On The Lot: Iceland - The Reykjavik Grapevine

On The Lot: Iceland

On The Lot: Iceland

Published June 29, 2007

It is hard to pinpoint with any accuracy when an Icelandic film industry emerged. It may not even be important to pinpoint when exactly it happened, what probably matters more is that it happened. For the purpose of this article, let’s say that the first semblance of an industry emerged in 1978, when the Icelandic Film Fund was established by the government with the sole purpose of financially supporting the production of Icelandic films. This was a watershed moment for Icelandic filmmakers who had struggled to finance their films. Although filmmakers still strain for financing, the fund set up a framework that made it realistic (or less unrealistic at least) to produce Icelandic movies and gave birth to professionals who paved the way for the next generation of Icelandic filmmakers. Today, the Icelandic film industry is experiencing certain growing pains. There are four to eight films made domestically each year and Icelandic films are regularly featured at international film festivals. Yet, Icelandic filmmakers say that working conditions are difficult and funds are lacking. The Grapevine contacted several industry insiders to find out where Icelandic filmmaking stands today and how much has really changed in the last 30 years. The Icelandic Film Industry in a Nutshell “We should keep in mind that Iceland is a small nation, but we manage to produce many good films. The fact that we have a film at the Toronto Film Festival almost every year is incredible. Especially if we compare that to the Swedish film industry for example, which put out 45 films in 2005 and none of them was screened at the Toronto Festival. That is a remarkable fact,” says Skúli Malmquist, producer and co-founder of the Reykjavík-based independent production company Zik Zak Filmworks. Established in 1995, the company has produced more than one project a year since 1999, including Dagur Kári’s Nói Albínói and Voksne Mennesker, Ragnar Bragason’s Fíaskó and Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Oscar nominated short film The Last Farm. Currently, the company is working on various projects, such as coproducing Sólveig Anspach’s feature film Skrapp út (Back Soon), shot in Iceland earlier this year; and Vesturport’s Surf, directed by Árni Ólafur Ásgeirsson which will start shooting next year. Zik Zak’s biggest project at the moment is a new film by director Dagur Kári, The Good Heart, an English language drama that will mostly be filmed in the US, hopefully this fall. The movie is in pre-production but is already fully financed by local and international investors. “Our goal is to produce at least two feature films, one documentary and one or two short films every year” says Malmquist, and adds that it is difficult for an independent company to maintain such a busy production schedule, in particular because of the lack of funding. So far the company has managed to finance its projects but 50–70% of the funding comes from foreign investors, which Malmquist says is unusually high compared to other countries but quite typical for the Icelandic industry. “I think that few nations in the world need to obtain such a big percentage of the funding from abroad,” Malmquist says. “I would like to see the local TV stations participating in the projects to a greater extent than they have so far, as well as paying a reasonable price for the films. As the situation is today, it’s easier to sell your films to TV stations in Denmark and Sweden while you need to struggle to get a similar price for the films in Iceland. That isn’t normal,” he says, adding that his crew is still optimistic that things will change for the better. The Icelandic Film Centre It all starts with funding. Raising money and building connections with foreign investors; attending film festivals around the world and convincing distributors and TV stations to support projects is an essential part in Icelandic Film industry. In 2003, the laws on the Icelandic Film Fund were changed. The fund was dissolved as such and the Icelandic Film Centre was established to take over the operations of the fund. But even more importantly, The Icelandic Film Centre was given the direct responsibility of acting as an export agency and promoting Icelandic films in foreign markets. “It is difficult to maintain an international network when you make a movie every other or even every third year. We try to provide an international network for film workers and handle relations with international film festivals on behalf of Icelandic filmmakers,” Director Laufey Guðjónsdóttir explains. The market for Icelandic films is small. A domestic film may typically draw 10,000 viewers at the box office. Per capita, that number is proportionately what best selling domestic movies draw in the rest of Europe. But it is still only 10,000 people, while the production costs remain similar, regardless of capita. This is the harsh financial reality Icelandic filmmakers must face. Funding… This year, the Icelandic Film Centre has around 400 million ISK in funds to support filmmakers divided between TV projects, feature length movies, and shorts and