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Searching for Sugar Man: International Competition


Original language dramas are in several markets automatically labelled as ‘art house’ films (Ilievski, 2018). Petri Kemppinen, the CEO of the Nordisk Film & TV Fond, believes that in many cases this can be an advantage for the film. Whereas arthouse cinema by definition speaks to a dedicated niche audience that can be more easily reached, entering the mainstream market brings new challenges; ‘When moving to produce in English language, the competition is different; the film needs to be a lot better marketed with recognisable cast, and it matters who the studio or the distributor is (Kemppinen, 2018).

Susan Wendt from Trust Nordisk, supports this view, stressing that the international competition is fierce and that to succeed, the film needs to be ‘even better’ which with limited Nordic budgets can be a challenge (Wendt, 2018). For this reason, many practitioners remain sceptic about Nordic films competing internationally;

This idea that we as Nordic producers could compete with American storytelling tradition, I don’t think it is true, I don’t think it works. When we compete with international audiences, it is with very good local stories, like The Hunt (Vinterberg, 2012) which is a good example. A very Danish film that did quite well.

Claus Ladegaard

CEO, Danish Film Institute

Producer Nina Laurio from Solar Films, a Finnish production company, recognises the limits of the local language market and believes that the natural way for growth is through internationalisation but encourages not to view internationalisation too narrowly. The company focuses on producing Finnish language films with Finnish cast and trusts that the films will travel as dubbed versions or as remakes (Laurio, 2018). She firmly believes that making films that draw from the local culture and then using that as a way to stand out from the crowd is a better way of exporting. ‘A Finnish production company cannot think that it will go and conquer the French market – there is no point to go there and compete with the same elements that already exist there but to use the assets that we already have to stand out.’

Petri Kemppinen, who previously worked as the Head of Production at the Finnish Film Foundation, mentions that his scepticism towards English language content has grown, ‘At the Finnish Film Foundation I used to support English language producing a lot, but after seeing how difficult it is even with top Nordic directors, I am more cautious. After all, it looks like producing in English, is not the magic word, at least not at the moment, and not in drama. For genre films, it can be a little different’ (Kemppinen, 2018).

Against the backdrop of heightened international competition, the language decision will also always need to be considered in conjunction with losing the local language audience, which so far is the reality across the Nordic countries (Wendt, 2018). Therefore, this combination of risks makes aiming for the international market an even more uncertain strategy for producers.

Silje Riise Næss, a commissioner at the Norwegian Film Institute, mentions that perhaps the trend in the future will be to aim for the international market with bolder local language content.

We can make quite appealing content in the national languages and they can still attract international audiences, like the Danish drama series, or the Norwegian films The Wave (Uthaug, 2015) or the upcoming film The Quake (Andersen, 2018). Making an interesting film in local language and having all the unique selling points might be a better strategy, as not all of the English language films have fulfilled their expectations.

*This blog post is part of a larger research project titled: Searching for Sugar Man - How, why and to what effect are Nordic producer turning to English language to obtain growth and sustainability for their business.

*For full bibliography as well as an outline of research methods and interviews, please refer to the first post in the series - which can be found here.

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