A 33% domestic market share for Danish films in 2008 makes Henrik Bo Nielsen a happy man. Not to mention that the 4.3 million tickets sold to Danish films is the highest total since 1978. Even so, Nielsen, the Danish Film Institute’s chief since 1 August 2007, sees cause for concern in the state of Danish films.
“Danish cinema is teetering on the edge of a knife,” he says. “Things look great, but dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. We had a fabulous year at cinemas in 2008, and Danish films did well at festivals, too: Henrik Ruben Genz’ Terribly Happy won the main prize for best film in Karlovy Vary, and Anders Østergaard’s Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country returned the documentary world cup to Denmark at IDFA in Amsterdam, to name but a few.
“This year’s list of theatrical releases is looking good, too,” Nielsen says. “Like last year, we have a wide selection of many different films: narrow and broad, artistically ambitious and more commercial films – with room for both experienced filmmakers and brand new talent. I’d be a scoundrel not to feel pleased. But as head of the DFI, I obviously can’t help but worry.”
RISK-TAKING IS IMPERATIVE
Nielsen’s concerns revolve around the financial situation for some films and the willingness of production companies to take chances. It’s exceedingly difficult today to make individual films profitable.
“It’s very hard to make money on films these days. Danish film companies are laying people off,” Nielsen says. “Even though 2008 was a great year at the cinema, DVD sales did very poorly in Denmark as in the rest of Europe. What will the consequences of the economic downturn be for Danish films in general? Will companies stick with the tried and true and begin to play it way too safe?”
Regarding Danish films in the pipeline for 2009 and 2010, Nielsen sees no immediate cause for concern. Rather, his concern is whether risky projects with crazy ideas will even make it to the DFI’s gates in the future.
“Our task as a film institute is to stimulate a substantial artistic risk-willingness. Right now one of our concerns is whether we’re receiving the right applications. It’s essential that ideas for inventive, artistic and socio-critical films also get through,” Nielsen says.
He underscores that it’s imperative for the film industry to take chances. You never quite know what will hit home with audiences. As he points out, Niels Arden Oplev’s Worlds Apart, about a young girl living in a tight-knit, rural religious community, and Henrik Ruben Genz’ Terribly Happy, about a young city cop who has a tough time adjusting to life in asmall provincial village, hardly had the makings of blockbusters, though that’s what they became.
To obtain a broader view, the DFI this March launched the so-called Thursday Pitches. The Film Institute invited directors and screenwriters to stop in on four given Thursdays in April, May and June to pitch their raw, unfinished ideas for features to Film Consultant Kasper Leick and Head of Development Marianne Moritzen.
The goal of these Thursday Pitches is to make sure that more offbeat and original ideas get to the Film Institute and to establish a more direct and non-bureaucratic communication. That is, no written applications. Filmmakers can sign up a week ahead oftime, and the week after their pitch they are informed whether their project has been awarded conceptdevelopment funds of approx. 4,000 euros. Hopefully, the best of the projects will later be sustained by one of the standard DFI subsidy schemes.
WANTED: GREATER FLEXIBILITY
The profitability of individual films is just one of several important issues that will be addressed when the DFI starts discussing the next Danish Film Policy Accord. Such accords run for four years. The present expires in 2010.
“What is important to me is any given film’s finances and a company’s ability to put up money for its next film. Leading up to the next film accord, we need to discuss how to ensure better finances for individual films.”
Some of these financial issues involve the fact that the DFI today has less money to put into each film than it used to. At the same time, the DVD market is not the bonanza it once was, in part because retailers try to mark down prices of DVD films to almost nothing faster than ever.
Furthermore, the structure of the Danish film market features one really big player, Nordisk Film/Zentropa, and a lot of small companies. “As in the rest of Europe, there’s a dearth of medium-sized players,” Nielsen says.
Leading in to the next film accord, the DFI has been carrying out fact-finding efforts in the film industry. Under the banner of “Ask & Listen”, key DFI personnel from September 2008 to April of this year have been looking in on all levels of the Danish film industry, asking 250 film industry representatives about the discussions going on among them.
“This input will inform the direction we would like to see the next film accord go in,” Nielsen says. “And the discussions in the industry so far all point pretty much in the same direction.”
Apart from the problems of making ends meet, another big issue is the need for far greater flexibility in the current film subsidy schemes.
“There’s general agreement that the current system with the many types of DFI funding – 11 or 12 different subsidy schemes in all – is too rigid. We needfar greater flexibility, because ideas don’t flourish in boxes. It’s not productive to have such a high level of micro-management, with measured amounts of money for the different schemes,” Nielsen says.
Beyond the call for greater flexibility, the Danish film industry would like to get out from under the conspicuous influence of the Danish TV stations. Under the current film accord, the two public TV stations, DR and TV 2, are required to support Danish films with a total of roughly 19.5 million euros annually. The DFI has approx. 34 million euros available every year to fund films.
“Both the DFI and many parts of the film industry think the TV stations got too much influence on Danish films in the last accord. Conceiving films as part of a broadcast line-up at too early a stage is not productive. Films need to develop on their own terms,” Nielsen says.
PILOT SCHEME FOR VIDEO GAMES
Other important issues involve continuing the proud Danish and Scandinavian tradition of a highquality film culture for children and young people. One aspect is video games for children.
“We have brilliant traditions that should be extended to video games. The current film accord includes a two-year pilot scheme to make something besides shooter games for children. We need to step up that effort to make it more than a peripheral pilot scheme,” Nielsen says.
The pilot scheme for children’s video games is currently included under the talent development fund New Danish Screen. As for talent development in general, Nielsen thinks the DFI continues to secure the food chain in Danish films.“New Danish Screen had its budget substantially expanded under the current film accord. Initially, the scheme only covered fiction. Now, it has been extended to documentaries as well, and I’m very optimistic about the output,” Nielsen says.
THE OUTSIDER’S ADVANTAGE
Henrik Bo Nielsen, 48, faced some initial scepticism when he took over as head of the DFI because he had very limited prior experience in the film industry. Today, almost two years later, he still thinks it was an advantage for the Film Institute’s head not to be too tight with the film industry.
“I came from a media company, and lots of things are the same in the creative industries,” Nielsen says. “I get a lot of assistance on cinematic decisions from the many skilled DFI employees. My job is to build the right framework for creative expression and navigate the DFI through some tricky political waters. Coming from outside, you look at things with fresh eyes and ask the kind of questions people with years in the business too often have stopped asking”.