Scandinavia's film industry goes global

5:00 AM PST 05/18/2007 by Soren Hoy, AP

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From Oslo to Reykjavik, Scandinavia's film industry is going global, looking beyond the far north to find new audiences and new business opportunities. While Iceland is attracting big-budget productions like "Flags of Our Fathers" to take advantage of its raw, volcanic landscape, Sweden and Norway are targeting an international audience with ambitious new productions, and Denmark continues to rely on its seemingly inexhaustible supply of homegrown talent to drive its industry.

THR took a tour around the region for the latest on the Scandinavian film scene.

SWEDEN

If you want to know more about the Swedish film sector, look no further than the $30 million epic "Arn." The most ambitious film project to ever come out of Scandinavia, the films -- two are in production -- are based on the bestselling Crusade trilogy by Swedish icon Jan Guillou.

The project's director, Peter Flinth, a Dane, says the prospect of directing a film about one of the most beloved characters in Swedish literature was a bit intimidating. "Everyone in Scandinavia has their own vision of Arn -- how he looks and acts," he says. "I have to trust my own vision, and at the same time respect Guillou's original story. Of course the Swedes were a bit anxious about a Dane filming one of the greatest Swedish stories ever written, but eventually everyone has accepted the fact that this is a Scandinavian saga. This is the story about the entire part of our region."

Guillou's "Arn" series has sold more than 3 million copies in Scandinavia. Set in the 12th century, the story is based on a popular middle age tale about the founding of the Swedish state.

Producers SF-Film is counting on international sales to make the project work financially, which will be key since the films are by far the most expensive to ever come out of Sweden.

Right now the production is shooting in Vastergotland, Sweden after wrapping up in Morocco, where the film team spent one month re-creating the crusades to Jerusalem 840 years ago. "'Arn' has a very up-to-date theme," says Flinth. "The clash of cultures and religion versus power. The Arn-figure has an open mind, and he wants to know his opponent instead of destroying him. I hope that message will appeal to the audience."

As for the overall state of Swedish film, things are not quite as rosy. Many in the industry lament the fact that from both a business and creative standpoint drastic improvements must be made.

Jessica Simonsson, a representative from a group of film workers who have started an initiative to end the situation, says: "The last couple of years we have seen a double negative trend. The quality of the films have reached a low point, and bad work environment in the business is a reflection on that -- all due to bad economic conditions. We have to develop films with realistic budgets, and we have to create a new wildness in the scripts."

In 2006, 61 Swedish films were released, accounting for a less than stellar 20% market share.

ICELAND

Batman, James Bond and Lara Croft are among the characters who have already taken advantage of "Film in Iceland," a new initiative set up by the Icelandic Film Commission and the Invest in Iceland Agency.

Under the initiative, TV and film producers shooting on the island can apply a tax break of up to 14% of the production's Icelandic spend.

"Flying in over the black sand beaches and lava fields, I could see that Iceland had the rugged and unusual look we needed for our film," Clint Eastwood said shortly after wrapping production on the Oscar-nominated epics "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima." "I soon learned that Iceland also has friendly, hard-working people with a refreshing can-do spirit. The open roads and undisturbed countryside remind me of the way America was fifty years ago. With such gorgeous scenery, delicious fish and even golf, Iceland made for a terrific filming location."

Nevertheless, Icelandic actor-writer-director Baltasar Kormakur, one of the country's top film talents, fears the 14% deal will turn his beautiful country into just another film studio.

"I cannot see what we want from this deal," he said during the Reykjavik Film Festival. "I think people are selling us out. It's a short-sighted vision to turn Iceland into a cheap studio lot. What's the point? If everyone comes here and puts our nature into every other film or music video, suddenly we are in every show 'round the world. Our films will look less exotic and at the end, we will have nothing left to offer that is unique for Icelandic film."

Despite this criticism, Iceland is plowing ahead with the 14% refund program. Upcoming projects shot on the island include Eli Roth's horror sequel "Hostel: Part II" and Matthew Vaughn's "Stardust," starring Robert de Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Claire Danes.


"Uro"

NORWAY

They call it the Norwave.

A decade ago, Norwegian cinema was virtually an oxymoron. Last year the country had four films in the official screenings in Cannes: Two in the Critic's Week -- the animated "Free Jimmy" by Christopher Nielsen; "The Bothersom Man" from Jens Lien -- and "Restless" by Stefan Faldbakken in Un Certain Regard. To top it off, the Norwegian short film "Sniffer" won the prestigious Palme d'Or for helmer Bobbie Peers.

