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Scandinavia’s film industry has proven resilient in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, bolstered by well-established production and sales banners, as well as high-profile talent who have seized opportunities from streamers and broadcasters.

Spanning Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, the Nordic film biz has been able to ride through the health crisis better than those in many
other territories.

The industry’s robustness lies in the strength of a handful of local players, including vertically integrated powerhouses such as SF Studios, which is delivering some big-budget local and international movies including “Omerta 6/12,” “The Emigrants” and “The Pact”; and Nent Group’s streaming service Viaplay, which is releasing original movies.

Scandinavia also boasts the sales banners TrustNordisk, a sister company to Zentropa, the leading Nordic production outfit behind Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round”); REinvent Intl. Sales, which handles Nordic titles from SF Studios; and a wide network of indie production banners, including B-Reel, Oslo Pictures and TrueContent Entertainment.

“We’re dealing with a new reality and it’s presenting some opportunities, not only problems [as long as you have] entertaining, commercial films,” says Fredrik Wikström Nicastro, senior VP of international productions at SF Studios, whose recent productions include Mikael Marcimain’s English-language “Horizon Line.” The company is now producing as many series as movies.

“There is much more interest from the streamers, a greater need for content during the pandemic, and we’ve managed to make some great licensing deals, for instance on ‘Horizon Line,’ which was supposed to be released theatrically in the fall when the second wave hit,” says Wikström Nicastro. The company ended up selling the film to streamers instead of theatrical distributors, for instance in the U.S. where STX had distribution rights.

“‘Horizon Line’ was supposed to be released by STX and then we sold it to Epix for a big sum of money — much more than we would have gotten from theatrical,” says the producer, who added that the film was also picked up by Amazon for Australia, Italy, the U.K. and France.

Wikström Nicastro says streamers, which have to fill programming quotas of 30% of European content imposed by the E.U., are also more and more interested in local-language original movies. This is “a good thing for local producers as well as audiences who are getting increasingly familiar with subtitled content.”

The executive says SF Studios’ direct distribution activities in the Nordics were naturally more impacted than its production business due to the closure of theaters.

While the Scandinavian film and TV business has greatly consolidated in recent years, there are still some strong indie producers in the Nordics, such as Oslo Pictures, which has been more financially exposed within the past year.

“It’s become a riskier business for independent producers,” says Thomas Robsahm at Oslo Pictures, who’s in post-production with Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World.”

The movie’s shoot was initially delayed at the start of the pandemic and was eventually completed in two phases, in August and November 2020, leading to extra costs estimated at €1 million ($1.2 million) on top of its $6 million budget.

“We got extra support from the Norwegian Film Institute but we still had to increase our own investment,” says Robsahm.
The producer says times were particularly tough because there is “nowhere to go with arthouse projects.” “Theaters are closed and distributors more afraid to invest in films and everyone is trying to get in touch with streamers.”

Robsahm says, “Oslo Pictures has been continuing to finance projects like it did before but will probably be pitching more to streamers now,” even though he feels that there is much more competition for audiences’ attention on streaming services than there would be in theaters because of the volume of content available on these platforms.

From a sales perspective, however, the business appears to be still alive on the eve of the EFM. Susan Wendt, head of sales at TrustNordisk, says in spite of the volatile climate and the insecurities found in different territories, distributors were still looking for new movies, as well as older titles to package for platforms deals.

Wendt says the company has, for instance, been able to score some deals on Anders Thomas Jensen’s black comedy “Riders of Justice,” starring Mads Mikkelsen, following a virtual screening for the film. It’s well-positioned to close sales across its slate, which includes a balance of prestige director-driven movies and genre films, such as the Norwegian disaster movie “The North Sea,” from the team behind “The Quake” and “The Wave.”

“If you have a combination of genre films, whether they’re action films, comedies, thrillers or disaster movies, and films with great directors and cast attached, you can work in this tough market because these films will at least sell to TV or platforms,” Wendt says. She adds that TrustNordisk had been lucky that movies on its slate completed production during the pandemic.

