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Searching for Sugar Man: Cross-Nordic distribution and lessons from the success of Nordic TV drama

Petri Kemppinen, the CEO of Nordisk Film & TV Fond describes that cross-Nordic distribution has seen a slight increase in the recent years. This is mainly due to few successful titles, including A Man Called Ove (Holm, 2015), which somewhat surprisingly for a comedy managed to do well across the region, and the increase in the films by auteur directors that traditionally perform well in their neighbouring countries, including the works of Ruben Östlund, Joachim Trier and Aki Kaurismäki (Kemppinen, 2018). However even these audiences are relatively small, and Kemppinen mentions that even 20-30K admissions in another Nordic country is considered a good result, 100K a great success. Based on these numbers, Kemppinen believes that growth prospects through cross-Nordic cinema distribution are minimal. Petri Rossi, the Head of Production and Development at the Finnish Film Foundation, backs this view, saying that from a Finnish perspective ‘cross-Nordic distribution opportunities are non-existent’ (Rossi, 2018).

However, a different landscape emerges when looking at the success of Nordic TV content, both in its exertions to conquer the global market, as well as in the way it is being watched across the Nordic region. Whereas steady audiences watch Nordic TV content from their neighbouring countries, the same pattern does not exist for film. A report commissioned by the European Think Thank on Film and Film Policy titled ‘Small Region in a Global World’, presents a clear hypothesis ‘that the reasons for lack of a better Scandinavian (film) exchange have to be found in factors related to areas of production and distribution’. The report continues to argue that ‘the Scandinavian film culture -- remains too focused on production but with not enough focus on reaching a transnational audience outside the national territory.’

Ivar Køhn, the Norwegian public broadcaster’s Head of drama, ponders in the Nordvision’s annual report that the success of Nordic drama is the result of an ambition to create quality that is built on originality, echoing the ‘more local, more global’ ethos: ‘We are different in a good way. We must hold on to these qualities – even when the need for finance means international players gain a bigger foothold in our projects’ (Nordvision, 2017).

Maria Kivinen, a sales executive from the Finnish public broadcaster YLE, also roots for originality and states that the message from the foreign buyers is clear; what they want is Nordic and primarily original language (Kivinen, 2018). According to Kivinen, there is no point to sell a Nordic made, English language TV drama, to a broadcaster like BBC, as it could never compete with the ones available locally – furthermore, the audiences have grown accustomed to subtitles, and they have become part of the Nordic brand, especially in crime series.

Also sharing of information though inter-Nordic initiatives like Nordvision, a Nordic public service media partnership, has also been significant in developing the drama production in the region. Nordvision, which helps to facilitate co-productions between national broadcasters, saw the number of productions increase the fourth year in a row; in total over 5000 program episodes were co-produced and exchanged in 2017. Marit af Björkesten, the Chair of Nordvision, states that the result is achieved because of the great level of mutual trust shared among the producers and commissioners in the region (Nordvision, 2018).

However, with the move away from linear watching to content libraries, with international streaming services dominating the field, the Nordic dramas will need to compete with the continuously available American fiction. Ivar Køhn, answers the competition with originality: ‘I believe we will have to make shows that must first engage and identify with our own audience, but we have to make them of an international quality’ (Nordvision, 2017).

Claus Ladegaard, from the Danish Film Institute, draws similar conclusions on the film side of the business, stating that by increasing quality and budgets and choosing Nordic, original themes, Nordic films could reach wider audiences across the region. According to Ladegaard, many stories could work, including the ambitious $50M Tomas Alfredson project Brothers Lionheart. The story, based on the beloved Astrid Lindgren novel, was being put together for years, but ultimately failed due to financing issues (Taylor, 2013) (Ladegaard, 2018).

‘As a region, we need to secure a mechanism that will allow to put together higher budget Nordic films, and I think they will perform in the domestic market, and in other Nordic markets and there is also a potential that they could perform in the global market better than the films that we put out today.’

Claus Ladegaard

Danish Film Institute

Furthermore, the change can be brought by market development. As the rise of VOD services has helped to attract audiences for Nordic TV drama perhaps similar will be true for film once, eventually, the holdback periods on the film side of the business will collapse.

‘Our industry has for decades lived with certain perceptions of what works and what does not, and what you can do. Nowadays, many phenomenon, most significantly streaming services, are breaking many of these rules.’

Aleksi Bardy

Producer, Helsinki Films

*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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