Cinema: The secret of Denmark’s success
20 January 2012
At a time when the drive for austerity has led most countries to cut back on cultural budgets, the Danish film industry remains one of the most successful in Europe thanks to a pro-active policy of grants and support for young film makers.
While the debate over funding for the arts remains ongoing here in Portugal, a bit further north, Denmark, a country that is about half as big and half as populous as ours, has become a major centre for the film industry.
How did it accomplish this feat? By focusing efforts on children and the younger generation. Why spend tax-payers money to fund films? Can they not "take care" of their own funding? Henrik Bo Nielson, the director Det Dansk Filminstitut (the Danish Film Institute), explains that politicitians already provided convincing long-term answers to these questions in the early 1970s.
In Denmark, these were important questions, but the debate has now been settled. What’s more, the answers took into consideration ambitions for Danish citizens, and notably the country’s children. And these ambitions have continued to grow: a fact reflected in 1980s legislation which stipulated that one quarter of the annual budget on film funding – approximately 70 million euros – should be invested in activities and productions that target children and young people.
The figures speak for themselves: every year, Denmark’s 162 cinemas sell approximately 13 million tickets, which works out as an average attendance of 60 per showing. The number of Danish productions in the box-office top 20 varies from between five to eight depending on the year. On average, the state finances 25 full-length features and 30 documentaries; the average budget per film is 2.5 million euros, with close to 33% of the budget covered by the state.
In Portugal, 16.5 million tickets were sold in 2010; 22 Portuguese-made full-length features were released, but none of these made it into the box-office top 40. Nationally produced films account for 22% of the Danish film market, which includes cinema showings and broadcast on public television networks (in Portugal, this figure is only 2.5%).
A competitive climate
Bo Nielsen insists that the level of quality achieved by Danish films was the key to obtaining these figures: financial assistance played a part, but more importantly "talent" and "pleasure" which have continued to increase over the years.
"If this is what we want,” he continues, “then we have to recognise the need for a national cinema policy that is grant-aided. It is simply not possible to make good quality films and to expect to survive on the proceeds of their commercial exploitation. Fortunately, nearly all of the countries in Europe believe that financial support is necessary. The idea, which has been widely accepted in Europe, is that everyone should have the opportunity to tell their story. And the box-office figures show that Danish citizens do take advantage of the nationally produced films they finance with their taxes."
However, the success story began when attention was focused on the training of professionals in the sector, well before the public funding policy was enacted. The National Film School of Denmark, which received huge amounts of state funding, blossomed in the 1970s. In exceptional years, the school succeeds in launching six directors on the market, of whom one or two come from other Scandinavian countries. This creates a competitive climate which attracts young creative talent.
"It is not necessary to devote the bulk of our budget to films that most people will go and see,” says Bo Nielson. “If we did that, most of the grants would be for family comedies and vampire films. As you do with funding in other artistic fields, you have to concentrate on films that would be neglected by the market. Having politicians who accept to invest close to 1.5 million euros in a film that few people will go and see, provided that it is artistically interesting, ensures the continued development of the craft of film making."
A matter of social justice
The key to success has been the attention paid to younger audiences. A quarter of the total annual film-sector budget is invested in films for children. This has a colossal impact. Most importantly, it means that it is much easier to finance productions of other genres when the number of film goers is increasing. In 2010, for example, one quarter of the hundred of thousands of tickets sold by the Danish Film Institute’s Cinemateket in Copenhagen were for children aged under seven.
So there is an established strategy, which also extends to marketing and distribution of films, which are regularly presented at showings exclusively reserved for schools. Every year, programmes are drafted to ensure that all school-going or pre-school children have access.
Teachers are provided with study guides (which are also made available to parents), so that the films can be the subject of classes, and the institute’s website offers download access to a collection several hundred short films and documentaries.
For Bo Nielsen, film funding programmes for young people and children is also a matter of social justice. "Obviously middle- and upper-class children will regularly visit cinemas. They get a good education. But what about children from deprived backgrounds: would they have the opportunity to go to the cinema if the state did not intervene? The answer is no, they would not.”