A film director should be a pain in the ass. A persistent and hard-to-satisfy pain in the ass who insists on pushing the limits in his/her quest to make the best film possible. And thank heaven for that. Without that persistence, film as an art form would perish.
I'd like you to dwell on that: film is an art form in its essence. Even mainstream blockbusters are nurtured and inspired by the artistry and bravery of directors who embody that essence. Also in the quest for the big audience, we need to push ourselves as directors – to go where the ice can break and we can fail.
In a money-drained media-landscape – from piracy, changing media-habits and shortened awareness span in a land of plenty – the traditional channels of distribution are becoming less reliable in terms of revenue. The branded, the proven and the sure-fire prevail in the hunt for the next big sequel, tent pole or brand. The unique and the daring are having a hard time.
But as we all know, this is a short-sighted strategy.
You don't keep your audience captivated by repeating yourself. You wear them out. That is why we need the pain-in-the-ass director. Someone with a unique vision and the guts to go against the grain. Someone who invents new forms of expression and crosses boundaries. Someone who is not afraid to provoke or step out of line if necessary. Someone who does not hunt trends but creates them.
Most directors have that streak. That is why we are willing to battle long and hard, year in and out, for every film we make. But a director needs money to get his film made, so we team up with production companies and cooperate with producers. In that process we often sharpen and improve our films to the benefit of both film and audience. Especially in great teamwork between producer and director – magic can happen in that process. But the story is somewhat different if the financial fear-factor attached to the project is too high. Not because of lack of talent, originality or an intriguing story. In fact, everybody loves the project, but nobody dares to take the risk.
Fear reigns in a money-drained production environment. Fear that the next film might be last. And that the staff has to be cut. Circumstances which, ideally, should not influence film as an art-form, but easily do. As a result the willingness to invest in the daring and the risky is slowly fading.
Film as an art form does have a fighting chance in Denmark, especially since a key financial player in most Danish films is the publicly funded Danish Film Institute. Because much of our funding is not necessarily tied to a principle of generating profit in a commercial environment, there is room for the daring and the original.
In Europe, our legacy is that of visionary directors. Films in Europe have never been made on the same market-oriented terms as the great movie-making machine in Hollywood. Not that the Hollywood way isn't valid. It most certainly is. Hollywood couldn't have become the leading provider of movie-entertainment without a massive amount of ingenuity and sense of great storytelling. But in a European context, we should not strive to replicate a movie business where big budgets and box-office is key. The bigger the budget, the greater the fear of failure. Great fear equals less risk-taking and a more uniform experience for our audience. We'd be neglecting European cinema's most treasured (and bankable) assets: Guts, vision and cultural differences. In times of crisis and a changing media landscapes we need to remember more than ever that film is an art-form and originality prevails.
So my advice for the Danish and European movie business is this: Be thankful for having no choice but to deal with directors of great vision and courage. Even though we do cause you a little trouble and pain along the way, it is that pain that might secure the film industry and audience – also in the commercial long run.
And to my fellow directors: Be a pain in the ass. Dare to fail. You owe it to your trade.