With dwindling box office returns and the threat of Chinese cinema looming large on the horizon, has Hollywood overlooked an even greater contender to film-making dominance? Here’s why everyone in the movie business needs to take the Nordics seriously.
Traditionally the Scandinavian nations are defined as Norway, Sweden and Denmark. These three kingdoms of Northern Europe are sometimes grouped together in a wider context as Nordic countries, which add in Finland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and some surrounding northern islands. Greenland is also included in this group, although to be entirely honest, the film-making scene there might be too much of a stretch for us to cover right now.
For the purposes of this feature, we’ll focus in on the main Nordic countries and in particular the boom in Scandinavian film (and TV) in recent years. But first, a word on Hollywood.
Looking back at the origins of Hollywood, agriculture played a significant part in the birth of the area far out in the west of America. A disputed account of how Hollywood got its name is based around real estate developer HJ Whitley who was on honeymoon looking over the region from the top of a hill. He came across a Chinese laborer who was removing items from a wagon. When asked by Whitley what he was doing, the man replied: ‘I holly-wood’, an attempt to say he was ‘hauling wood’ … and so the legend was born.
Tall tales aside, there is no doubting that this particular corner of California has gone on to firmly establish itself as the home of film-making and the entertainment industry in general. Countless films have been made about Hollywood itself, with 2016’s Oscar contender La La Land taking its title from the iconic movie town’s nickname. The term not only represents a shorthand for Hollywood, but also the fanciful or dreamlike state of wonderment and opportunity that the industry represents.
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In reality, the only dream that Hollywood still holds on to is the idea that it is still somehow relevant within the global film industry. It isn’t.
Whereas studios and vast sets were previously found in the area, they are now there by name only. Sure, you might find backlots of the likes of Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox in LA, but film and TV production has declined dramatically in Hollywood. Cheaper, more financially enticing alternatives are found in other parts of America. Toronto and Vancouver, north of the border in Canada, readily stand in for Los Angeles itself in the entertainment world, and New York has fast become the business hub for most companies.
The American film industry as a whole has seen the success of China directly affect it. The international box office continues to outstrip its domestic counterpart, and the studios know it, focusing on delivering more international stars and locations to audiences tired of seeing US imports.
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In many ways, the chance rise of early Hollywood is being mirrored in the Nordic countries. Iceland, home of the biggest TV show on the planet, found itself being quite literally put on the map following a disaster of international proportions. The scene of many Game of Thrones locations, the small country with a population of fewer than 400,000 found itself in the headlines following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, a catastrophic event that saw a resultant ash cloud ground aircraft around the world. Although a massive inconvenience at the time, the subsequent press and publicity has seen a stupendous rise in tourism to the island, with fishing now a distant second to travel in terms of factors contributing to the local economy.
We spoke to two industry experts from Iceland to find out why blockbuster films and TV shows like Game of Thrones are now being made in the country.
In recent years films such as Prometheus (2012), Fast and Furious 8 (2017) and Justice League (2017) have been shot in Iceland. “Filming in Iceland was a spectacular experience! It is one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been. The Icelandic crew were amazingly efficient and made the job a real pleasure,” Ridley Scott said of his experience in the country.
Christopher Nolan was an early adopter, filming sequences for Batman Begins (2005) and then returning for his 2014 hit, Interstellar. There is certainly an air of the ‘wild west’ to filming here, with new locations being found and directors keen to explore new areas. This harks back to the early days of Hollywood, a time that has now long since passed. As previously mentioned, filming on the West Coast of America has become prohibitively expensive and mired in red tape.
To find out more, visit Inspired by Iceland
Game of Thrones Season 8 will premiere on 14 April 2019 from HBO
Other countries in the Nordics have not only served as locations for international productions, but also have thriving domestic film and TV industries. Iceland is fast developing in this field too, but has some way to go to catch up with the so-called ‘Scandi-cool’ of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
The harsh landscapes, although beautiful to visit and visualise on film, provide a distinctive backdrop on which dark stories can be told. This has evolved predominantly from the literary genre of Scandinavian Noir (commonly shortened to Scandi Noir or Nordic Noir) and spans several popular TV shows as well as a number of recent films. Even movies that don’t strictly fall under the parameters of this genre tend to be grouped together under this umbrella due to the look of Scandinavian cinema. Prime examples are The Hunt (2014), Land of Mine (2015) and popular TV series Borgen, The Bridge and The Killing.
The Danish film industry, however, was established long before this recent surge. Lars von Trier, arguably the most famous Danish director working today, even created his own sub-genre of cinema known as Dogme 95, a style that favoured natural lighting, minimalist sets and organic stories. Created in 1995, hence the name, the movement saw a group of young Danish directors achieving heightened realism through the methods outlined previously. Notable films from this era (which ended in 2005) include The Idiots (1995), Festen (1998) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy.
