was preceded by a reputation for being very smart, very young, and having a knack for knowing the right people.
His grandparents had come to Israel in 1950 on Operation Magic Carpet, the mass airlift of Jews from Yemen, with their 3-year-old son, the diplomat’s future father.
Both of Danoch’s parents were tapped by Israel’s Ministry of Education to serve as overseas envoys, and young Ehud spent three years in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, and the same span of time in French-speaking Montreal.
After his army service, Danoch earned his law and MBA degrees from the Israeli campus of Britain’s Manchester University.
The young lawyer became a protégé of Israel’s then finance minister, Silvan Shalom. When Shalom was named foreign minister, he appointed Danoch as his chief of staff, and later to the consul general’s post.
In his first interview after arriving in Los Angeles, Danoch identified the entertainment industry as one of his special concerns, while noting the important groundwork laid by his predecessor, Yuval Rotem.
“Everybody knows that Hollywood is important,” he told The Jewish Journal. “But before I jump in, I want to talk to people and find out how Hollywood works.” Now there’s evidence he’s a quick study, too.
“I started meeting with studio heads and executives, producers, directors and actors,” Danoch said Monday during an interview in his high-rise office, overlooking central Los Angeles to the Hollywood Hills beyond. Even on a hot day and during an informal discussion, Danoch was dressed as the complete diplomat in suit and tie.
His first emphasis was on the economic side, pitching Israel as a great location for film shoots. It’s been a tough sell, not primarily due to the volatile situation in Israel, but because of the generous incentives offered by some 25 other countries, with Morocco trying to corner the market on desert shoots.
Danoch is now in discussions with Israel’s finance ministry as to what packages it can offer American filmmakers, in addition to the wide-open spaces of the Negev.
Currently, one studio is scouting Israeli locations for a series of seven TV movies, with an investment of $60 million.
After he got his feet wet in the often-tricky Hollywood tides, and learning that personal relationships are everything, Danoch started meeting with actors and inviting them to visit Israel.
“I don’t ask them for anything, I don’t ask them to take a political stand, only to come and see Israel for themselves,” he said.
His modus operandi is simple.
“I was at a reception and saw Morgan Freeman,” Danoch recalled. “I introduced myself and asked him to come to Israel. He was ready to go immediately.”
The approach is labor intensive, but it has paid off. Among the more high-profile visitors have been actress Sharon Stone, who has become so interested in Israel that she receives regular briefings on the Middle East situation from Danoch.
There’s nothing like star power to give millions of movie and TV fans a different view of a country usually defined in crisis bulletins.
“We invited Will Smith to come to Israel, and when he inadvertently crashed a bar mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall, it seemed like every radio and TV channel in the world reported on it,” Danoch said.
Danoch is particularly pleased that there is now enough momentum that some in the movie colony are planning to organize tours on their own initiative, such as a prominent talent agent who want to take a group of directors to Israel.
When the fighting in Lebanon started, Danoch decided that it was time for the generally silent movie colony to make its voice heard.
He first tapped the growing colony of Israelis in Hollywood, including producers of such standing as Arnon Milchan, Danny Dimbort, Avi Lerner, Avi Arad and David Matalon.
The task force also included such veteran Israel supporters as Chetwynd, entertainment attorney Bruce Ramer, producer Branko Lustig and actor Gary Sinise.
The core group approved the wording of the ad, drafted by Danoch, with the emphasis on humanitarian concern and the common fight against terrorism, rather than a down-the-line pro-Israel statement.
From that point on, in a kind of electronic daisy chain, members of the initial group e-mailed their friends, who in turn e-mailed other friends, and so on.
Given time constraints and publication deadlines, it was assumed that the ad would carry no more than 50 to 60 signatures. But the names kept coming in, until the organizers had to close the list at 84 names, said Gilad Millo, Israel consul for communications and public affairs.
Dimbort, co-chairman of the Nu Image production company, contacted 28 people. Most signed on, although “some were scared to do so,” he said.
His company also paid for the full-page ad in the national and international news section of the Times, which costs $117,132, according to the paper’s advertising department.
Since Nu Image’s phone number appeared at the bottom of the ad, Dimbort fielded most of the compliments and complaints in the days after the publication. “We got hundreds of phone calls, most very enthusiastic, but about 20 to 30 percent of the callers screamed and yelled at us,” he said.
Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, received only positive feedback, with friends reporting that they were emotionally moved by the message conveyed by the ad. Others called to chide him for not having been asked to sign the statement.
Chetwynd called more than a dozen people to participate, of whom four or five declined or didn’t respond. After the ad appeared, “More than 50 people called me, and I was just amazed by the response,” he said.
Cable television host Phil Blazer said that given the overwhelming demand on Hollywood talent for support of innumerable petitions and causes, he was “shell-shocked” by the number and standing of the ad’s signatories.
As for Danoch, he’s staying busy. One meeting last week with Adam Sandler and his family yielded support of another kind, when the star of “Click” and “50 First Dates” announced he would donate 400 Sony PlayStations to Israelis whose homes were damaged by Hezbollah rocket attacks.
What is the payoff for Israel? “For one, stars shape public opinions and fashions,” Danoch said. And their visibility may be the biggest boon of all. “By their very presence, the celebrities show that Israel is a safe place to visit. This helps tourism and the economy, and besides, the Israeli public likes to see them.”