Cheap flights, bun smuggling and a Very-Biggy Dealy. Blisstopia Productions' Gareth Jon Strachan shares some entertaining insights from our recent Trade Mission to Israel with a delegation of UK indies...
I nearly didn’t go.
I didn’t have the money (I thought), nor the time, nor, if I’m honest, the inclination. I had been knocked down by some obscure virus that had apparently shut down society for the last two years – ah yes, Covid-19, you may have heard of it? Well, it got me and it got me good. Bad - bad enough to send Dawn an email saying, ‘it’s highly unlikely I’ll attend’… following up with ‘but Dawn, did you say something about cheap flights, big broadcasters and a development fund?’. Amazing how quickly you can recover from Covid-19 when the fruit of fame, fortune and flying cheap is dangled before you.
‘Gareth, I’m looking at a flight to Tel Aviv on sky-scanner for £65 right now…’ came the prompt email back from Dawn. And that was it. A few million forms later; some quick-fingered manoeuvring on AirBnB; a 007 briefing with the British Embassy; introductions to my fellow UK producers and our Israeli counter-parts; PCR tests on both sides of the journey; a Thameslink to Luton and an overnight stay in a place near the airport, succinctly described as ‘the worst’; and lastly – crucially - the small matter of solidifying my Israeli partnership if I was to have an honest stab at the £12K Holy-Grail development fund! His – Michael Kallner’s – response, in what I have come to understand is Israeli enthusiasm: ‘I’m in’. More of Michael’s business brevity and cool, collected, calm later.
Understanding both the possibilities and limitations of what we as Brits could bring to the Israeli film and TV industry – and vice-versa – was a learning curve for all.
I didn’t stay in the not-so-posh hotel, like the rest of the delegates, because, when you pay £65 for a round trip to Tel Aviv, you set yourself the mission of finding equally thrifty deals on the whole trip. But it came with a different kind of price: a 15 min walk to the hotel pick up point and the data required to use google maps to make sure you find it – and on time. Teresa, the first fellow producer I met in Tel Aviv – with the coolest gold jacket – told me about “me.maps” after being hit with a nasty roaming charge. Lesson learned.
I had joked in our initial production briefing about whether I could smuggle a plate into the breakfast buffet at the not-so-posh hotel where everyone was staying and, though it drew something of a silence and a ‘who is this guy?’ zoom stare, my fellow delegates were good enough to smuggle a bun out on occasion. (Thank you Danny Fenton, CEO Zig Zag Productions / Bun Smuggler).
And so to Jerusalem, on Day 1, where bun smuggling was historically met with severe consequences. Fortunately for us, we were simply met with outstretched hands and smiling faces: those, in particular, of Ronee Isaacson, Liron Attias and Ross Lewis, our amazing British Embassy liaisons, aka, sorter-outers-of-everything. We would come to rely on Ronee and Liron for everything from ‘where’s the loo?’ to ‘sorry, where did you say the loo was?’
Jesting aside, we have Ronee, Liron and Ross to thank for our reliable football coaches, our travels between the myriad broadcasters, networks and studios we visited; meetings with top industry executives, courageous journalists and knowledgeable locals; deep insight into the historical conflict, Israeli narrative and orthodox way of life; more local food than a bun-smuggler can possibly consume; a Pact-packed (see what I did there?) schedule that left no time or room for boredom, hunger or indifference; and booze. Oh yeah, booze and a few parties. Oh, and that whole £12K thingy. Not thingy: Very-Biggy Dealy Actually!
Day 2 and Day 3. I think when you’re stuck on a coach with people you don’t know you’ve got two choices: jump out of a moving vehicle or, the preferred option, get stuck into a conversation, make some friends and have a giggle. And much mirth-making (and piss-taking) did we undertake as we travelled to many of the major studios, broadcasters and networks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Hansen House, Keshet, Reshet, Kan, i24. Understanding both the possibilities and limitations of what we as Brits could bring to the Israeli film and TV industry – and vice-versa – was a learning curve for all; and while there were clear challenges, there were also opportunities. And dates – not the Tinder kind – the plump, caramelly, Israeli kind that make Brits blush because they’ve only ever had one out of a packet - the not-so-Super-market kind. It was all, quite simply, exhilarating and, very often, delicious.
They say positive things happen when opportunity meets preparation – and I would say that we had both of those elements in our favour.
And so to the Very-Biggy-Dealy: The Pitches. But before that, while there was one clear highlight of the trip for me personally, there is a close second: the diversity panel I was asked by Pact to be part of. If someone had asked me to sit on a panel about diversity several years ago, I’d probably have agreed but talked about diversity in a more general, generic way, with not much reference to myself or my work. However, since becoming a youth worker a few years back (to top up my multi-million-pound future as a successful screenwriter and producer) I’ve been working with young people with a range of special needs and challenges: from autism to ADHD, to anxiety and attachment disorders.
This, coupled with my own neurodiversity and mental health challenges – something I’ve struggled to speak about publicly without shame or humour – meant that I was in fact well placed to speak from both professional and personal experience, along with a panel of passionate and informed individuals, who spoke from a place of great depth and compassion, among them: Galia Granot, The Ruderman Foundation; Gilad Piker, Snowflix TV, Nitzan Gilady, Producer of the ‘Wedding Doll’; Victoria Holden, Chalk Productions and our very own, Dawn McCarthy-Simpson, Pact. It was a great honour to be part of this important panel and I feel that I broke through a personal barrier by speaking a little about my experience as a youth-worker and someone diagnosed with Bipolar.
OK, let’s get to the pitch; the Ambassador’s residence; the prize; the cash! Michael Kallner – who I referred to earlier – my Israeli business partner – twice my height and half my conversation – was the subject of my last Pact blog, which you can read here. We met through Content-without-Borders last July 2021 and stayed in touch without any solid plans beyond ‘let’s keep talking’. They say positive things happen when opportunity meets preparation – and I would say that we had both of those elements in our favour. We are, on paper and in person, yin and yang – and yet, the first thing MK did when we met was take me to the best burger joint in Tel Aviv and ply me with the strongest beer on offer. It was a match made in Vitrina, Lilienblum street 40.
In the short time we had that evening – and the ten minutes before each of the respective pitches; the U.K. judges on the Wednesday and the Israeli ones on the Thursday, I suggested a string of jokes I could tell and Michael suggested he would string me up if I told them. Instead, we settled on a dual-prong approach in which I spoke about the originality and creative aspects of our pitch, The Boy Who Cried miBot – our dystopian animation – and Michael spoke about the commerciality and viability of it. I know I should really end by saying that it’s the journey and not the destination – that life is about participating not winning - but isn’t it nice when sometimes, just sometimes, you leave with something a little more than you bargained for? When opportunity and preparation do meet with some positive news. Against all the odds - and some very formidable competition – you cross the finish line by a hair…
Watch the moment the winning pitch was announced...
I am so very grateful to my fellow delegates / now friends: Peter Kinkead, Teresa Potocka, Danny Fenton, Barbara Worth, Jarek Marszewski, Ian Taylor, Nina Kojima, Ella Turner, Yael Breuer, Jo Rosenfelder, Emma Hyman, Victoria Holden, Dana Hoegh, Patricia Poienaru – we’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when… but I know we’ll meet again some sunny-cloudy-rainy day!
Gareth Jon Strachan
Chap-In-Charge at Blisstopia Productions
Watch a preview of Gareth and Michael's pitch-winning project, The Boy Who Cried miBot here.
Pact would like to thank Gareth for writing up his experience for us.
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