ARAD, Israel — Will Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Sean Connery soon walk the streets of this development town in Israel’s Negev desert?
Yes, if a billionaire movie producer and an aggressive Israeli politician have their way.
Former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Liberman first met top Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in 1979 when Liberman was a college student and Milchan was the supervising producer for the miniseries Masada, which was filmed on location. Liberman took a job as an extra playing, perhaps prophetically, a Zealot.
Three decades later, Liberman met with Milchan, who complained that blockbuster movies that could have been filmed in Israel were instead being made in places like Morocco, Hungary, and New Zealand. Liberman recommended that Milchan build a state-of-the-art movie studio in Arad, a city whose mayor comes from Liberman’s Israel Beytenu party.
Last week, Liberman greeted Milchan as he arrived by helicopter in Arad to tour possible locations for the studio and hold a press conference in which they announced plans for building it. They vowed to raise more than $30 million for the studio, to tame government bureaucracy, and then to bring out the stars.
West of the Dead Sea and east of Be’er Sheva, Arad was for years a classic “periphery” city, where immigrants struggled for an economic foothold amid the striking desert scenery. Development efforts attracted Diaspora philanthropists, including Jewish federations in Greater MetroWest, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, and the Princeton Mercer Bucks area through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2gether program
Arad Mayor Tali Ploskov wants to involve the Jewish communities of New Jersey in the movie studio plans. “This national project would be a great achievement for Arad,” she said. “It needs the help of the national government as well as Jews around the world to succeed. I invite our supporters around the world to take part.”
Ploskov was due to speak about the project after press time with Stanley Stone, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. As the former top executive at the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, which merged with the MetroWest federation in 2012, Stone has a longstanding relationship with the city.
Ploskov said she understood why people would be skeptical about making Arad into Hollywood East, but said that people also doubted Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion when he dreamed of the desert city that is now Arad.
The normally reserved Moldovan-born mayor gushed with pride when she took Milchan, Liberman, and Jewish National Fund world chairman Effi Stenzler to a tract of desert land outside the city and said, “This will be Arad-wood!”
Added Liberman: “What we are looking at now will soon be Damascus in a movie!”
If they build it…
At the press conference, Milchan said Noah, a biblical blockbuster he is producing, would have been filmed in Israel and not Iceland had the Jewish state had a studio. (Russell Crowe is to star in the movie, due next March.) He said Israel should also have been the site of a forthcoming production by British director Ridley Scott based on the biblical Book of Exodus.
“If the studio would have been here, the movies would have been here,” Milchan told NJJN at the press conference. “If I pay Brad Pitt $20 million for a movie, I can tell him where I’m shooting it. You think Brad Pitt would rather shoot in Budapest than here? Brad will have a good time here.”
At the press conference, all of the speakers ignored the fact that Israel is located in a Middle East in turmoil. No one addressed the issue of boycotts that, while largely ineffective, occasionally persuade top musical acts to cancel their shows. When NJJN asked Milchan about the political climate after the event, he was dismissive.
“There are zero worries about Israel,” he said. “Hollywood considers it the safest place in the world. And it’s no secret that Hollywood has many proud Jews and non-Jewish Zionists who make key decisions.”
Milchan is clearly one of them. He was born in Rehovot 68 years ago and served in Israeli intelligence agencies before moving to the United States. Despite decades in America, the Malibu resident still identifies himself as Israeli, invests in Israel, contributes to Israeli causes, and is close to top Israeli politicians.
When Milchan was given a lifetime achievement award in Los Angeles in 2008, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni sent video greetings. He was introduced at the event by then-TV personality Yair Lapid, who is now Israel’s finance minister and has the authority to approve tax breaks for the studio that may be its lifeline.
“Arnon has not only invested in Israel financially but also emotionally,” Netanyahu said in the clip.
Milchan has produced more than 120 full-length feature films, including Pretty Woman, Fight Club, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Natural Born Killers, LA Confidential, Free Willy, What Happens in Vegas, and The Internship. His net worth is estimated by Forbes at $4 billion.
An expert on how much movies cost to make and how much money they can earn, Milchan believes entering the movie-making industry could bring Israel a windfall of $5-10 billion if the state can offer tax breaks that can compete with what producers receive from other countries.
“The money invested by countries comes back in jobs, hotels, restaurants, construction, tourism, etc.,” he said. “It’s also important public relations for the country. It is possible to build a first-class studio here in Arad. If we do, and there is cooperation from all sides, there is no reason why the biggest productions won’t come to Arad instead of Budapest.”
Liberman vowed to serve as the project’s lobbyist at the Knesset. He said it would require assistance from the government in cutting red tape but not taxpayer funds.
Instead, Liberman hopes to raise money in investments from abroad. He brought to the press conference JNF’s Stenzler and its United Kingdom chairman Samuel Hayek, who have goals of developing the Negev.
Although Israel has a thriving local film and television industry, Liberman noted that previous attempts to bring the major players to Israel have failed. When Israelis talk about Hollywood in Israel, they boast of episodes of Homeland filmed in Tel Aviv, but the last blockbuster vehicle many can point to is Schindler’s List, whose closing scene was filmed here.
“Milchan has succeeded where others failed,” Liberman said. “There are a lot of respected people involved in this project who have a lot of abilities. They say that out of 100 ideas, one comes to fruition. I hope this will be the one.”