Opening doors for international exposure

US-Norway Film Development Initiative, Norwegian film financial incentive boost Norway films

Photo courtesy of Lisa G. Black David Leader, producer (Norway); Lisa G. Black, producer (U.S.); and Trond M. K. Venaasen, writer of The Bird Catcher (Norway), at the Haugesund Film Festival in 2013.

Photo courtesy of Lisa G. Black
David Leader, producer (Norway); Lisa G. Black, producer (U.S.); and Trond M. K. Venaasen, writer of The Bird Catcher (Norway), at the Haugesund Film Festival in 2013.

Michael Kleiner
Philadelphia, Penn.

Norway’s scenery is its greatest export, but it has been underutilized in the global film industry. Also hidden by the fjords or underground like trolls is Norwegian talent, be it writers, producers, directors, and others.

The U.S.-Norway Film Development Initiative and the Norwegian government instituting financial incentives to make films or TV dramas has changed the landscape.

Jo Nesbø’s crime drama, The Snowman, is the first film to benefit from the financial incentive. Scheduled for release in October 2017, it is directed by Sigmund Holm, who also heads the Western Norway Film Commission in Bergen. It is the first of Nesbø’s Detective Harry Hole series to be put on screen. The premise is that certain married women with children in Oslo are being abducted and murdered. The killer’s signature is a snowman built outside each woman’s home. There is top talent involved in The Snowman. The executive producer is Martin Scorsese, the director, Tomas Alfredson. Filmed in Norway, the cast stars Michael Fassbender, Golden Globe nominee Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, and Val Kilmer.

Holm, who is on the board of the Norwegian Film Institute, explains that the incentive is a cash rebate and not a tax credit. The measure was introduced in the Storting in December 2015 and “fast-tracked” to enactment on January 1, 2016. The program offers a capped 25% reimbursement of all qualifying Norwegian expenditures for feature films, TV dramas, and documentaries that meet certain criteria. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs oversees it. However, there was also a cap of NOK 45 million, which allowed only The Snowman and Downsizing to be supported as international projects. The incentive is supported by all Norwegian political parties. Norway is the only Scandinavian country with a financial incentive.

“Because of the incentive, a Norwegian company was set up for the production of The Snowman,” wrote Holm from Bergen. “Several hundred Norwegians got involved behind and in front of the camera. Norway could prove to the international film industry that it has a solid workforce and extremely film-friendly cities and municipalities. We roll out the red carpet, not the red tape.”

Prior to the incentive, Norwegian films received financial support from the Norwegian Film Institute or from seven regional funds. There has also been an increase in funding from international sources. One could receive funding if the film was in Norwegian and shot in the country or if it had a co-producer from another country.

Photo: U.S.-Norway Film Development Project / Facebook Bård Ivar Engelsås, scriptwriter for The Swimmer, hones his craft at the Script Polishing Summit in 2012.

Photo: U.S.-Norway Film Development Project / Facebook
Bård Ivar Engelsås, scriptwriter for The Swimmer, hones his craft at the Script Polishing Summit in 2012.

The seven regions have been reduced to four with the mergers of Rogaland with Bergen, and Lillehammer with Trondheim. Tromsø Film Camp is not being funded by Norwegian government money, but working as a private studio. Stavanger is the other region.

“I work to attract international film productions to shoot in Norway,” explained Holm. “Norway’s spectacular landscape, with its fjords, mountains, glaciers, coastal villages, and scenic roads, has hitherto been its major draw for international producers. Norway has a lot of underexploited scenery to offer international filmmakers, and a tremendously talented creative industry, which in recent years has sparked the global film community’s interest in Norwegian stories and settings. Due to this interest, the debate on automatic film incentives for international productions became high on the government and industry agenda. When Norway started to lose high-profile projects to other countries, the film incentive became a popular demand. Without an incentive, Norway had difficulty appealing to big budget international productions. We had to level the playing field.”

In August 2010, the Norwegian Film Institute and Innovation Norway sponsored a 10-day envoy trip around Norway for five American independent producers. One of those was Lisa G. Black, owner of Wilmington, Del., based Garnet Girl (see Garnet Girl’s international film movement). The scenery and people she met convinced her of the need for collaboration between the United States and Norway and to promote its films and talent on an international stage.

“I fell in love with Norway, the people, country, and entrepreneurial spirit,” said Black, who is a board member of the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce Philadelphia. “I met and collaborated with super talented industry professionals. The regions had a lot of talent, with stories that needed to be told internationally. We all realized that together, using innovation, passion, and mutual understanding, our goals are the same: to bring compelling stories to an international audience, bridging cultural and business divisions to achieve success.”

The U.S.-Norway Film Development Initiative was announced at the 2011 Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund, supported by the regional center funds, Mid Norsk Trondheim (Stig Beck and Inge Tevnik), Filmkraft Stavanger (Ingunn Myklevoll Sjøen, Managing Director at Egersund Kulturhus/-kino and Øyvind Hollo Klausen, who recently left Filmkraft Rogaland), Film Camp Tromsø (Svein Anderson) and Joachim Lyng, Managing Director/Producer/Partner of Film in Norway, Brandi Savitt of Senza Pictures, one of the American producers on the 2010 trip, and Academy Award nominated writers Haakon “Hawk” Ostby and Mark Fergus. Black had met the Norwegians on the 2010 trip, as well as industry professionals from other countries.

The Norwegians see Black as the inspiration.

