Case Study: Backstabbing for Beginners
The following series of blog posts presents four case studies of Nordic produced films that aim for the international, English language market. Based on interviews with producers, the case studies aim to discuss how turning to the English language has affected the finance options available for the producers, while also addressing the performance of each title. The projects range from micro-budget films to studio titles, to diversify the analysis.
Backstabbing for Beginners (Fly, 2018)
Backstabbing for Beginners is a drama/thriller by an acclaimed Danish director Per Fly. The film was produced by Creative Alliance, a Danish production company, founded in 2008 and co-owned by directors Per Fly, Lone Scherfig, Dagur Kári and Christian Madsen together with Malene Blenkov, who operates as a producer and the company CEO.
Backstabbing for Beginners tells the true story of a young United Nations program coordinator, Michael Soussan, who stumbles across a conspiracy evolving Iraq’s oil reserves and the UN food for oil program (pro.imdb.com, 2018). The film is based on Soussan’s memoir. Starring Theo James and Ben Kingsley, the film is very much aimed at the international audience, with limited Danish affiliations. Soussan is briefly mentioned to be a Danish citizen, but no Danish is spoken in the film.
In an interview in August 2018, Blenkov explains that the film came about after Per Fly was presented with the memoir. According to Blenkov, it was a good match as Fly was passionate about the story and had been wanting to do an English language film.
Blenkov, who also just produced Lone Scherfig’s upcoming New York set Secrets from the Russian Tea Room, explains that as the directors and herself own Creative Alliance, it is very much a creatively driven company and thus is not trying to conquer a certain market.
We don’t have a desire to be part of the American film industry; the language choice is always based on the nature of the story. We focus on the script, how it works for the film and how to finance it. And then we package the film, so it finds its own local market. So, if the story takes place in the US, then we think what is the best way to produce the film and how it will get the best afterlife.
Backstabbing for Beginners had a budget of $8M. The film was represented internationally by Fortitude International and launched at the American Film Market in 2015. However, except for Scandinavia, the film did not obtain presales.
The presale market is very challenging. Even though Per Fly is a world known director in Denmark, he is not world known in the world. Without a very well-known director, presales are difficult.
The film was distributed in the US by A24 who gave the film a small launch in New York where the story took place, skipping a festival premiere. According to Blenkov, the film did not recoup; it earned its investment back, but beyond that, the film did not make a profit.
Recoupment always has to do with the budget of the film. It is easier to recoup a lower budget film than a higher budget film. What happens is when you do an English language film you raise the budget to a level where recoupment is actually more difficult. Often when you go with directors and dream about doing a bigger international film, they want to do it on a bigger budget, and hence the recoupment possibilities are riskier – not impossible but risky. You either fall low or fly high. And that is not what we are used to in Denmark.
It is a problem whatever you do. What you actually should do is an English language film on a much lower budget or at an equivalent budget that you do a Danish film. That would actually be the way to do it.
When analysing the performance of the film, Blenkov gives a straightforward answer;
I think the film was not good enough. I think that there might be other films in the same genre that are better. It is a difficult genre. There is only one answer to that question because if a film is very brilliant, it probably will perform. The audiences did not want to see the film; I don’t know why, maybe they did not like the trailer or the tone of the film, or they thought it was too complicated.
When discussing the broader status of the Nordic market and business model of Creative Alliance, Blenkov explains that the company purposefully keep its size quite small and its costs very low in order to invest in development.
We try to keep our costs very low. We do not have in house accountants or in-house lawyers. When the company is too big, you have to feed the monster. We have very low daily costs and very few people working at the office so that we can keep developing as long as possible.