Is Israeli film too funny for the U.S.?

The Israeli producer David (Dudi) Zilber couldn’t be happier about the success of his latest film, “Lost Islands,” a comedy about twin brothers in late-1970s Israel who fall in love with the same girl. The film is having its gala U.S. premiere tonight at the Israel Film Festival (it plays at 7:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre, with more showings later in the week).

“Lost Islands” was the biggest box-office hit in Israel last year, earning a clutch of good reviews and winning a variety of Israeli film awards.

But for all its commercial success and critical honors, the Reshef Levy-directed film is still missing one key feather in its cap -- it has been roundly ignored by every U.S. distributor.

“It’s a big disappointment,” Zilber, on the phone from Israel, told me. “Not even one distributor has given us an offer. No one is interested.”

Filmmaking in Israel has been in something of a renaissance, with a number of recent films, notably “Waltz With Bashir,” “The Band’s Visit” and “Beaufort” (the last of which Zilber produced) all playing the American art-house circuit, earning rave reviews and doing respectable business for foreign imports.


So why wouldn’t anyone want Israel’s biggest hit? Zilber isn’t entirely sure himself, but he offers an intriguing theory: When it comes to foreign imports, U.S. distributors are far more interested in serious, art-house dramas than in popular comedies. In fact, being a big comedy hit in Israel probably makes “Lost Islands” a harder sell than if it were a small, thoughtful adult drama.

“The movies that sell well overseas -- and this is true if they are from France or Iran as well as from Israel -- are the ones that have soft or delicate subject matter, a serious theme that would appeal to the U.S. art-house moviegoer,” says Zilber. “Non-English-speaking films are geared to a very specific audience in the U.S. -- the cinephiles, the people who want serious drama. So actually, the more commercial the movie is in Israel, the less commercial it would be in America.”

In fact, the most salable aspect of “Lost Islands” is its comic story line. Zilber says that even though no one wants to distribute the film itself, he’s in negotiations with several U.S.-based film companies for the American remake rights to the film. This is hardly unusual. The French comedy “Welcome to the Sticks” has broken so many box-office records in France this year that it is about to overtake “Titanic” as the highest-grossing film in French history. No U.S. distributor has acquired the film, yet Will Smith recently bought the rights to remake it as an English-language comedy.

“There are lots of films from all sorts of different cultures that simply don’t travel beyond their country of origin,” says Sony Pictures Classics Co-Chairman Michael Barker, whose company is the leading U.S. distributor for foreign films. “So this isn’t just about Israeli films. There are comedies in Italy and Germany that do huge business, but just don’t cross over. As a rule, U.S. audiences are looking for something else in a foreign film, whether it’s social commentary or drama or an insight into the human condition.”

Barker points to “Goodbye Lenin,” a German film that was a huge hit in its native country. “It did cross over to some extent in the U.S.,” he says. “But I always thought its appeal for Americans was that it wasn’t just a comedy, but a blend of entertainment and social comment. It answered a lot of questions people had about how everyday Germans dealt with the unification of Germany.”

Zilber says that he is a realist. Each time he launches a new film project, he knows that if he wants to attract outside financing, he needs to deliver subject matter that will translate to another culture. On the other hand, he enjoys making films that appeal to his core Israeli audience. His next film is a biblical fantasy that offers a comic version of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. “It is performed by a group of Israeli comedians who are like our version of Monty Python,” he says.

Will it translate to foreign audiences? “Well, first let’s see how it does here,” says Zilber. “But, of course, I’m always hoping it will appeal to others. It may be a comedy, but at least it’s about a subject everyone knows.”