Low-Budget Danish Films Set The Pace

Tougher earnings opportunities in the market, along with a need for innovation and reinvention, are putting the brakes on medium-budget Danish films. Now, many film companies are focusing on inexpensively made films instead. At the other end, high-budget productions are gaining ground as well.

A snapshot of today's Danish film market reveals several different tendencies, notably a marked focus on low-budget films. Films costing around 2.5 million euros have dominated Danish cinema for a number of years, but now the film industry is reading the writing on the wall. Innovation is called for to prevent Danish cinema from falling into a slump after the worldwide success of Dogme.

"There is no money in medium-budget films. Films in the 2.5 million euros range have become too expensive to be innovative and too cheap to be unique. Consequently, our declared strategy now is either to make very inexpensive films or very expensive films." Peter Aalbæk Jensen, head of Zentropa

"There is no money in medium-budget films. Films in the 2.5 million euros range have become too expensive to be innovative and too cheap to be unique. Consequently, our declared strategy now is either to make very inexpensive films or very expensive films." Peter Aalbæk Jensen, head of Zentropa

One way to go is low-budget films. Several Danish film companies are moving into inexpensive filmmaking, and the Danish Film Institute (DFI) is keeping pace with its Rå|Film pilot fund.


Peter Aalbaek Jensen foto Zentropa

Peter Aalbæk Jensen. Photo: Zentropa


Steered by CEO Peter Aalbæk Jensen since its foundation in 1992, Zentropa has established itself far beyond the Danish borders. Co-founded by Aalbæk Jensen and filmmaker Lars von Trier, Zentropa is known and respected the world over for edgy films by von Trier and other directors, including Susanne Bier, Lone Scherfig, Per Fly and Annette K. Olesen. The company was a linchpin in the Dogme concept and other vanguard projects. Zentropa's films have won the Golden Palms and the Silver Bear, while Zentropa has represented Denmark at four Academy Award ceremonies.

On February 7 of this year, Egmont-owned Nordisk Film acquired a 50% stake in Zentropa. The new partnership means a cash infusion for Zentropa. The goal is to increase the number of international productions and create a Northern European powerhouse capable of attracting the strongest creative forces.

Regner Grasten foto ukendt

Regner Grasten Photo: Unknown


Since 1985, Regner Grasten and the company that bears his name have been behind numerous Danish blockbusters, mainly family films. Grasten's big breakthrough came with the "Crumbs" movies (1991-94). Starting in 1999, Grasten has created a strong brand in the "Anja & Viktor" films. The fifth film in the series, "Anja & Viktor – In Sickness and in Health", is due out in Denmark on September 12.

Over the years, Regner Grasten Film has produced several films based on Danish bestsellers, including "Stolen Spring" (1993), "Just a Girl" (1995) and "Lost Generation" (2004).

From the outset, the company has focused on marketing.

In connection with forming its low-budget subsidiary Filmfabrikken, Regner Grasten Film moved to Filmbyen in Avedøre, near Copenhagen, which is also home to Zentropa, Nimbus Film and others.


Filmfabrikken is a low-budget production company formed in partnership between Regner Grasten Film and Zentropa, aiming to kick new energy into Danish cinema by making edgy and off-beat films with broad audience appeal.

The budget framework is 0.5 to 1.2 million euros a film, in addition to marketing costs. All the films will be lavishly marketed and promoted. The goal is to release three to four films a year, with admissions of at least 100,000.

Filmfabrikken would like to export its films, naturally, but it’s not a priority, Regner Grasten says.

Claus Ladegaard foto MEW

Head of Production & Development Claus Ladegaard (DFI). Photo: MEW


To stimulate innovation in Danish cinema and support lowbudget films that take an innovative and interesting approach to storytelling, the Danish Film Institute this year launched the Rå|Film pilot fund.

The fund of 15 million kroner (approx. 2 million euros) will speed subsidies to feature films with budgets of up to 10 million kroner (1.34 million euros) and potential admissions of at least 75,000.

The fund can issue development grants of up to 200,000 kroner (27,000 euros) and production grants of up to 3 million kroner (400,000 euros).

Grant applications are processed by an editorial board of three Film Institute employees, plus theatre manager Jon Steffensen and life-style expert/communications advisor Henrik Byager.

As a condition for receiving a Rå|Film grant, applications must show a certain development level and be set to start production shortly after grants are made.
Rå|Film will run for a year and then be evaluated.

