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Sondberg scores big with Yellow Bird

Indie production company rides 'Wallander' success

LONDON — When dour detective miniseries “Wallander,” based on the novels of Swedish writer Henning Mankell, first aired in the U.K. in November, a critic remarked that every time a Swede wakes up, he or she is faced with a choice: to have breakfast or commit suicide.

The latter is not a likely option for Ole Sondberg, who is scoring smallscreen and bigscreen success with Yellow Bird, the Stockholm-based indie production company he set up in 2003.

Yellow Bird owns the rights to Mankell’s books and produced the “Wallander” mini alongside the U.K.’s Left Bank Pictures and Kenneth Branagh, who stars in the bleak crime drama about the depressed cop.

The dark skein won a hatful of BAFTAs, including best drama series, and sold to multiple territories including the U.S., where it aired on PBS.

The shingle is also celebrating the runaway success of its feature “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

The $13 million pic has sold to 25 territories and has grossed more than $70 million — making it the world’s third biggest earning foreign-language film so far this year — before its release in the U.K. and Germany.

Pic is an adaptation of the first book in Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy, which has sold 15 million copies worldwide.

Zodiak Ent.’s director of scripted sales Emmanuelle Bouilhaguet, who handled the pic’s sales, says that buyers and filmgoers alike were principally drawn to the pic because of their love of the books. “The books were key. The success of the film is mainly based on the success of the trilogy,” she says.

The pics based on the second and third novels in the trilogy, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest,” have already been shot and will be released in the fall.

Yellow Bird pins its success on optioning series of bestsellers, giving it a solid base among loyal readers and a ready supply of material on which to construct its TV series and film franchises, says Sondberg.

The company saves money by developing projects both as TV series and feature-length movies that can be lensed at the same time.

The Millennium trilogy, for example, was designed to be both three feature films and a six-part miniseries.

“Wallander” is more complicated still. First there is the Swedish-language series, with 13 episodes; then there is the English-language miniseries, starring Branagh. Both are now shooting their latest iterations in Ystad, a small town on Sweden’s southern-most tip.

“Wallander” has a slower pace than many British and U.S. crime series, but it is also more thoughtful and intellectually challenging.

“It is much more about characters than action,” Sondberg says. “It is about social injustice and about the values of a Scandinavian society that has come to be seen by many as an ideal.”

The stunning landscapes were captured by cinematography Anthony Dod Mantle, who won an Oscar for his work on “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Going forward, the company — which is part of the Zodiak Ent. group of some 30 production companies in 18 territories — has just set up a production arm in Munich, from which it is producing series for the German-language market.

Among upcoming projects are adaptations of Mankell’s novels “The Chinese” and “Kennedy’s Brain,” which it is making with pubcaster ARD Degeto.

Yellow Bird also has optioned “Headhunters,” the most recent novel from Norway’s Jo Nesbo, which it plans to develop as a Norwegian-language feature. It plans to adapt three novels from Norwegian crime writer Anne Holt into six Norwegian-language TV films, co-producing with local shingle Monster Film.

This ability to work with multiple partners in different countries and produce films and programs in different languages is the strength of the company.

“It is a mix of necessity and pleasure,” Yellow Bird managing director Mikael Wallen says. “The small size of the Scandinavian market has forced us to look abroad for financing. It was part of the original concept of the company and one that we have developed through the acquisition of new rights.”

Such relationships as that with Left Bank on “Wallander,” however fruitful, do not proceed without a little friction, Sondberg says.

“It is a struggle and a fight. You shout, you cry, you cuss and fight again. And then you end up with what you see on the screen, which is always some kind of compromise, the result of all that fighting and effort… that is co-production, cooperation. It is wonderful.”

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