Most Danish and foreign-language films are still sold abroad after having been screened at a festival or a market, but over the last couple of years competition has intensified over the commercially oriented Nordic films, triggering stronger demand from buyers on projects at an earlier stage of production, and forcing sales agents to adjust.
The change came with "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" which opened the mainstream international market to Nordic films, as other distributors feared they would miss the next Millennium film. But the Nordic blockbuster also appeared on the market at the right time. After a few years of shying away from film acquisitions due to the financial crisis, distributors were ready to open up their wallets again, and the Nordic crime films based on best-selling novel provided a great opportunity to minimize their risks and maximise their revenues with cross media and merchandising opportunities. Also, the international crave for Nordic crime feature films was heightened by the success of TV series such as the Danish "The Killing" that became a cult series last year on the BBC, widening the audience potential for foreign language fare.
Mix of catchy elements
Pre-selling means for a film sales agent hired by a producer to start raising financing on a film by introducing it to as many distributors worldwide as possible prior to the film commencing principal photography. For the sales agent, this means having an attractive package that will entice a distributor to take risks and advance money on the film: a mix of catchy elements such as a name director and scriptwriter, possibly a script, an attractive cast, the production company’s credentials, and a promo-reel.
Rikke Ennis, CEO for TrustNordisk, one of the largest sales agents for Danish and Nordic films says she and her team have to work much more in advance, especially prior to key markets such as the European Film Market in Berlin.
"The change is indeed that we have to be involved on the projects on a much earlier stage. We have to be very prepared and start discussing projects with producers even two years ahead of their release. Buyers are much more aggressive in knowing what’s coming this year but also the following year."
New digital tools are used to facilitate viewing options of promo-reels and finished films such as online screening rooms. "Everything is smoother today, and it makes the decision process go faster. It’s like warm bread: you want to eat it when it’s hot, not wait until after the market!" says Ennis.
In the genre of Nordic crime novels adapted for the screen, TrustNordisk expects Zentropa’s upcoming four films based on Jussi Adler Olsen’s Department Q investigations, to raise the same interest worldwide for pre-sales as did, for instance, the Millennium trilogy, the Swedish "Easy Money" and the Norwegian-Danish "Headhunters" that was one of last year’s hottest titles in Berlin.
But Nordic crime is not the only genre today that attracts pre-financing. Danish animation based on classic children’s books or original content are also in demand. Among the recent films that triggered pre-sales is the 3D "Freddy Frogface" based on Ole Lund Kirkegaard’s novel. The German based "Sola Media" pre-sold it to over 15 territories prior to the film’s premiere in Denmark last June, and this year they are offering the 3D "Jelly T". The 3D "Ronal the Barbarian" was another strong animation film. Sales agent Tine Klint from the Copenhagen-based boutique outfit LevelK says she was able to secure 30% of the budget in pre-sales. The whole package of the film and its timing – in regards to competition on the market – made it highly attractive. "You can’t pre-sell on genre alone, or a director alone. It’s about the package and the timing," she argues.
An attractive mix of ingredients is also what triggered the healthy pre-sales on Nikolaj Arcel’s period drama "A Royal Affair" in Berlin competition. Based on the promo-reel introduced in Cannes in 2011 by the film’s leading talents Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander, TrustNordisk was able to close 40-50% of the budget in pre-sales.
Unique Lars Von Trier
In the auteur category, Danish directors able to raise pre-financing are only a handful, with Lars von Trier keeping a unique position. "Lars’ films are pretty much sold out before we have the finished film. That’s how it always has been," says the head of TrustNordisk. For instance on Nymphomaniac we have already several deals although we haven’t started financing the film."
Nicolas Winding Refn whose US film "Drive" boosted his international profile, is another hot Danish director. His Danish, English-language project "Only God Forgives" starring again Ryan Gosling is pre-sold in Berlin by top French sales agents Wild Bunch and Gaumont. Other bankable Danish directors splitting their careers between the US and Europe are Lone Scherfig and Oscar winner Susanne Bier. Bier’s upcoming comedy starring Pierce Brosnan is one of the most anticipated Danish films of 2012, and as much as 80% of the budget will be pre-sold before final delivery, says Ennis. Thomas Vinterberg’s thriller "The Hunt" also started pre-selling in autumn, based on the track record of Vinterberg, scriptwriter Tobias Lindholm (R and Submarino), lead actor Mads Mikkelsen and the intriguing story.
The high production values, tight character-driven stories and reasonable budgets of Nordic films are what make them strong alternatives to US fare. Dutch buyer Pim Hermeling ("Wild Bunch") who recently acquired for the Benelux "The Hunt", "A Royal Affair", "Nymphomaniac" and the Icelandic-Danish "Volcano" confirms: “The Nordic countries have brought us a large number of successful directors who are doing great in the Netherlands. In Belgium it’s a bit problematic but still, they make money." One of his competitors on the pre-buying market for the Benelux is Lumiere, who has made a specialty of Nordic crime and paying top money to stay number one in the genre.
New market with VOD
Other key countries that have become more aggressive and are opening up to non-English language films are the UK and the number one territory in the world: the US. On top of usual buyers such as IFC Films, the marketing strategy of companies like Magnolia Pictures to go out on VOD prior to the theatrical release is paying off and is being copied by competitors like The Weinstein Company. Large subscription VOD services such as Netflix are also pre-buying, opening up a new market.
"As the US is pretty much number one on new businesses, everyone watches what they do, and we’ll see the next development happening in Europe over the next two years," Ennis assures. "Here in Denmark, we’re having a heated discussion about how to exploit the windows to their maximum. I think time will show that the more we exploit a film in as many windows as possible, the more the film will make money and the more films will actually be produced"