A funding scheme for making sure that cinema is always pushing the boundaries and doesn’t fall back on conventions requires a willingness to constantly challenge your dogmas and practices. The people at New Danish Screen, which is based on a partnership between the broadcasters DR and TV 2 and the Danish Film Institute, understand that commitment. As technologies, cinematic language, talent, audiences and distribution forms evolve, the funding scheme has to adjust its focus accordingly.
Here, artistic director Mette Damgaard-Sørensen and producer Johnny Andersen of New Danish Screen talk about the ideas behind a new development-oriented initiative.
Mette Damgaard-Sørensen: "At NDS, we’re in the middle of a big experiment, where we’re supporting visually based development of feature films costing DKK 3 million (approx. EUR 400,000) in a pilot programme called Skitsen (The Sketch). Our expectations are big. We’re a funding programme that embraces a lot of formats: fiction and documentary, short and long formats, films and TV series. But at the moment, we’re very concerned with the potential of the low-budget feature film format – and especially, how the films are developed. More specifically, we want to initiate and explore new ways of conceiving, developing, producing and distributing feature films. That takes curiosity and openness on our part – and courage, cooperation and radicalness on the part of the filmmakers. Skitsen is our attempt to make that happen."
Johnny Andersen: "Low-cost films are an opportunity to get a faster start in the long format, while perhaps also improving directors’ opportunities to keep working, now that mid-budget films are moving into a headwind. Before, most directors fresh out of film school weren’t quite ready for the long format. But in recent years, film schools have started working with long formats much more – with feature-like projects, that is. That’s whetting the appetite of both directors and producers."
MDS: "Moreover, the low-budget format can encourage filmmakers to challenge the ways that stories are told. Strictly traditional cinematic language and classic storytelling generally don’t benefit from being done on very low budgets. You have to conceive your story and your language differently. That’s the challenge, and the potential. Working on such a tight budget, you have to cut away everything extraneous. You have to articulate what the core of the project is – and the sharpest, most precise way of telling it. You have to be radical!"
JA: "Traditionally, you write a screenplay and then discuss it with your producer and a film commissioner. You sometimes end up with a lot of rewrites! With Skitsen, we want to challenge creatives to develop another, non-text-based method. The aim is to focus in depth: on your main characters, your locations, narrative devices or visual style – and then go and film and cut something together to explore what the material can do. Does the idea hold up? You don’t get locked in so quickly that way and you get a language for your project, a filmic language – a reference that can become a crucial jumping-off point for further development. I think that will lead to some very interesting results.
"Furthermore, we think it’s important to develop these tightly budgeted films relatively quickly and dynamically. Skitsen’s process takes four months, after which the films are assessed for production funding. It’s a kind of guerrilla process, where it’s important to get energy and passion into the development – and into the films."
MDS: "It simply takes too long before people get to make films. Especially for directors, it’s a problem if it takes too long before they are on set and are actually working with the cinematic language. There is so much writing going on, but film isn’t a textual art form. I don’t think you evolve very much by being in long processes that don’t lead to finished films. Skitsen gives filmmakers a chance to try things out in practice. And we get to discuss a project with concepts other than the dramaturgical ones."
Creating a Space of Trust
MDS: "Likewise, it has been an important focus for us at NDS to generally answer back more quickly, also in traditional development processes. We say no quickly and we say yes quickly. Then we enter what we call a space of trust – where applicants in the continuing development process know that now it’s about making the film if it’s going to be developed the way everyone is hoping it will. Trust is incredibly important in talent development."
JA: "We focus on the "creative triangle" of writer, director and producer. In our experience, for a project to develop from an idea to a fully realisable film, it’s important that the development takes place in a collaboration where the material is honed and specified. As a starting point, this means developing projects within that triangle. It’s important to have a clear division of roles on the team for the collaboration to work. Also, we focus on finding a production concept for the project early on in the development process. When the budget is tight, it’s important to develop the story and the cinematic style hand in hand with the production solutions. If you succeed from the start in finding the right artistic solutions and production devices, they can enhance and elevate each other."