docs. According to an agreement made last year, that amount will be increased gradually to reach 700 millions by 2010. Each year, around 100 projects receive funding on all levels of production, from developing screenplays, to anywhere between pre-production and post production. The Film Centre follows strict guidelines when selecting projects for funding, Guðjónsdóttir explains. Each project is carefully scrutinised by an independent committee of industry professionals who do not have ties to the Icelandic Film Industry, based on their commercial viability, artistic aspiration, and most importantly, how well the filmmaker has done his homework. “It is a common misunderstanding that a movie producer sits with his feet upon the table and plays around with money. That is not true. Everything needs to be well solidified when we receive an application to fund a project for production. You need to have a schedule, you need signed contracts with everybody, cast, crew and other investors, and you have to show that you will be able to finance the film. It is important to select carefully, not only because it is a shame to let the money go to waste if the project falls through, but also because when you select one project, you turn down another one,” Guðjónsdóttir concludes. In addition to financial support from the Icelandic Film Centre, the Icelandic government recently agreed to reimburse 14% of production costs incurred for film and TV production in Iceland from the National Treasury. The move has not only benefited Icelandic filmmakers financially, it has also drawn an interest from large foreign production companies that regularly visit Iceland to shoot such movies as James Bond: Die Another Day, Batman Begins and The Flags of our Fathers to name a few, often using Icelandic crew members. Filmmakers are generally very pleased with this development, since Icelandic cres have gained a lot of experience working with their foreign counterparts. Laufey Guðjónsdóttir of the Icelandic Film Centre told us: “We recently had the Institute of Economic Studies at the University of Iceland do a research on the 14% reimbursement plan. According to the institution’s report, the government gets more in return than the 14% it has to pay back. In the past, we have typically financed 15–25% of a film’s budget, and we are trying to raise that percentage now while the rest is financed from abroad, so we can see that there is money coming into the country from this industry. Sometimes a lot of money.” …Or Lack Thereof Despite improvements in recent years, the most common complaint from Icelandic filmmakers is about the lack of funding for Icelandic projects. Filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson: “The problem is the lack of funding. The Icelandic Film Centre has been doing a fine job and now we are waiting to see if things will improve at The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RÚV) and whether
they will increase its contribution to Icelandic filmmaking and TV programming.” Rúnarsson’s short movie, Síðasti Bærinn í Dalnum (The Last Farm), was nominated for an Oscar in 2004 and his next short movie, Two Birds, starts shooting in August. “As the situation is today,” Rúnar continues, “most production companies are producing their own projects and it can be hard for a new filmmaker to make his own movie. If you are, for example, doing a movie with a 100 million ISK budget, you can get 40% financial support from the Icelandic Film Centre but the rest is up to you, and gathering 60 million ISK isn’t something you do in a matter of minutes. You need to have been attending cocktail-parties at Cannes for the past ten years, been to festivals around the world and know some Germans who can provide funding.” Icelandic Filmmakers are particularly incensed over the lack of support from the National Broadcasting Service (RÚV), where most Icelandic films end up being shown. “RÚV takes almost no part in funding Icelandic movies,” states Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, whose film Children of Nature was nominated for an Oscar as the best foreign language film in 1992. Friðrik is Iceland’s most experienced filmmaker after nearly 30 years in the business and producing or directing over 50 films. His production company, The Icelandic Film Corporation went bankrupt almost three years ago, after taking a huge loss on an expensive project, an event that most Icelandic filmmakers agree was a major backlash for the industry. He adds: “In Denmark, the Danish Broadcasting Service (Danske Radio) is obligated to fund 25% of all projects that are produced. If we intend to run a National Broadcasting Service, it needs to take more part in the production. We need participation from those who have the most interest to protect, and that is RÚV, since all these movies end up being shown there anyway, and usually get between 70–90% viewer rating.” His opinion is also shared by Baltasar Kormákur, one of Iceland’s most successful filmmakers. After directing movies such as 101 Reykjavík and The Sea, Kormákur got an opportunity to direct A Little Trip to Heaven, starring Forrest Whittaker and Julia Stiles, before making Jar City, the most successful domestic film in Iceland to date. Baltasar also points out that RÚV’s obligation is not only related to financing. “We need to get more opportunities for filmmakers to work in television. Working in television is a better preparation for making feature length films than working on short films. I don’t mean that making short films is negative. But a made for TV movie is much closer in form to a feature length film than a short movie. It is good to be able to gain experience from working in TV instead of making a feature length film that 500 people will come to see” Kormákur states. Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, Minister for Education, who oversees both RÚV and the Icelandic Film Centre and the government’s participation in the film industry, says she is aware of the situation and steps have been taken to increase RÚV’s participation in Icelandic filmmaking. “We have just signed a new agreement with the Association of Icelandic Film Producers that sets a better framework for how RÚV is involved in the funding.” Should Iceland Demand Epics? “Approximately 95% of Icelandic filmmakers don’t get full funding and that fact tends to result in them being bitter and angry. Bitterness is the filmmaker’s biggest disease,” claims director and producer Ólafur Jóhannsson at Poppoli Pictures. His company has mostly focused on documentaries, or what he likes to call “visiomentaries”, where the script is directed but all the main characters are real. Poppoli’s recent projects include Africa United, Blindsker, Act Normal and the newest output, Queen Raquela, a film documenting the lives of ladyboys in the Philippines, which will premiere in September. A feature length movie is also in the works, a Kung-Fu comedy called Higher Force, starring Ingvar E. Sigurðsson and Sopranos actor Michael Imperioli. Jóhannsson himself is used to the lack of funding: “I usually manage to get up to 70% of the finances I need to make my films. I don’t pay myself large salaries and my staff is underpaid, but making the films is worth it. That’s the biggest reward. Filmmakers shouldn’t expect to get all the funds they need to make their movies. That’s a big misunderstanding,” Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, however, says that foreign funds are no longer as open to Icelanders as they used to be and that production of large scale projects is not only unviable, but impossible: “You can’t produce expensive Icelandic movies, expensive period movies for example, with the funding system we have in place now,” Friðrik says. In his opinion, the next step should be to establish a risk fund for filmmakers in order to finance more expensive projects. A typical Icelandic movie project requires a budget between 100–200 million ISK, but Friðrik says we will need to be able to fund films for up to 2 billion ISK. “In the next few years we will see a wave of cheap movies made in Iceland, not bad movies, but we will see a stream of cheap movies set in modern times, which will demand a great imagination. We are talking about making Dogma 95 movies basically, for a 100 million ISK budget. These will mostly be movies about social disasters, alcoholism, or cancer just like the dogma movies are. The lack of funding for expensive projects is limiting the artistic possibilities of filmmakers and screenwriters in that sense,” Friðriksson says and admits that he has been thinking about a risk fund in relation to his desire to film the Icelandic Sagas in particular. Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, Minister for Education, told the Grapevine that she understands this frustration, and that a special fund for bigger projects has been discussed and will be considered in future negotiations, but “right now it is my opinion that we should prioritise the funds so that we can create more projects made for TV.” Baltasar Kormákur, on the other hand, does not share those worries: “I’m not sure if it should be possible to fully finance such expensive projects through Icelandic funds,” he says. “Every story can be told in a relatively cheap manner, but if you want to create an expensive epic move, I don’t think it is unreasonable to demand that is commercially viable. I think it is only natural that people create a name for themselves as filmmakers in order to be able to make expensive movies. Almadóvar made 20 movies before he got to where he is today. It is ridiculous to expect to be able to make a movie for one billion ISK or more here in Iceland if you don’t have the name recognition to attract funding from foreign investors. So, I don’t fully understand this complaint,” he says and adds that the way the funding system is set up now, it allows young directors to create medium-size movies that can earn them the recognition to move on to bigger things. Realistic Expectations “Icelanders tend to demand that every Icelandic movie becomes a hit” says Baltasar Kormákur. “The fact is that when it comes to movies, perhaps one out of ten become successful. In all of Europe, there are only a few titles each year that are shown anywhere outside of their home country. The majority of Icelandic movies are invited to international festivals.” “In many ways, I think the Icelandic movie industry is in an upswing,” Kormákur continues. The situation has improved a lot with a new contract between the government and Association of Icelandic Film Producers, signed last year. Hopefully, that will result in a better product. There is always room for improvement, but I think the industry right now is turning out a more balanced product. Technically, we see far fewer movies that do not meet standards.” In Friðrik Þór’s opinion, however, Icelandic filmmakers are spreading their energy too thin. He believes that it is realistic to expect Icel
