Swiss filmmakers face steep climb

Finance and market woes challenge directors

Switzerland has plenty of cinema buffs and a vibrant fest scene, but Swiss helmers have a difficult time getting films made at home.

From raising local financing to distribution, every step is tricky — especially for arthouse pics.

“We have to invent a different form of filmmaking (since simply) going on with arthouse films with a budget of CHF 2 million to CHF 3 million ($1.6 million to $2.5 million) is increasingly threatened,” says helmer Jacob Berger, who took director honors at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival for “1 journee”(1 Day).

Switzerland has no shortage of money, but doesn’t spend much money on film compared with other small European countries, says “Die Herbstzeitlosen” (Late Bloomers) director Bettina Oberli. “In Denmark there is a real exchange between the people who apply for funding and those who have the money,” she says. “There are steps in this direction (in Switzerland) and I hope they go further now.”

Swiss funding orgs have traditionally favored safer documentaries over riskier features when handing out cash, helmers say.

“It was not easy to get funding for my work in the past,” says Thomas Imbach, whose feature “I Was a Swiss Banker” premiered at the Berlin fest this year. “I’m a kind of maverick who is not interested in being told what to do.”

So, increasingly, young Swiss directors face a choice between making smaller, cheaper pictures or going mainstream to attract financing and an international co-production partner. But even going mainstream brings difficulties of its own.

“Co-productions can take the Swissness out of Swiss films,” says Berger, adding that a foreign producer might try to cast a bankable star from outside Switzerland to safeguard their investment.

Even when helmers want to cast local talent, the pool of film actors is relatively thin in a country with three national languages, German, French and Italian.

Jeanne Waltz returned to her native country from her home in Portugal to make her second feature, “Pas douce” (A Parting Shot), a drama about a sharp-shooting Swiss nurse, but had trouble finding a French-speaking Swiss actress to play the part.

“It’s not a problem of talent, but it is a problem of movie-specific talent,” says Waltz.

Most local contenders turned out to be stage actors, inexperienced in front of the camera. So she opted for French actress Isild Le Besco.

There is an upside, though, to shooting in Switzerland, says Imbach.

“Switzerland is like a big film studio,” Imbach says. “Logistically, it works perfectly and you have a lot of varied landscapes and architecture. You can even get different seasons in one shoot depending on how high up in the mountains you are.”

Once the film is complete, though, Switzerland is a tough market, despite gains at the box office by Swiss films.

The country’s linguistic diversity and size — its population is just 7.5 million — limit local returns. To recoup, Swiss films need foreign distribution. Yet Berger says “releasing arthouse movies abroad has become more difficult because distributors around the world are less inclined to take risks.”

Berger’s “1 Day” has found distribution so far only in French-speaking Switzerland, while Imbach’s “I Was a Swiss Banker” was distributed only in German-speaking Switzerland.

Waltz’s “A Parting Shot” found distribution in both regions of Switzerland and in France, but nowhere else.

The bottom line is that the Swiss film biz is still finding an identity.

“Switzerland is a country that has found it hard, and still does find it hard, to go its own way,” says Antoine Monot Jr., a co-founder of the Zurich Film Festival. “The difficulty is finding how Switzerland can hold its own in film.”

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