Norse Code

Ambitious homegrown epics drive a boxoffice surge from Helsinki to Copenhagen

Gone are the days when Nordic cinema was synonymous with the grainy, shaky-cam images of Danish Dogme, the philosophical intellectualism of Sweden's Ingmar Bergman and the wry minimalism of Finish phenomenon Aki Karusimaki.

Nordic movies these days are epic -- World War II actioners like "Flame & Citron" and "Max Manus," the Crusader tentpole "Arn," the historical drama "Everlasting Moments" -- or mainstream, including Swedish vampire flicks like "Let the Right One In" and "Not Like Others," the Icelandic thriller "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," the Norwegian horror franchise "Cold Prey" or the Finnish holiday hit "Niko & the Way to the Stars."

They also are popular. From Helsinki to Copenhagen, local-language films are taking an increasingly large share of the boxoffice.

Denmark leads the way with homegrown productions accounting for about 30% of the total market in 2008. "Flame & Citron," a WWII drama featuring local stars Mads Mikkelson and Thure Lindhardt as true-life Nazi resistance fighters, was the No. 1 film of the year. The total admissions figure for Danish films -- 4.1 million -- was the best since 1978.

Norway kept pace thanks to its own homegrown megahit, "Max Manus," from directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg. The story is, superficially, a carbon copy of "Flame & Citron." The eponymous hero was a real-life saboteur who fought the Nazi occupation in Norway. Ticket sales for Norwegian titles jumped almost 50% last year to 2.7 million -- an impressive figure in a country with just 4.6 million inhabitants.

Although Swedish and Finnish features didn't break records last year, domestic titles still accounted for 20%-25% of total cinema admissions in the respective territories. And both can point to a local blockbuster that played off national sentiment.

In Sweden, it was Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments," a historic epic set in the turn of the last century, and Peter Flinth's medieval tentpole "Arn." Based on the best-selling novels by Jan Guillou, "Arn," is a near-mythical tale of the founding of the Swedish nation and was produced as two full-length features for the Scandinavian market.

"We've seen boxoffice growth across the entire Nordic territory, and that is in large part due to local films," says Ramus Ramstad, CEO of Nordic distributor-producer giant Svensk Filmindustri. "There's been a trend toward local-language films for some time now in Denmark and Sweden. In the last few years, Norway and Finland have also caught up."

What's driving this Nordic boom is not the dark dramas and experimental cinema many outside the region still associate with Scandinavia. Instead, it's big-budget epics, quirky horror and mainstream comedies that are pulling in audiences.

The comedies still have trouble traveling. The Norwegian soccer laffers "Long Flat Balls" and "Long Flat Balls 2" were huge hits locally, but despite having been directed by Harald Zwart (of "Pink Panther 2" and the upcoming "Karate Kid" remake), don't expect them to turn up at a multiplex near you.

The others just might. A raft of recent Nordic titles have secured U.S. distribution deals: IFC picked up "Flame & Citron" and "Everlasting Moments,"Magnet Releasing/Magnolia Pictures grabbed "Let The Right One In," "Christmas Story" went to Lightning Media and The Weinstein Co. secured "Niko and the Way to the Stars."

"These films don't look like 'Nordic' movies," says Rikke Ennis, CEO of Danish sales powerhouse TrustNordisk, explaining the crossover success of the new wave of Scandi features. "They have higher production values with very mainstream stories. 'Max Magus' looks more like 'Pearl Harbor' than a Dogme film."

Nordic horror has been one of the biggest sellers. Led by Swedish preteen vampire tale "Let the Right One In," which Germany's Bavaria Film Interantional has sold to more than 50 territories, Scandi screamers have proved a bankable brand. Some of the new crop available at Berlin's European Film Market include "Cold Prey 2" from Norway, which TrustNordisk is selling, and NonStop Sales' "Not Like Others" (Swedish vampires) and "Manhunt" (Norwegian splatter). Then there's Finland, which has begun turning out an assembly line of low-budget, high-concept shockers that are world's away from the films of Aki and Mika Kaurismaki.

"When I first saw 'Let the Right One In,' I was really blown away by it because at its heart it's a love story, it has real tenderness," says Simon Oakes of Exclusive Media Group, which picked up U.S. remake rights to the Swedish vampire tale. "We always track world cinema and particularly in the Nordic regions -- Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway -- they have very original ideas. The directors there make films with a certain creative freedom that very few elsewhere can do."