MDS: "A miserable process is when the project has been conceived on too big a scale, and you have to cut and reduce the material, so the end result feels like a pale shadow of what could have been, instead of a film that’s as sharp and precise as the blow of an axe. Conceiving your film radically takes guts. You might say we try to create a protected space where people feel reasonably safe when they are in the vulnerable situation of working artistically, taking risks and failing.
"Also, we have to prepare the talent for the fact that they have to go into the real world. They have to go into the industry – not with a "project," but with a film that people will be seeing."
Focus on the Audience
MDS: "Film is a communicative art form. Part of developing your talent is to define yourself as a storyteller, finding your voice and saying, 'Here I am. I want to tell Somebody Something from my unique point of view!' I would like filmmaking talents to relate to an audience: Who is my audience? What kind of film will they be seeing? That has to be an integrated part of the process, to raise awareness of the consequences of artistic choices on how an audience experiences the film. Very few of our films will go into wide distribution, but they should find the audience that’s there for them."
JA: "I think the new development methods will also influence the films’ themes. If you dare to challenge yourself, we hope that not only will new, radical ways of storytelling emerge but also new stories."
MDS: "We’re living in a time that’s insanely dramatic, both for the individual and in a global perspective. That’s not reflected very much, yet, in Danish fiction films. I see a lot of classic devices and stories. But we are starting to see big themes, like those of war, refugees and migration, find their way into the projects. It would be interesting if the complexity had an even greater impact on cinematic narratives. For films to stay relevant, they have to reflect that we’re living in a time of great upheaval and displacement – and with new ways of telling and experiencing films. They have to be artistic seismographs picking up what the rest of us don’t see. That’s essential to the future of cinema" •
Skitsen / How it works
In August 2015 New Danish Screen invited filmmakers to participate in Skitsen (The Sketch), an initiative focusing on new ways of developing films and film narratives. Out of 63 applications, 9 projects were selected for development.
To qualify for funding, the following must be met:
- The project should have a maximum budget of DKK 3 million (EUR 400,000) – before development grant.
- The team must consist of a minimum of three people, with director and producer as mandatory members.
- The team must consist of professional, manifested talents, either debuting feature film directors or more seasoned filmmakers wanting to experiment and challenge themselves.
Each of the 9 selected projects received a grant of DKK 500,000 (EUR 67,000) to create:
- A 6-12 minute filmed pre-study, not necessarily intended for publicising.
- A production concept.
- A treatment, first draft or a similar material. What each project must deliver will be agreed within the individual projects.
The 9 teams must submit the result of the development in April 2016, where the projects will be assessed for production or for further development, if deemed necessary.
The nine projects
Director: Kasper Skovsbøl
Scriptwriter: Trine Appel
Producer: Claudia Saginario / Good Company Films
En frygtelig kvinde
Director: Christian Tafdrup
Editor: Anne Østerud
Producer: Thomas Heinesen / Nordisk Film
Jorden under neglene
Director: David Adam
Co-directors: Mirza Ekinovic, Oliver Ussing
Producers: Caroline Schlüter, Siri Dynesen / Profile Pictures
Director: Josefine Kirkeskov
Scriptwriter: Carlos Quintela
Producers: Mikkel Jersin, Katrin Pors / Snowglobe
Director: Emil Falke
Scriptwriters: Jonas Berlin, Emil Falke
Producer: Lina Flint / Nordisk Film Spring
Director: Rasmus Kloster Bro
Scriptwriter: Mikkel Bak Sørensen
Producer: Amalie Lyngbo Hjort / Beo Film
Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Scriptwriter: Mette Sø
Producer: Tine Mosegaard / Angel Films
Director: Malene Choi
Scriptwriter: Sissel Dalsgaard Thomsen
Producer: Mikkel Stolt / Fenris Film
Director: Laurits Flensted-Jensen
Scriptwriters: Lars Bang, Laurits Flensted-Jensen
Producer: Julie Friis Walenciak / Walenciak Film
Read more about Danish film policy
What are the challenges in Danish film today? Henrik Bo Nielsen, CEO of the Danish Film Institute, reflects on the tasks at hand: May We Live in Interesting Times
The "low-budget" phenomenon is hardly new, but it's getting increased attention at a time when talent is plentiful, funding limited and technology more available than ever before. Read our survey Great Cinema on a Shoestring?