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Further recognition has come in recent years with a series of Danish films gaining Oscar nominations in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Three Danish films have won the award in the past, with Babette’s Feast (1987), Pelle the Conqueror (1987) and In a Better World (2010) picking up the prestigious gong.
Technically, can’t Denmark also claim The Lego Movie as one of its own as well?
Just like Denmark, Norway is home to a booming film and TV industry. Innovative web-series Skam has been causing a stir, and not just because it combines traditional TV with online clips. The series, which follows the lives of a group of teenagers in Oslo, has been praised for its honest depiction of adolescence.
Norwegian films range from populist, such as the hilariously well-crafted monster movie Trollhunter (2010), to art-house. The thriller genre is well catered for, with Headhunters (2011) proving to be an international hit in the vein of other Nordic Noir epics.
Hollywood films haven’t just taken inspiration from Norway – many have also been filmed on location here. Michael Fassbender recently filmed The Snowman in and around the capital of Oslo, and even Harry Potter found himself in this part of the world when The Half-Blood Prince (2009) took a detour from Hogwarts.
Genre appears to be no barrier either. This year we’ve seen tense drama Thelma at the London Film Festival, a movie which blends supernatural, comic book and coming-of-age storylines into a seamless adventure. Oslo plays a huge part in the movie, with the city still appearing fresh and interesting on screen in part due to its ongoing regeneration.
Arguably the best-established film industry in the area, Swedish cinema not only boasts several recent hits and numerous all-time classics, but also a plethora of screen talent that have crossed over into Hollywood. The most impressive thing, however, is just how many of these actors and filmmakers remain in Sweden itself. A key reason why Nordic nations are pulling away from the likes of France and Britain is their ability to maintain homegrown stars as well as appeal to outsiders.
Of course the British film industry is also seeing a mini-boom at the moment, but this is partly down to the well-established studios such as Pinewood and Shepperton hosting blockbusters from the Marvel and Star Wars franchises. French cinema and to a lesser extent Spanish cinema are well established as global players, but neither country feels that fresh on screen. We’ve seen the capitals plenty of times, and probably visited them ourselves.
Perhaps this is one reason why the Nordic countries feel like such an attractive protect to filmmakers. Tourism may well be on the rise, but these nations are nowhere near as well-visited as the likes of Sweden, Denmark, Iceland et al.
The Square, an Oscar nominee and a big winner at Cannes 2017, is a superb satire on modern art that was partly filmed in Stockholm and Gothenburg. The Swedish drama has been winning plaudits internationally and is further proof of the global appeal of domestic films.
Another breakout hit was the original Let the Right One In (2008). The film, which is now viewed as a cult classic, signalled a rebirth of the horror genre in Scandinavia and was a much-needed revamp of vampire films. Then, of course, there is The Seventh Seal (1957), which is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest films ever made.
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Celebrating its centenary in December, Finland is a relatively new player on the film scene. Hanna (2011, above) was a fast-paced action movie that featured Lake Kitka in Kuusamo, but previously Doctor Zhivago (1965) made an unforgettable mark on the cinematic landscape and showcased the beauty of the country. It’s also worth noting that although Hollywood producers and international filmmakers might have only recently come to see Finland as a location to film in, the domestic scene was once booming in its own right, and can even lay claim to having a hand in helping the country gain independence 100 years ago.
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There was a notable lull in production in film Finland during the ’70s and ’80s, but recent hits like Frozen Land (2005) and Mother of Mine (2005) sparked a resurgence and the dark Christmas tale Rare Exports (2010) proved to be a popular festive release.
Clearly, in terms of the number of film productions, the Nordic countries don’t get close to Hollywood. In fact, even the combined totals of these nations fall short of other industries such as Bollywood and Nollywood. However, what the Northern European countries excel in is combining homegrown films and TV shows with an ever-increasing attraction to other film-making countries. We recently found out, on a trip to Iceland, that there was even an Indian film being made there.
This dual ability to create and host creatives is what makes the Nordic countries feel reminiscent of ‘old’ Hollywood – a time when the frontiers were quite literally being pushed to their limits and beyond in the hope of developing film-making for all.
There is little sign of the industry slowing down either. Even as Game of Thrones winds down with its final season, we can expect possible spin-offs to be filmed in Iceland. There are more productions than ever in the three Scandinavian nations, including award-winning TV dramas that have wowed international audiences.
As tourism to these countries increases year-on-year, so does the ease with which film producers can access previously unseen locations. The ‘alien’ landscapes feel exotic and can capture the imagination of audiences as few others can.
Expect to see plenty more of the Nordics on screen in the future, all of which further signals that the end of Hollywood could be nigh.
In this episode of Beyond Hollywood, we travel to Stockholm. Join us as we find out how the moody locations we see on screen capture the spirit of Scandi noir.