Wendt points out that the switch to virtual festivals and markets was particularly hard on arthouse films, citing the Sundance-premiering “Charter,” directed by Sweden’s Amanda Kernell. It was “supposed to have market screenings in Berlin and was scheduled for many festivals, but didn’t get the attention it needed because everything switched to online,” she says.

Wendt notes the limited slots at virtual festivals are another obstacle for niche arthouse movies.

Rikke Ennis, the former CEO of TrustNordisk who launched REinvent Intl. Sales in 2018, concurs. “For smaller films it’s going to be harder because there are so many films standing in the queue to be released in theaters, and they will be competing with some highly anticipated Nordic and Hollywood movies when cinemas finally reopen.”

The absence of in-person festivals is also making it more difficult for sales agents to build some hype around arthouse films. “It’s a different ball game to promote these films online,” says Ennis.

However, Ennis says she was feeling an uptick of optimism within the market on the eve of the EFM. “Six months ago we felt a big frustration but I think people are starting to be more optimistic thanks to the vaccine. We’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel and we have been getting some great response after testing our promo reels for ‘Omerta 6/12,’ ‘The Emigrants,’ ‘The Pact’ and ‘Margrete — Queen of the North;’ we have to back-to-back meetings for the Berlinale,” she notes.

The veteran executive says sales opportunities were particularly strong on completed films that are considered “safe bets” and are being teased with promo reels, preferably “genre films, action thrillers, horror and feel-good movies, everything that’s escapist.”

Ennis says the company’s titles are luring offers from distributors she’s “known for 20 years.” “They are still there and there are not only looking for feature films but also TV series — they’re buying everything, and they sell to streamers and TV channels just to get a bit of bread and butter,” says Ennis.

Scandinavian cinema has also kept afloat thanks to generous subsidies from film institutes. “Since Nordic countries are small, the subsidies received by local film institutes and the E.U.’s Media program have been crucial to finance projects,” says Ennis. “Broadcasters usually finance 50% to 60% of films and financing from subsidies can cover the remaining 40%.”

Addressing the impact of the pandemic on dealmaking trends, TrustNordisk’s Wendt says the coronavirus crisis has pushed the shingle to be more “flexible and less harsh about theatrical obligations” when dealing with distributors.

“Our priority right now is to be reassured that the films can get great life and we’re learning more and more that this can happen even if there not a theatrical release,” says Wendt. She cites “Another Round,” which was expected to be released by Samuel Goldwyn Films in theaters in the U.S. but was finally successfully released in transactional VOD.

While streaming services have gained unprecedented ground during the COVID era, Wendt, like Ennis, is upbeat about the prospects for cinema attendance in the Nordics when theaters reopen.

“We saw that when theaters were open, Scandinavian films got a unique chance to get more visibility because nothing came from the big U.S. studios and it really paid off,” says Wendt. She adds that both “Another Round” and “Riders of Justice” were highly successful in local theaters before they closed.

Going forward, theaters might have a shorter window than they used before the pandemic, but they will still be a primary launch pad for movies, says Ennis. “I know for sure that as soon as they will reopen, I will run with my family — even if there’s good weather!” quips the executive.

Some buzz titles on deck:

Checkered Ninja 2
Directors: Anders Matthesen, Thorbjorn Christoffersen
Sales: LevelK

The Emigrants
Director: Erik Poppe
Sales: REinvent Intl. Sales

I Am Zlatan
Director: Jens Sjögren
Sales: TrustNordisk

The Marco Effect
Director: Martin Zandvliet
Sales: TrustNordisk

Director: Yngvild Sve Flikke
Sales: TrustNordisk

The North Sea
Director: John Andreas Andersen
Sales: TrustNordisk

Omerta 6/12
Director: Aku Louhimies
Sales: REinvent Intl. Sales

The Pact
Director: Bille August
Sales: REinvent Intl. Sales

Red Ring
Director: Joonas Berghäll
Sales: LevelK

Speak No Evil
Director: Christian Tafdrup
Sales: TrustNordisk

The Worst Person in the World
Director: Joachim Trier
Sales: MK2 Films