Exciting Times in a Booming Market

INTERVIEW. Two and a half years ago, producer Meta Louise Foldager Sørensen founded SAM Productions with "Borgen" creator Adam Price and "The Killing" creator Søren Sveistrup, backed by the French distributor and investor StudioCanal. Now, the Danish TV production company's first series, the crime thriller "Below the Surface," is world-premiering at the Berlin Film Festival. Berlinale Special Series 2017

Unpredictable and insanely thrilling. That's how producer Meta Louise Foldager Sørensen describes Denmark's booming market for TV series, which in five to ten years has gone from the national broadcasters DR and TV 2 to an expanded range of channels, several Danish and international streaming services and international partnerships.

I think there's an authenticity to the Danish storytelling tradition that goes back to the Dogme wave.

"I simply can't picture how the landscape will look in five years. It's hugely dependent on what we providers deliver to the channels," says Foldager Sørensen, whose first series at SAM are premiering this spring: "Below the Surface" on Kanal 5, operated by SBS Discovery Media, and "Something's Rockin'"(Danish: "Mercur") on TV 2.

Foldager started SAM in summer 2014 with screenwriters Adam Price and Søren Sveistrup and in partnership with the French distributor StudioCanal, aiming to create high-quality TV drama for an international audience. Price and Sveistrup, creators of "Borgen" and "The Killing," respectively, had already seen huge international interest.

"Below the Surface" is the first series to be released under the SAM label – in Berlin, since on Danish screens in spring. Photo: Christian Geisnæs  

Foldager Sørensen, who has produced films for directors like Nikolaj Arcel and Lars von Trier and is the owner of the Meta Film production company, researched the market, confirmed the demand and made a deal with StudioCanal. With StudioCanal buying the international rights to SAM's productions, the core funding is in place and the door is open to the international market.

"The French understand creative freedom – l'artiste – which is dear to us," Foldager Sørensen says about the choice of a fourth partner in the company. "It's a clear part of our profile that we are writer-based and put a lot of focus on the creative process. It has to be a good place for writers, both creatively and financially – and a place where writers get to play in the big, international arena."

New Players in the TV Market

The strategy is to produce series for local TV stations around the world. SAM is currently producing for Danish, French, Swedish, German and American television, with international funding included from the get-go.

"There are just five and a half million of us Danes, and we don't have that many channels or that much money. In Denmark, we have eight to ten buyers. If we open the door to the world, there are a hundred. It's a whole new playground with a lot more opportunities for selling your series and making them bigger," Foldager Sørensen says.

Meanwhile, the Danish market is growing and several channels want to produce their own fiction series. Kanal 5 and TV 2, for both of which SAM is producing, are new players in the field of drama series.

"We want to support the new players' ambitions to enter the drama arena, help them land on their feet and attract the viewers they are looking for. We can raise the production values of a series by raising funds internationally, and we have an ambition to over-perform in terms of what the TV channels expect to get for their money – so they'll come back and the current boom in TV series will be more than a bubble,” Foldager Sørensen says.

"There are a lot of new money and jobs in the Danish television industry right now. When we produce with AMC, it brings a big production to Denmark. HBO and Netflix have arrived. Amazon and others are coming soon and also want to produce locally. It's a really exciting time, but it's sure as hell also important that we deliver in the long run, so that they'll return. Anything else would be a shame."

Johannes Lassen plays a key role in "Below the Surface" – as head of the national terror task force. Photo: Christian Geisnæs

Hostage-taking, State Church and Pirate Radio

Foldager Sørensen can't go into detail about her international productions because they're still in development. As it stands, "Below the Surface" and "Something's Rockin'" are premiering in Denmark in the early spring and "Rides upon the Storm" (Danish: "Herrens veje") which SAM is co-producing with DR, is premiering in September.

"Something's Rockin'" is a drama series about Radio Mercur, a pirate radio station that broke the state broadcaster's monopoly in 1958-62 by transmitting from a ship in international waters in the Sound between Denmark and Sweden. Based on an idea by Adam Price, SAM developed the series with Jesper Malmrose and Søren Frellesen as head writers and Charlotte Sachs Bostrup ("Karla's World," TV series "Nynne") as the conceptualising director.

Price is the head writer of "Rides upon the Storm," produced by DR in a co-production with ARTE France, SAM and SAM le Français, SAM Productions' French subsidiary. The series follows a Church of Denmark minister and his family in a story inspired by the myth of Cain and Abel. Kaspar Munk ("You & Me Forever") is concept director.

Finally, "Below the Surface" is a psychological crime thriller based on an idea by Søren Sveistrup and Adam Price for Discovery, the main channel of Kanal 5, which was looking to produce a TV series in that genre. In turn, SAM hired Kasper Barfoed, who recently directed the feature "Summer of '92," to develop the idea as head writer and director.

The series, which is supported by the Danish Film Institute's Public Service Fund for TV drama and TV documentary, puts terror centre stage, envisioning a nightmare scenario: a hostage-taking in the heart of Copenhagen. The lives of 15 Danes are turned upside down one rainy October morning when the metro train they seek cover in is hijacked by unknown assailants threatening to kill their hostages one by one. Starring Paprika Steen as a journalist and Johannes Lassen and Sara Hjort Ditlevsen as police detectives, the series is having its world premiere in the Berlinale Special Series section.

SAM's upcoming series, "Something's Rockin'," tells the story of the Danish pirate radio station Mercur. Photo: Carsten Andersen

An Authentic Storytelling Tradition

Foldager Sørensen spent her company's first year in business researching the European TV series market to locate the continent's best screenwriters. In the end, she concluded that it was important to hold on to Danish writers. Simply because the quality is so high.

"There's a good reason why Danish TV series do so well internationally. We have a small goldmine of writers working at an extremely high level that we should nurture while fostering new ones," she says.

"I think there's an authenticity to the Danish storytelling tradition that goes back to the Dogme wave. That authenticity is baked into our series because movie directors also do TV series, and a lot of these directors have made Dogme films.

"When a character is authentic, it's easier to identify with him or her even if the show is set in another culture. Our characters [in Danish series] tend to have an offbeat slant and we are very good at including a layer of grief. Even if a series is slick, our characters almost always have these holes in their gut that make what happens to them feel important," says Foldager Sørensen •

Below the Surface to Berlin

Kasper Barfoed is creator, head writer and concept director of "Below the Surface," based on an original idea by writers Adam Price ("Borgen") and Søren Sveistrup ("The Killing").

The crime thriller series is produced by SAM Productions for Kanal 5 of Discovery Networks Denmark with support from the Danish Film Institute's Public Service Fund and EU's Creative Europe Media.

"Below the Surface" will be making its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival (9-19 February) in Berlinale Special Series, the section inaugurated in 2015 as an acknowledgement of the boom in serial storytelling. Festival audiences will be presented with the first two episodes of the series. 

Read news update Below the Surface to Berlinale Special Series