SF’s logo is one every Scandinavian is familiar with. A film production company, distributor and the owner of a movie theater chain across the Nordic and Baltic countries until recently, it is a cultural landmark not only in its native Sweden, but also across the Nordic countries.
Founded as Svensk Filmindustri in 1919, SF played an instrumental role in what is known as the golden age of Swedish cinema. Ambitious productions by directors including Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, based on famous Nordic literary works, attracted international attention.
After a lull in the 1930s, Swedish cinema enjoyed a revival in the 1940s, partly thanks to the appointment of Sjöström, who had returned to Sweden after working in Hollywood, as artistic director of SF. As the producer of most Ingmar Bergman films as well as the Astrid Lindgren adaptations, which remain hugely popular across Scandinavia to this day, SF was firmly back on the Nordic and the global filmmaking map.
According to Jan Holmberg, CEO of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, it was SF’s cultural specificity that seduced audiences abroad.
“The cinema produced by SF was rather indigenous in the sense that it catered to a specifically Swedish audience,” he says. “Paradoxically, this is one of the reasons for their international success; that’s certainly the case with Ingmar Bergman, people watched his films for their Nordic exoticism.”
As SF developed distribution deals with major U.S. studios in the 1980s and 1990s, its “natural territory for growth was the other Nordic countries,” says Stefan Klockby, SF senior VP, public affairs. “We started in Norway in 1989, then launched the Danish operation in 1999 and in Finland in 2000.”
Starting out as a strong distribution entity, SF soon expanded into production — a successful strategy both in Denmark and in Sweden, where it is an active producer of both feature films and TV series that travel well.
The goal, according to Danish film critic Christian Monggaard, is “to try to compete with Nordisk Film, which is still the biggest producer, distributor and executor in all the Nordic countries.”
But despite SF’s legacy, local observers have some criticisms aimed at the company.
“The problem is, if you look at SF both as a distributor and as a producer, they have been divided between their commercial strategy and trying to hold on to the Scandinavian legacy and nurture talent,” Monggaard says. “They are not as bold as they used to be.”
It’s a view echoed by Helena Lindblad, film editor at leading Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.
“This is a company with an identity crisis,” she says. “They worked with the most talented directors, actors and writers of their generation, like Ingmar Bergman. But they no longer develop talent the way they used to.
“With their economic muscle, I would like to see them explore more original Swedish and Nordic stories, for which there is a lot of interest internationally. Seven of the 10 biggest box office hits in Swedish film history were made by SF, the most recent example being ‘A Man Called Ove.’”
SF is addressing its place in Scandi cinema. As part of its goal to re-assert itself as a Nordic powerhouse on the international market, the company has, in the past few years, brought all its Nordic operations under a single brand name, SF Studios, and opened a London office to focus on English-language projects. A 2016 scandal involving SF’s CEO and an allegedly sexist corporate culture was resolved with restructuring at the top level — firm action that helped preserve the company’s reputation, according to experts.
The recent acquisition of leading Norwegian film production studio Paradox underlines SF’s long-term goal to boost its presence on the Nordic market and become a full-scale studio in Norway, where it also partly owns two other production companies, Filmkameratene and Motion Blur.
“It says a lot about their ambitions,” says Norwegian film critic Einar Aarvig. “As a distributor, SF brought films like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy to Scandinavia, so they are up there with Fox, UIP and Warner. With the acquisition of Paradox, it seems they could also compete on an international level when it comes to production.”