and to produce around five feature length films every year but, in order for that to be viable, it takes a more concentrated effort. “In my opinion, there are simply too many struggling production companies here. I have always advocated for creating one unified film production company. But, everybody wants to be the King, so it has never been possible. For a production company to develop, it needs to produce three to four films every year, and possibly one foreign project as well. That is realistic, but a company would need more directors and producers to support such an operation.” The Narrative Tradition Iceland is known for its narrative tradition. From the sagas, to Halldór Laxness, Icelandic literary tradition is rich. This creates a peculiar dilemma for Icelandic filmmakers. The majority of Icelandic films that have been well received domestically are based on material written for another medium, i.e. a novel or a play. “It is a shortcoming of the Icelandic movie industry that a field of screenwriters has not developed,” says Baltasar Kormákur. “Nobody can make a living in Iceland writing screenplays, so Icelandic writers understandably focus on books. It is the same problem in the theatres. Icelandic authors have occasionally written scripts, but they lack proper training. Directors can often adopt a story written for another medium to a screenplay, but then they are mostly dramatising the story for their medium. I think you need to be a writer to write a good script, it demands all the same elements, creating characters and creating a storyline. When you adopt a previously written material to the screen, you are working with a writer. I wish I had a good writer to work with who was only writing for the screen. It can be a very good collaboration. The Director often has a good perspective of the story and can offer some criticism. Writers sometimes become too involved in their work to see the faults.” Friðrik Þór believes that Icelandic writers could also benefit from the collaboration. “I think writers that have worked on movie screens have gained from that as well. Their books often become more picturesque. There are many Icelandic books that are ideal for adapting to the screen. But I am always hoping for a writer who takes an idea and turns it into a script directly, without first writing a book, but many of them are such ‘effectivists.’” Baltasar Kormákur also offers another explanation for the popularity of the adopted novel/play: “When a material has been previously introduced and people know it, it is more likely to attract an audience, think of the DaVinci Code for example. That is also why we see so many sequels made. People like to see what they know. We are a little like children in that sense, we always want to be told the same story again. But let’s not forget that there have also been stories that have been adopted from books here in Iceland that have not done well.” End Credits As both the Minister for Education, Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir and the Icelandic Film Centre’s director Laufey Guðjónsdóttir point out, films are an important part of the nation’s cultural heritage. Despite the relative success of Icelandic filmmakers at international film festivals, audience numbers have been on the decline for years. Especially among younger audience, as studies have shown that the average age of people who attend Icelandic movies is much higher than the average age of the general moviegoer. Filmmakers point out that coverage of Icelandic films in local media is often misleading. Media outlets generally speak highly of the success of Icelandic movies at film festivals, but don’t seem to mention that many films do poorly in Icelandic cinemas and distribution on foreign ground is often difficult. A partial explanation for poor attendance is that with increased production capabilities and an average of five Icelandic films coming out each year, the novelty of Icelandic films has worn off. Icelandic audiences no longer accept sub-standard Icelandic movies out of national pride, and demand something that compares to the best in other countries. The recent success of Baltasar Kormákur’s Mýrin (Jar City), which drew over 80,000 people at the box office, a new record for an Icelandic movie, shows that Icelandic audience will turn out for a movie that grabs their interest. Icelandic audiences in return will need to realise that without their participation and support, the Icelandic film industry will likely not turn out many such movies. Text by Sveinn Birkir Björnsson and Steinunn Jakobsdóttir Photo by Gulli

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