With box office up 9% across Scandinavia in 2011, the key distribs say the region remains a robust territory for indie pics, following strong results last year for both mainstream and arthouse pics.

“Overall the market in Scandinavia is pretty good,” says Robert Enmark, head of acquisitions at Svensk. “Denmark may be down slightly, but Norway and Sweden are up.”

“Compared with the rest of the international market, Scandinavia is underscreened but stable,” echoes Peter Philipsen, general manager of independent films at Nordisk. “The theatrical market has grown in the past decade. DVD declined last year, but compared with a lot of other countries, that’s not catastrophic, it’s fairly solid. TV is under pressure, of course, but not so much as in other countries.”

Buyers were certainly feeling more confident at the end of last year, after a string of pleasant theatrical surprises, than they did early in the year when DVD revenues seemed to be falling off a cliff.

“At the beginning of last year we saw the DVD market drop by 30%, but by the end of the year it had more or less corrected to 10%, which made us a little calmer,” Philipsen says. “But it does make us more focused that a film needs to have a theatrical profile.”

The growth was led by Hollywood blockbusters and local hits, such as last year’s star Norwegian performer “Headhunters,” but auds also showed a healthy appetite for a range of foreign independent fare. Hit included “The King’s Speech,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Drive” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and even less-obvious crowdpleasers such as “Tree of Life,” “Another Year,” “Of Gods and Men” and “Winter’s Bone.”

“Theatrical can be all over the map, from a washout to a lottery win, but the theatrical surprises are mostly at the quality end of the market,” says Jim Frazee, head of acquisitions at Scanbox.

“Drive” and “Tinker Tailor,” of course, both have Scandinavian helmers (Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn and Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, respectively) which boosted B.O. in their respective homelands. Lone Scherfig’s “One Day,” on the other hand, performed better in Sweden than in her native Denmark.

With a $2.5 million gross, “Winter’s Bone,” released by NonStop, took a remarkable 15% of its worldwide box office in Scandinavia, making it the film’s second-largest territory after North America. Distribs say this underlines both the willingness of Scandi auds to embrace darker material and the market’s heavy female skew.

“Women go to the movies a lot in Scandinavia, and make a lot of decisions in general. There are a lot of women in very important jobs, so you see that reflected in the cinema,” Frazee says.

He points to Scanbox’s recent results with “A Dangerous Method,” with Keira Knightley; “My Week With Marilyn,” toplining Michelle Williams; and Meryl Streep’s “The Iron Lady.”

“That’s the niche I’m looking for,” Enmark says. “Female skewed, more high end.”

With the decline in ancillary markets, all the distribs are focusing on a smaller number of titles with greater theatrical potential.

“A decade ago, we bought 100 indie films a year, today it is 25,” Philipsen says. “We probably only release 12 to 15 in cinemas, and only push six of those, with the others just getting a small platform to help the ancillaries.”

Nordisk focuses on genre films with solid ancillary value. It had good results last year from “Breaking Dawn,” “Limitless” and “Skyline,” which had a small theatrical release but then performed strongly in ancillaries, with two Jason Statham vehicles, “Mechanic” and “Blitz 2” also delivering on DVD. “We are very, very careful about buying drama, because if it doesn’t work theatrically you can end up with nothing,” Philipsen explains.

But Enmark, who pre-bought both “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech,” argues that there can be more value in that section of the market than in bigger-budget projects. “It’s the ones that sneak up on you that become the big hits, the expensive projects rarely pan out.”

Enmark says Berlin is a big buying market for Svensk. Frazee also expects to be active in Berlin. “Our release schedule for 2012 is pretty much locked, so Berlin is the start of filling our 2013 slate.”

By contrast, Philipsen says Berlin is relatively unimportant for Nordisk, compared with Cannes or the AFM. “We rarely buy more than one or two films at Berlin,” he notes.

At the arthouse end of the market, NonStop topper Ignas Scheynius is scouting for 30-35 acquisitions in 2012, starting with a Sundance pickup of Julie Delpy’s “Two Days in New York.”

“We’re sticking to our vision. Acquiring truly great films with commercial potential for the Nordic and Baltic market will surely continue to be a winning concept in 2012, and with fine numbers for ‘Shame’ across Scandinavia, we’re off to a good start.”

“Independent films used to have quite a large piece of the market, but they have gone down as local films have come up,” says Frazee, adding with a laugh: “We love feel-bad movies.”

Distribs say Norway’s box office boom has been driven by the rapid conversion of the country’s cinemas to digital, which has proceeded more slowly in other Scandi territories.

The result has been to accelerate the polarization of the theatrical market between the biggest hits, and the rest. It enables hits to be maximized by grabbing more screens more quickly, but this is at the expense of more modest or slower-burning performers, which are rapidly squeezed out of theaters in favor of hotter titles. For buyers, that just places more of a premium on focusing on a small number of titles with the greatest possible theatrical potential. The strong indie titles benefit from this shift “My Week With Marilyn” for example.

“With ‘Marilyn’ we are out on 56 screens in Norway. With 35mm, that would have been 12 screens, but with digital you can double up, so 15 digital prints can play on 40 screens,” Frazee says.

Berlin Daily Spotlight: Scandinavian Cinema
Nordic moment in sun | Buyers push for films with strong theatrical value | Scandi smorgasbord