And if that weren't enough, director Torill Kove's "The Danish Poet" won the short film category at this year's Oscar's.

Suddenly, Norwegian cinema is on the move, both artistically and commercially. While the government is backing the Norwave with lucrative production and infrastructure subsidies, it doesn't hurt that Norway's Minister of Cultural Affairs, Trond Giske, is also a self-confessed film fanatic.

"He is the kind of minister who attends film festivals and film parties, and I guess he is closer to the film business than any minister has been before," says Mikal Olsen LeOren from Bergens Tidende, one of the leading multimedia broadcasters in Norway. "Mr. Giske has over time built an interest and knowledge about Norwegian film, and he sets high ambitions on behalf of the industry."

Indeed, Giske recently unveiled progressive new goals for the nascent Norwegian film sector, including:

- Production of 25 feature films annually, including five children's films and five full-length documentaries

- At least three million admissions annually for local-language films in the territory

- A 25% share of the theatrical market and a 15% share of DVD and VOD markets will go toward home-grown productions

- By 2010 40% of filmmakers in key positions in productions must be women

"I must admit that when I first heard about these goals I was surprised and thought of it as being a little naive," continues Olsen. "Above all the ambition to take 25% of the theatrical market seems a little hard to reach. Last year it was 18%. But it is growing on me and to be fare, if you don't set high ambitions how can you really accomplish anything? A quick look at the last ten years in Danish film, gives the ambitions relevance."

Giske is also backing the international distribution of Norwegian films via an incentive to subsidize foreign distributors releasing Norwegian productions, as well as a tax-incentive scheme to attract international features to shoot in the territory.

Additionally, Norway's top-down approach to the industry means that the government plans to take a leading role in the digitalization of the country's theaters and intends to maintain ownership of Jollywood, the film studios located at Jar outside Oslo.


"Brothers"

DENMARK

Danish film has been on a high for more than 10 years, with domestic success and festival praise becoming a regular occurrence for the Danes.

But only a handful within the industry have had any luck going abroad to work. Talents such as Mads Mikkelsen ( "Casino Royal"), Ulrich Thomsen ("Kingdom of Heaven") and Nikolaj Coster Waldau ("Wimbledon") have all had decent results with their acting career, in addition to Connie Nielsen ("Gladiator," "The Ice Harvest") who is by far the most established name.

Great Dane directors who have made the leap include Bille August ("House of Spirits," "Goodbye Bafana"), Ole Bornedal (a remake of the Danish blockbuster "Night Watch").

But following an Oscar nomination for "After the Wedding," Susanne Bier has easily become the hottest filmmaking commodity in Denmark. Bier is currently in post-production on "Things we lost in the Fire," which is set for its U.S. premiere in September.

The prolific Bier helmed three of the most successful Danish movies in recent years: the Dogma relationship drama "Open Hearts"; "Brothers," the story of a soldier's homecoming from the war and the tearjerker "After the Wedding." Together the films have sold more than 1.4 million tickets in Denmark, grossing an impressive $ 15 million -- an enormous success by Scandinavian standards.

All three have been picked up for U.S. remakes. Zach Braff has optioned "Open Hearts," "Brothers" will be produced by Columbia Pictures and a deal for "After the Wedding" is expected in the coming weeks.

"The American market is interested in Susanne right now -- but we still have to face a reality where the big studios have 40 interesting foreign films they are considering to remake, so it's not an easy sell for us," says Anders Kjarhauge from Bier's company Zentropa. "The remake rights are not a golden deal for Zentropa. We get around $100,000 for a film, when all expenses to agents and middlemen have been paid."

Blier is part of an industry that has, amazingly, been on a domestic high the last 13 years. The contract between The Minister of Cultural Affairs and The Danish Film Institute says that every year between 20 and 25 Danish films must be produced and released. The Film Institute handles approximately $365 million on a four-year period, with productions receiving from 50 to 70% financial government funding. The average budget for a Danish film is round $ 3 million.

From 1994 to 2004 the ticket sales for domestic films increased 300% -- resulting in a steady 25% market share. In 2006 the collective ticket sale reached 12 million -- with the Danish features representing 3 million tickets.

Nevertheless, 2007 has so far been difficult for the Danish productions, with only three of the nine new films in release reaching the expected gross.
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