Less Is Norse

The Scandinavian film sector is perfecting the art of doing a lot with a little

Call it flatpack filmmaking.

The Scandinavian film industry, like Swedish furniture giant IKEA, has turned cost-efficiency into a virtue. Long before the credit crunch, Nordic producers, facing tiny home markets and often miniscule budgets, figured out ways to do more with less.

"We are five very small countries -- the entire population of Scandinavia is just 25 million. We are too small really to make films," says Soren Staermose of Sweden's Yellow Bird and a producer of the Pan-Scandi hit "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." "So we've had to be clever. More clever than the big guys."

Scandinavian producers essentially pioneered the multiterritory co-production, now a standard financing model for European feature films. While the "big guys" in France, Germany, Italy or the U.K. could rely on the deep pockets of their state subsidy boards, Danish, Swedish or Norwegian filmmakers had

to look elsewhere for cash. Lars von Trier's Cannes Competition title "Antichrist" is a typical example. The production credits for the Charlotte Gainsbourg-Willem Dafoe chiller read like the lineup for a European soccer championships: Denmark, Germany, Sweden, France, Poland.

"Tattoo," directed by fellow Dane Niels Arden Oplev, has a similar cosmopolitan financing structure, with cash coming from sources in Sweden, Germany, Norway and Denmark.

Based on the best-selling crime novel by Stieg Larsson about a journalist and a young female hacker, the film has been a monster hit at home, earning more than $30 million across Scandinavia. Zodiak Entertainment already has sold "Tattoo" to several top European territories, including to UGC in France, BIM in Italy, and Benelux Film Distribution in that region.

"Tattoo" is indicative of another Nordic production trend: the film-TV hybrid. Yellow Bird bought rights to Larsson's Millennium trilogy of crime novels with an eye toward making a feature film as well as a six-part series for its partners, which included German public broadcaster ZDF and Sweden's SVT. After the massive success of the first theatrical release, SVT and Yellow Bird decided on theatrical bows for all three films in the series.

"The Girl Who Played With Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," both directed by Sweden's Daniel Alfredson, hit Scandi theaters in the fall.

"The budget for the whole thing was $18 million for three feature films and a miniseries, not bad value for the money," Staermose says. "Producing this way also makes marketing easier since the TV channels promote the theatrical release and the theatrical bow attracts more publicity for the miniseries."

Peter Flinth's Swedish crusader epic "Arn" used the same movie-TV model -- producing two feature-length films, cut into one for international release -- and following with a miniseries that hits Scandinavian TV screens next year.

"It's a very interesting model and one we are definitely looking at," says Rikke Ennis, CEO of TrustNordisk, which is selling "Antichrist" at Cannes. "Of course, we wouldn't ever tell Lars (von Trier) that he has to do a TV show, but from a financing perspective it makes a lot of sense."

Still, even with soft money from a half-dozen territories and top ups from TV channels, Scandinavian filmmakers still have to make do with tiny production budgets.

Not that one notices. Two of last year's biggest hits, "Flame & Citron" and "Max Manus," were World War II period epics packed with special effects and eye-catching stunt work.

"We did 'Max Manus' for $10 million, which might seem small for a WWII action film, but we usually work on $2 million films, so having $10 million was like Christmas," says John Jacobsen of Norway's Filmkameratene , which produced "Manus." "Crew salaries in Scandinavia are quite high, so we don't save there, but we've found a way to work with much smaller crews. We're faster and more efficient."

"Manus" and similar effects-intensive projects also benefit from Scandinavia's growing CGI industry.

Even tiny Finland is trying its hand at epics. After two decades in Hollywood, local boy Renny Harlin ("Die Hard 2") has returned to Helsinki for "Mannerheim," a $13 million biopic about military commander and Finnish president Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim. Billed as the most expensive Finnish movie of all time, "Mannerheim" is set for a 2010 release.

Scandinavian films big and small have carved out a stable place in the local business. Homegrown productions account for about 20% of boxoffice receipts in their respective territories. Internationally, however, Nordic films are feeling the pinch as art house distributors cut acquisitions budgets. Although there still is the occasional come-from-nowhere success story -- like Tomas Alfredson's coming-of-age vampire hit "Let the Right One In" -- selling Scandi has become a lot harder for anyone whose name isn't Lars von Trier.

"We have to be more realistic about our expectations," Ennis said. "We can't take for granted, like we used to maybe 10 years ago, that every Danish film made can travel. In reality, its maybe something closer to 30%. The others are for domestic consumption only and have to be budgeted accordingly."

The market realities are reflected in the high number of Nordic genre titles screening in Cannes, which include Svensk's lost-in-the-woods chiller "Detour," the creepy Finnish horror tale "Sauna" from Bogeydom Licensing, or Nonstop's goofy Norwegian soccer comedy "Long Flat Balls 2," directed by Harald Zwart ("Pink Panther 2").

Even von Trier's "Antichrist" is being billed as a return to genre filmmaking for the director who once delighted in horror (1997's"Epidemic") and cop thrillers (1984's "Element of Crime."

That isn't to say the quirky, auteur-driven Scandinavian drama has gone away completely. Wild Bunch's lineup this year includes Dagur Kari's "The Good Heart," a drama starring Brian Cox and Paul Dano about a bartender who befriends

a homeless man. One of the sleeper hits of this year's Berlinale was "Nord," from director Rune Denstad Langlo. German distributor Alamode Film quickly snatched up the Norwegian off-road comedy after it wowed Berlinale crowds, picking up the critics' FIPRESCI prize and the Label Europa Cinemas award.

"The directors are still making the films they want to, but everyone has become more realistic about the budgets they can make them for," Icelandic Film Center director Laufey Gudjonsdottir says. "Here in Iceland, where we've been really hard hit by the credit crunch, filmmakers know they have to be flexible."

Iceland has become very flexible, especially when it comes to creating soft-money incentives for filmmakers. In an effort to bring back business scared off by the country's fiscal meltdown last year, the government in Reykjavik recently approved a 20% tax break for all local shoots. The country is hoping the move, combined with the appeal of an appallingly weak local currency, will help the tiny island reel in some big international projects.

Iceland might be in the worst shape, but no Scandinavian territory has escaped the global recession entirely. Across the region, consolidation continues apace. The big players -- essentially Svensk and Nordisk -- are getting bigger. The smaller ones are disappearing.

"It's the same everywhere, and we're not immune," Staermose says. "The co-producers on 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' included Nordisk Film operations in Denmark and Sweden. But to be honest, I'd rather be in this situation, where we

at least have strong local players who make it possible to make bigger films."

Big or small, the experience of making movies in the unforgiving Nordic industry has prepared Scandi filmmakers for the current downturn.

The lessons of tight budgets and byzantine co-production financing others in the business are only starting to learn are bred in the bone in Stockholm, Helsinki and Copenhagen.

Whatever turns the global market takes, be sure the Scandinavian model -- high-quality art house fare at low, low prices -- will continue to set the standard.