Given Scandinavia's famous talent for languages -- Oakes jokes that "most Swedes speak better English than the English" -- it's no surprise that Nordic filmmakers have found it easy to cross over into international productions. Lukus Moodysson's Berlinale competition entry "Mammoth" is set in New York and stars indie A-listers Gael Garcia Bernal and Michelle Williams. Similarly, Lone Scherfig's Sundance entry "An Education" boasts a screenplay from Brit lit star Nick Hornby and a cast featuring (Sweden's own) Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina and Emma Thompson.

At the EFM, buyers can check out footage from Swedish director Tarik Saleh's "Metropia," an animated sci-fi tale featuring the voice talents of Stellan Skarsgard, Juliette Lewis and Vincent Gallo, or "Love at First Hiccup," Barbara Rothenborg's adaptation of the 1999 Danish rom-com hit that has spawned five sequels.

Nordic talents do "go Hollywood" -- see onetime Dogme director Susanne Bier, who is following up the Halle Berry-Benicio Del Toro starrer "Things We Lost in the Fire," produced by DreamWorks, with the romantic comedy "Lost for Words" from Universal Pictures and starring Kelly Reilly, Ziyi Zhang and Anjelica Huston. But because of the strength of the local industry, many -- like Moodysson -- have the option of producing bigger films without handing over production or creative control.

How did a region of Europe with a population about that of Texas manage to remain master of its domain? It doesn't hurt that local media giants Svensk and Nordisk both are nearly a century old and were pioneers in the international film business.

The fragmented nature of the Nordic region also has helped scare off outside competitors.

"The Scandinavian market is made up of four (with Iceland five) small countries, all of which are very different, with different languages and cultures. You need operations in every territory and very good organization to make things work," Ramstad says. "It's a lot of work and, because the region is small compared to, say, Germany or France, it's not as attractive for international players. Very few American companies have established themselves here."

Having a small population and financing base also has forced Scandi companies to think beyond their borders. The Scandinavians essentially invented the idea of the international co-production, and corporations in Copenhagen and Stockholm have been forerunners in the field of cross-border synergy.

All the big local players are integrated both laterally across Northern Europe, and vertically, with production/distribution and sales operations under one corporate roof.

Swedish giant Svensk has taken a more traditional approach to cross-border consolidation, adding to its already impressive Pan-Nordic reach by gobbling up promising regional production companies, including, most recently, Swedish powerhouse Sonet Films, the producers of "Arn."

Denmark Zentropa, on the other hand, has been more inventive it its strategy. The Copenhagen-based producer, once a dirty little startup run by Danish director Lars von Trier and his producer partner Peter Aalbaek Jensen, has become a Pan-European operation by launching small satellite divisions in cities across the continent. Zentropa recently opened new offices in Norway, adding to a production network that includes Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Sweden. The network lets Zentropa tap multiple state film subsidy sources for bigger productions while maintaining a lean, mean operation.

The fact that Zentropa has three films in competition in Berlin this year shows how effective the setup has been.

Moodysson's "Mammoth" is a Swedish-German-Danish co-production between Sweden's Memfis Film and Film i Vast and Zentropa's German operations in Berlin and Cologne. Zentropa's German, Dutch and Danish divisions helped co-produce "Storm," from German director Hans-Christian Schmid. Only "Little Soldier," an all-Danish film from Annette K. Olesen ("In Your Hands") resembles the low-budget, intense dramas that used to be Zentropa's bread and butter.

Traditional Scandinavian films are still being made and sold. "North," the debut from Norwegian director Rune Denstad Langlo, that will premiere in Berlin's Panorama sidebar, trades in the same kind of quirky, melancholic humor that turned Norwegian titles "O'Horten" and "The Art of Negative Thinking" into crossover success stories.

Similarly, children's films, a Nordic specialty, still have pride of place in Berlin's Generation sidebar and among buyers at the European Film Market.

Such titles as Svensk's "Mamma Moo & Crow," Bavaria's "The Eagle Hunter's Son," Delphis Films' "Max Embarrassing" and "Glowing Stars" or NonStop's "Gnomes and Trolls" are part of this tradition.

And the old guard has not gone away. TrustNordisk is having no problems selling "Antichrist," the latest heart-wrenching drama from Danish master Von Trier. "Sunshine Boy," the documentary about autism from Icelandic veteran Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, has received critical raves and Wide Management has high hopes for "Three Wise Men," the first Finish-language film from Mika Kaurismaki in almost two decades.

"Listen, there will always be a place for Dogme-style stories," says Exclusive's Oakes. "But now (in Scandinavia) there is a lot more out there, for an even wider audience."