“She was professional and sincere in her vision of creating a co-venture between the U.S. and Norway,” wrote Lyng in an email from Trondheim. “For a small country like Norway, with a small box office, to co-venture with partners from the U.S. opens up international opportunities for us.”

“I was impressed by her energy, big heart, goals, ambitions, and ability to get in touch with people.” wrote scriptwriter Trond M K Venaasen from Lillehammer.

“I met Lisa when I was hosting the Rogaland part of the envoy trip,” wrote Klaussen, who is now a freelance producer/filmmaker, in an e-mail from Stavanger. “I was impressed by her amazing energy, and her fearless approach to new people and ideas. The initiative helped to point out very clearly that Norway needed economic incentives to grow the film industry. It also helped us realize that we needed to improve collaboration. The initiative helped us get publicity for this cause. This means more international business, which gives us more skilled crews.”

Photo: U.S.-Norway Film Development Project / Facebook At the 2012 Script Polishing Summit. David Leader, Silje Randen, Josetin Hermansen, Helene Steinhaug, Brandi Savitt, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby.

Photo: U.S.-Norway Film Development Project / Facebook
At the 2012 Script Polishing Summit. David Leader, Silje Randen, Josetin Hermansen, Helene Steinhaug, Brandi Savitt, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby.

Things moved fast after the initiative went into effect. Between August 2011 and December 2011, 65 movie scripts were submitted. At the Tromsø Film Festival in January 2012, Black, Savitt, Fergus, and Ostby narrowed those down to 10. Those were reviewed by Norwegian film industry professionals and Black. Two scripts, The Birdcatcher and The Swimmer, were selected to advance to the intense week-long Script Polish Summit in August 2012 in Haugesund. Black is the U.S. producer/development executive for the The Birdcatcher and producer on The Swimmer, as is Lyng on the latter. Ostby and Fergus are co-executive producers of The Birdcatcher; Venaasen the script writer. The Birdcatcher is about a 14-year-old girl separated from her family, who must take on an alias to survive Nazi-occupied Norway. Bård Ivar Engelsås wrote The Swimmer, which is about an American who sets out to battle one of Norway’s wildest rivers and his own inner demons.

Ostby and Fergus joined Black, Lyng, Savitt, and another Norwegian producer and American ex-pat, David Leader, to listen to full readings of each script by actors over five days. At the same time, Venaasen and Engelsås met with Ostby and Fergus for private intensive script polishing sessions.

For Ostby, it was a chance to reconnect with the homeland. He grew up in Oslo and came to the United States at age 15.

“I was thrilled about the initiative,” wrote Ostby from South Burlington, Vt. “It was a chance to reconnect, after many years, with a country I love. Without the initiative, I wouldn’t have had access to Norwegian writers or even known where to start. This was a chance to do something new and totally different. I was excited to read stories written about the home country.

“The writing summit was very rewarding. It’s the first time I’ve worked with writers outside the Hollywood system. Writers in Norway aren’t concerned with the commercial aspects of the story or the pressures of market demands. They wrote straight from the heart. The writers were intuitive, very honest in their writing, and smart. They listened intently, but never rolled over on anything they disagreed with.”

It was an honor for Venaasen to work with distinguished writers.

“That was a fantastic week for us writers and led to an opportunity on another project,” says Venaasen. “I felt that Fergus and Ostby really grasped the idea of my script and helped me in focusing it, instead of leading me into another direction. Their approach was with respect for me as a writer and gave me a boost in terms of self-esteem.

“I have been a part of the discussions before every new step of development and met with potential distributors, directors, producers, and partners. Most important for me is I feel there are economic connections overseas and all the Norwegian regional funds were involved. Without the initiative, The Birdcatcher would have had to find a Norwegian producer, and the market for development and production would have been a lot smaller and more difficult. I have some work with German producers now, initiated by talents in my region, but I would have never had the U.S.-Norway connection.”

The film should begin shooting in the Trondheim region in spring 2017.

Start of production for The Swimmer is to be determined.

Lyng would like to position Film in Norway as “the preferred partner for any international production wanting to shoot on location in Norway.”

“The reaction to the initiative was positive and welcomed,” said Lyng. “When doing something innovative and new, that requires a certain stamina and work method. Both are evident in this initiative. Both films have extremely good scripts that I am sure will see the light of day and become successful. This has enlarged my international network and made me more competent working with the U.S.”

Since 2011, Lyng has produced or co-produced movies in Finland, China, Norway, and Netherlands; TV episodes for shows in the United States, Norway, and England; and commercials in Japan, Sweden, and Denmark.

Black has benefitted, too. Besides The Birdcatcher and The Swimmer, she is coordinating producer/marketing for Heartstone, and executive producer for Afterlands, two Icelandic films. Heartstone, due out this year, is written and directed by Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson, who Black met at the film festival in Haugesund in 2013. Canadian Paul Barkin, who met Black on the 2010 trip, is a producer on Afterlands.

“If you’re only looking out for yourself, nothing happens,” said Black. “You have to share your network. My generosity is to serve the greater good. If I know there are two people who will have synergy, I’ll introduce them. This makes the world closer.”

“The success of the animated film Frozen in 2014 spiked interest in travel to Norway and was an eye-opener for the tourism industry,” said Holm. “Also, the Academy Award-winning film Ex Machina was shot in Norddal and Luster in Norway. This became a shot in the arm for our film incentive lobbying efforts. It showed the potential Norway has as a location for international productions. As a U.S. film commission colleague said: ‘The incentive is the initial qualifier. It gets you at the table with producers. Without incentives, you can’t have conversations.’”

This article originally appeared in the July 1, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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