Helsinki's Film Festival Goes Hollywood, Marketing-Wise

Blind Spot Pictures

After 25 years of obscurity interrupted by Kaurismakis, Finland's shy giants put on marketing armor, grab for more glory and plan to invade Russian film.

The Helsinki International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 20-30, has plenty to celebrate on its 25th anniversary. HIFF, whose 55,000 visitors generate 70 percent of its 500,000 budget, got 75,500 from the Finnish Film Foundation. The FFF invests 27 million a year in more than 20 shorts, 30 docs, and 20 Finn features, including Finland’s Oscar submission Purge, by Antti Jokinen, a highlight of HIFF’s 185 films.  “It has been seen by 120,000 people,” FFF head of production Petri Kemppinen tells The Hollywood Reporter -- huge for a nation of 5 million.

Isolated by geography and a language that strikes even fellow Scandinavians as bizarre, ruled by Sweden for 600 years and Russia for 100 (“The Russian years were better,” says Kemppinen), Finland has been overshadowed by higher-profile international hits from Denmark and Sweden. “We have not been good about marketing,” says fest director Pekka Lanerva. He says one reason Lars von Trier is better known than Aki Kaurismaki, who broke around the same time, is that dazzling invention Dogme, which he calls “a great artistic idea but also a successful marketing idea.”

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With 25,700 from FFF and help from Favex (Finnish Film & Audiovisual Export, the other main player in Finnish film), Helsinki steps into the marketing spotlight by adding to this year’s festival its first-ever industry showcase, the Finnish Film Affair (Sept. 25-27), to which 30 buyers and film professionals were invited to watch 27 new Finnish films and 15 works in progress, in a program called "Laugh Scream Learn." “We are not quite belonging to the club,” says Kemppinen, “but Finnish Film Affair could transform HIFF into a film market.”

Industry players who’ve never been there before are sniffing around HIFF this time, hunting for hits. "There might be some projects floating around lonely which might be of interest," says Alexandra Emilia Kida of Trust Nordisk, which is hot this season thanks to films like Purge and two with rising star Mads Mikkelsen: Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt and Sweden’s glossy Oscar submission A Royal Affair. “There’s a huge appetite for films from this region,” said NBCUniversal Pictures junior acquisition manager Amit Dey on HIFF’s first-ever panel about film sales on Sept. 26, which featured eight sales, marketing and distribution experts telling art house war stories and giving Finn filmmakers advice. “Trust Nordisk in Toronto screened four or five films, and every single one was packed because there’s a thought among buyers that there will be a gem in there, and usually every 18 months there is.”

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Why did Finland suddenly decide -- rather late, in April -- to put itself on the map? “Now is really the moment,” says Lanerva, “because there are successes with different kinds of films.” He predicts greater visibility for Kaurismaki, Finland’s sole Oscar nominee for 2002’s The Man Without a Past and droll auteur of its 2011 Oscar submission Le Havre. (Kaurismaki runs with his filmmaker brother Mika the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland’s remote Lapland for 20,000 visitors). “Aki has this ability to make movies that are commercially viable and artistically coherent.” But Lanerva says Finland is not just about Kaurismaki anymore. “They are international players, but it was very frustrating that they represent the whole country. We had to show more variety.” HIFF 2012 film Iron Sky, a financially and technologically innovative mock epic about Nazis from the moon invading Earth, “was a big event,” says Lanerva, “and 2010’s Rare Exports [about evil Santa and his killer dwarfs] was distributed quite widely in France. The game Angry Birds is going to be a movie. Not much Finnish characterization in that, but it’s going to be a big deal.”

Says Kemppinen: “We have been seeing a second or even a third wave in Finnish film. I would say there is a quirkiness or absurdity in them. It’s not very standard dramatization, that’s for sure. One of our strengths is that we’re different from other Nordic countries.”

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HIFF intends both to draw closer to Nordic neighbors and capitalize on its geographical and cultural difference, adding more films from neighboring Estonia, whose Taska Film co-produced Purge with Finland’s Solar Films and coincidentally is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its film industry. “This year they have like doubled the usual production of feature-length documentaries,” says Lanerva. “We’re going to expand to other Baltic countries a lot in the next few years.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Finland also has plans to join forces with Russia. Russia’s dominance of Finland was called “Finlandization.” When THR asked Kemppinen and Lanerva whether their Russian plan constituted Finlandization in reverse, Kemppinen snorted and Lanerva delightedly said: “Yeah, that’s right! We have met with the St. Petersburg [International] Film Festival several times in the last few months. They run at exactly the same time as us, and you don’t need a visa -- just take a boat and in the morning you’re there. We are hoping to make our festival a gateway to Russian movies.”

Lanerva thinks Russians need a marketing hand because they try to sell world festivals on big action movies and comedies. “That doesn’t work at all. It’s midlevel art house comedies that work outside of the country. Russia doesn’t push art house works much.” Lanerva plans to push Russian art house films along with Finnish, Estonian and Baltic. “We want to make our festival a gateway to Russian movies.”

HIFF also means to be a gateway from Hollywood's marketing department to Finland's too-self-effacing filmmakers. “Finnish people are mostly quite shy,” says Lanerva. Maybe the main thing Finns need to learn is to adopt a more brash and swaggering Hollywood attitude. Perhaps they could pump up their pride by blasting the brassy score to Finn director Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2 -- the Finnish national anthem.