May We Live in Interesting Times

INTERVIEW. What are the challenges in Danish film today? What are the concerns in areas such as diversity, distribution and film economy? Henrik Bo Nielsen, CEO of the Danish Film Institute, reflects on the tasks at hand.

Denmark comes to Berlin with the drama "The Commune," the genre film "Shelley," the documentary "Les sauteurs," the animated series "Lili" and the TV drama "Splitting Up Together." One could argue that this eclectic selection is a perfect sample of the variety of quality productions coming out of Denmark today. Yet behind the vibrant creative sector of the film and television industries are complex issues that need to be addressed.

If we can’t be as daring on medium budgets, let’s see what we can do on smaller budgets. I hope that in a year's time, the first films in the finished line will comfort us in our strategy.

Henrik Bo Nielsen who has been reconfirmed for a new five-year mandate as the Head of the Danish Film Institute, outlines his vision and road map.

Domestically, Danish film has had an excellent 2015 with nearly 30% market share. What will be your priorities in 2016 to sustain artistic excellence and at the same time boost innovation?

"It’s with a mixed feeling that I look at this. There are many good things happening, but also challenges, artistically – as far as diversity is concerned – and economically. What has worried us over the last couple of years is the following: Danish mainstream feature films are doing extremely well. But as in many other European countries, it’s much tougher to finance the more artistically daring films. Our biggest concern is: on the long term, will we be able to renew Danish film – and how do we improve economic conditions for the production companies.

"To tackle, at leat part of the problem, our strategy over the past year and through the new Film Agreement has been to support innovation and production volume via our new low-budget scheme. Our view is that if we can’t be as daring on medium budgets, let’s see what we can do on smaller budgets. I hope that in a year's time, the first films in the finished line will comfort us in our strategy."

Until new business models emerge to replace the DVD sector, what is your vision to help producers keep their head above the water?

"Thanks to extra funding in 2015-2016 we have been able to open up to more innovation and sustain film production. But if we don’t find new models and extra financing by the end of the year, I find it difficult to sustain the current production level.

"The Film Agreement places the responsibility for developing new business models firmly with the industry, but as the national film agency we continue to urge the industry to strive for more flexible models in order to reach consumers where they are. It’s important for the industry to continue to experiment with windows, but there is a careful balance to keep. Let’s face it: in a year like 2015 with near record theatrical sales, it takes guts to experiment with the one window that works. But I don’t see any other alternative."

At your level what will you do?

"What we can do is threefold: continue to raise the level of debate and urge innovation, continue our political dialogue to negotiate new funds and finally, of course, do our outmost to keep the highest possible level of production.

"Within the Film Agreement, we are examining all roads to help production companies. This year for instance we will have new support regulations and we strive to ease administrative burdens and target regulations that improve the bottom line for the production companies."

Producers are embracing the booming sector of TV drama to rely on two legs instead of just feature film. Should more public funds be allocated to that sector and less to film?

"It would be lovely to give more money to TV drama, especially when viewers are so hungry for quality drama, both nationally and internationally, and we are pleased that the serial dramas produced with support from our Public Service Fund, and those produced by DR Fiction in particular, are attracting so much attention. But much speaks against shifting funds. If we look at cinema-going in 2015, it’s hardly been better. To me it makes no sense to wreck something that the public so obviously loves. Sometimes, we miss out on understanding consumer behaviour, and saying that public interest has shifted from theatre going to TV drama is simply not true."

The opening up of new markets for foreign language TV drama has contributed to widening the reach of Danish culture, in Europe but also in BRIC territories such as China. These are very exciting times for Denmark ...

"Definitely, especially as exporting Danish culture and cultural exchange is part of our mandate. There is an ancient Chinese curse saying: 'May you live in interesting times.' We are indeed living in both exciting and interesting times in the sense that they are very strenuous. Tackling immense territories such as China is hugely challenging if you are a small player. But as representatives of Chinese government agencies recently told me, the interesting thing about Denmark is not our volume but our ideas, and our ability to tell stories. That is our position of strength."

Internationally the EU Commission has decided to ease online access to EU citizens by promoting portability as part of its vision for a Single Digital Market. What are your views on the matter?

"We were more than a little disappointed by the EU Commission’s recent announcement regarding portability. We thought that we had established a good understanding and dialogue via EFAD [European Film Agency Directors]. We all agree that a solution to portability is necessary, but we need a negotiated model rather than a regulated model. We also believe that the dismantling of the territorial exploitation of rights would be catastrophic for the financing of films and for the safeguard of cultural diversity that we are so clearly obligated to under the UNESCO convention."

Ethnic diversity is also quintessential and much in the public debate these days. I believe the DFI has introduced a charter to have a better balance in that area?

"At the DFI we have decided to handle the three big issues of gender, ethnic and social representation in one go as part of a wider impetus to boost cultural diversity, in front and behind the camera. We feel that gender equality is not a goal in itself, no more than integration, but in order to achieve higher quality, greater diversity is mandatory. The charter that we have written together with industry organisations is a basis on which to build joint initiatives."

On a more personal level, you have been head of the DFI since 2007 and have just been reconfirmed for a new mandate that will take effect in July. Looking back, what are you proudest of and looking ahead, what do you still hope to achieve?

"First of all, it’s for others to judge what I have achieved. Having said that, when I sit at home, contemplating the last few years, two things make me particularly happy: the quality of Danish mainstream film that got a huge lift when we introduced the present 'Market Scheme' [funding programme for films with broad audience appeal] a few years ago and the fact that we succeeded in persuading our politicians unanimously to make "quality" a formal criteria for film support. Automatic support schemes, in my view, are serious threats to artistic level in European film production.

"As far as the future is concerned, if we manage to help improve the artistic risk-taking – and create better odds that it does improve in 2016 – I’d be very happy. The other priorities for me will be to help fight piracy and do my outmost to make sure the EU Commission understands the importance of preserving rights territoriality and cultural diversity."