Henrik Bo Nielsen foto Erik Mlberg Hansen

CEO Henrik Bo Nielsen (DFI). Photo: Erik Molberg Hansen

"Producers are familiar with the financial framework and are very adept at making films in the 2.5 million euro range. However, recent years have seen increased diversity, and we want to support that trend," Claus Ladegaard, DFI Head of Production & Development, says.

As Ladegaard points out, excellent films have been made for around 2.5 million euros, including Niels Arden Oplev's "Worlds Apart". There are no plans to cut out medium-budget films, he says. All it takes is getting away from formulaic thinking.


Despite many fine examples to the contrary, "medium-budget films" have a hard time breaking even in a cinema market that has seen an explosive increase of 34% in the number of film releases. In 1999, 176 films were released theatrically. Last year's figure was 235, a vast majority of them American. Danish features made up just 27 of the 235 releases.

"Competition for people's time is heated. Considering the growing number of choices, and the subsequently shorter periods to break even, standard films costing around 2.5 million euros are becoming a financial headache to producers," Henrik Bo Nielsen, CEO of the DFI, says.

This fact is not lost on the Zentropa film company:

"There is no money in medium-budget films. Films in the 2.5 million euros range have become too expensive to be innovative and too cheap to be unique. Consequently, our declared strategy now is either to make very inexpensive films or very expensive films," Peter Aalbæk Jensen, head of Zentropa, says.


As a step in this strategy, Zentropa last year partnered up with film producer Regner Grasten to start a low-budget company, Filmfabrikken. Taking American Miramax as its model, Filmfabrikken intends to make alternative films and release them with a big splash to win back some space in Danish cinemas from mediocre American films that, Grasten contends, should go straight to DVD. Filmfabrikken's films have a budget cap of 1.2 million euros, so there’s room to take risks and, not least, market them aggressively.

"Right now, warning lights are flashing," Regner Grasten says. "There is declining interest in going to the movies and watching anything but solid mainstream films. If we want to trigger broad, renewed interest among moviegoing audiences, we need to take some risks, think in terms of audiences instead of target groups and put money into marketing."

As films get more expensive to make, producers hold back from taking a risk on unknown directors or in earnest experiment with the art of film, followed up by broad marketing. "In Filmfabrikken, we want to create a growth tank for cinema culture – just as Miramax did in the US. For a company to survive doing mainstream films, it’s essential to learn from the underground," Grasten says.


To foster innovation in Danish cinema and support the industry's focus on low-budget films, the DFI this year launched a pilot fund specifically designed to subsidise such films. Rå|Film makes grants to films that have budgets of no more than 10 million kroner (1.34 million euros).

"With Rå|Film , we hope to contribute some innovation to Danish cinema, because such low budgets force filmmakers to take risks, and basically demand a good story, since you can’t just crank up the effects," DFI CEO Henrik Bo Nielsen says.

Both Rå|Film and Filmfabrikken are wide open in terms of genre. The same goes for those who will be making the films. It doesn't matter if they are young talents or seasoned industry veterans. What counts is innovative thinking. In addition, Filmfabrikken has a set goal of each film selling 100,000 tickets, while Rå|Film operates with a potential audience requirement of 75,000.

"After a few years of niceties, people are looking for something raw and unglossed. Moreover, there is a financial incentive for low-budget initiatives. So we’re folding the quality dimension in with an audience requirement to try and make room in the films for both good finances and originality," Ladegaard says.


Apart from Filmfabrikken and Rå|Film, the Nimbus Film company is undertaking a partnership with the Danish broadcaster TV 2 to produce a series of low-budget films at around 1.5 million euros.

The main goal of the partnership is to bring new filmmakers and new stories to the screen, while contributing to continued innovation in Danish cinema. As a requirement for each new film, two of the principal functions – director, writer, producer, cast, DP or editor – must be filled by people who are making their first feature.


Another tendency in the Danish film market is a growing interest in films with a higher price tag. This is apparent at Zentropa, now that Nordisk Film has acquired a 50% stake in the company.

"There is growing interest in doing big films. At the moment, we're seeing several players on the Danish film scene cooking up big projects," Nielsen says.

The DFI is looking at how to best support this tendency of more Danish film companies looking to run with the big dogs. "How that will turn out, we can't say yet," Henrik Bo Nielsen says.