Yellow Bird flies on ‘Girl’ profits

Trilogy's revs stream in from ancillaries

More life in ‘Girl’ remake

As Sony revs up for its version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, the Swedish film industry is reaping its reward from the record-breaking success of the original Millennium trilogy.

With $235 million at the global box office, more than 5 million DVDs sold and some 50 million TV viewers, the $20 million trilogy based on Stieg Larsson’s novels is so profitable it’s on track to repay all its subsidies from the Swedish Film Institute by the end of 2011 — an unprecedented $6.7 million.

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Not bad for a project the public funder originally rejected for not being cinematic enough.

The worldwide success of Nils Arden Oplev’s adaptation “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its two sequels directed by Daniel Alfredson, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” hasn’t just boosted the SFI’s coffers, it’s also raised the international profile of the whole Swedish industry.

A Scandinavian crime wave is sweeping the big- and smallscreen, with a flurry of Hollywood deals to adapt or remake Swedish and other Nordic thriller material, while foreign producers, distributors and festival toppers are suddenly paying much closer attention to what else Swedish talent has to offer.

Genre films with an artistic twist such as “Let the Right One In” and “Easy Money,” as well as TV series such as “Wallander” (also from Yellow Bird, which produced the Millennium trilogy) and Denmark’s “The Killing,” have reinforced the sense that Millennium is part of a wider Scandinavian phenomenon.

“All of a sudden, Swedish films are winning (awards) in Sundance and Tribeca, and producers in L.A. realize there’s a country called Sweden,” notes Peter Gustafsson, who backed the trilogy at the SFI and now runs drama and culture for pubcaster SVT.

“Something has happened to our self-esteem,” agrees SFI production head Charlotta Denward. “People abroad have started looking at Sweden; several actors, directors and d.p.’s have been poached (by) Hollywood, and the festivals are really interested in directors like Ruben Ostlund, Jesper Ganslandt and Lisa Aschan.”

Yellow Bird, part of the Italian-owned Zodiac Media Group, is also enjoying new clout. “We are owned by a big group, so we don’t keep the profits, but we have much more freedom to make new things,” says president Mikael Wallen. “Our reputation abroad makes it easier to finance new projects, and to get the right talent. We’re even starting to try to buy English-speaking rights from English or American writers. Three years ago, we would not even be allowed to make a bid.”

Yellow Bird’s next pic is Norwegian heist thriller “Headhunters,” which has presold worldwide, including to Magnolia in the U.S. It is also adapting Swedish writer Liza Marklund’s series of novels about a female crime reporter into one feature film, “Last Will,” and five telepics.

When the company optioned Larsson’s trio of unpublished novels, no one had an inkling that the books would sell more than 60 million copies worldwide.

Yellow Bird followed its standard model by developing six 90-minute episodes for SVT, and a theatrical version of the first novel to be shot simultaneously. It always had an eye on the international market, trying out English writers before switching to a pair of Danes more in tune with the material.

Yellow Bird and SVT presold TV rights to pubcasters in Norway, Denmark, Finland and Germany, tapped regional Swedish funds and lined up equity investors to sweeten the budget, which eventually reached $20 million.

But there was one major problem. The SFI, which backs every significant local movie, refused to support the “Dragon Tattoo” feature.

“We hated it when a producer came to us with one episode of a TV series that they wanted to make as a film,” Gustafsson says. “I always turned them down. (The Millennium project) was interesting because it was more brutal, and it had Lisbeth Salander as this Pippi Longstocking character, but the problem was that I didn’t like the script. It was clearly still a TV series.”

Gustafsson said he would invest only if they made three proper movies. Yellow Bird was keen, but SVT refused. Meanwhile, the Danish Film Institute and the Nordic Film & TV Fund offered coin for “Dragon Tattoo,” but only on condition that the SFI was also onboard.

“They came back to me six weeks before shooting,” Gustafsson recalls. “So I said, ‘OK, fine,’ and I came in with a smaller amount ($640,000), just so they would get access to the other money.”

Without time to force a rewrite, Gustafsson met with Danish helmer Oplev, who had been hired to direct the film and two telepics based on “Dragon Tattoo.” Oplev promised to brush a cinematic gloss over the structural weaknesses of the script. His efforts to keep his word pushed the $7 million pic about $1 million over budget, forcing Yellow Bird to tap its financiers for extra coin.

Despite the snowballing hype around the books, initial expectations for the “Dragon Tattoo” movie weren’t high. The SFI originally projected no more than 200,000 ticket sales in Sweden, a sixth of the eventual figure.

It was only after “Dragon Tattoo” was released to blockbuster box office across Sweden, Norway and Denmark in February 2009 that SVT finally allowed producers to cut the theatrical versions of the second and third books from Alfredson’s four tele-pics.

The SFI awarded another $960,000 to both features for post-production and reshoots. But with the pubcaster willing to push its broadcast date back only a couple of months, everything had to be completed in a rush.

“When you see the second and third film, the quality of the image and sound is not as good, not because they didn’t have the money, but because the time was too short,” Gustafsson says.

Adds Wallen: “We did some small extra shooting, but it was more about cutting down the TV episodes. Of course it was a bit frustrating, because we didn’t have a feature film script, but it was better than not doing it at all.”

The box office results vindicated their efforts. “The Girl Who Played With Fire” was released across Scandinavia in September 2009, followed rapidly by “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” in November. In Sweden, Denmark and Norway, the first film grossed $42 million, the second $35 million and the third $26 million.

All three films qualified for an extra $1.4 million each from the SFI, as an automatic reward based on their Swedish box office numbers, bringing the total subsidy across all three films to $6.7 million.

Internationally, the picture was more complicated, with boffo scores for “Dragon Tattoo” in territories such as Spain and France where the books were bestsellers, followed by mixed box office fortunes for the hastily improvised sequels.

“Some distributors didn’t think two and three were as good as one, so they didn’t dare to put the right amount of marketing and prints behind them,” Wallen says. “In several countries, it was sold to TV before they knew about the second and third films, so they were forced to release quickly.”

But for all these local variations, the international returns for the second and third films, including hefty DVD sales in the U.K., Germany and the U.S., were pure gravy on top of the B.O. figures for “Dragon Tattoo.”

According to Wallen, the first film has already repaid its subsidies, with the second and third set to follow by the end of 2011. Given the SFI’s soft recoupment terms, that means the trilogy must have passed an unheard-of $35 million in combined profit.

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