The new black: Nordic noir’s unstoppable rise

The new black: Nordic noir’s unstoppable rise

Gün Akyuz
By Gün Akyuz
June 30, 2015

Trendspotting

As the popularity of Nordic noir shows no sign of waning, DQ asks Scandinavian drama’s key players where they plan to take the genre next.

Ever since the massive global hit that was The Killing, Scandinavian drama has been punching above its weight, winning over critics and viewers internationally as well as influencing its European neighbours.

The latest Nordic noir success story is Sweden’s The Fat and the Angry (Ettor och nollor), which scooped another international award for the region when it picked up best non-English-language drama at the inaugural C21 Drama Awards last November. It came a close second earlier in the year at the Seoul Drama Awards with a Silver Bird gong in the TV movies category.

Wikander: 'We’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before'
Wikander: ‘We’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before’

Based on true events in Gothenburg’s criminal underworld, the two-part show, which premiered locally in Sweden in February 2014, joins a long list of award-winning Nordic dramas with international careers, including Lilyhammer, The Killing, Wallander, Borgen and The Bridge – as well as Mammon, which has been the subject of speculation about a BBC remake.

The Fat and the Angry highlights an important feature of Scandinavian dramas: coproduction. Made by Göta Film and Swedish pubcaster SVT, its partners included Finnish pubcaster YLE and Swedish film prodco Film i Väst.

With a few exceptions, Scandinavian drama’s international partnerships came out of necessity, says SVT head of drama Christian Wikander. “The hourly cost for drama has gone up, which means we’re all searching for new money, and this drove the producers and the broadcasters to reach out and broaden the network.”

If anyone can find success with this approach, it’s the Scandinavians, as Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international drama projects at YLE, explains: “We’ve been coproducing since 1959. It’s really good for Nordic drama that we have subsidy methods and two important funds within the Nordic countries.” One of these is the Nordisk Film and TV Fond, where Forsman sits on the board.

“There’s much to be gained by having a lot of smaller funding and regional funding contributions, even though they don’t pay very much,” agrees Stefan Baron, executive drama producer at Nice Drama. Baron left SVT in 2014 after 21 years to join MTG-owned Nice Entertainment Group, where he’s now an exec producer heading up international coproductions. “The trick is to not have too many partners at the script stage,” he says. “When you have a couple of scripts, then you bring in distributors and coproducers from around the world.”

Beyond the region, Nordic drama’s international appeal has grown thanks to increasingly sophisticated, social media-savvy audiences and their expanding tastes, says Wikander – adding that this has also helped prise open the door to the UK, a notoriously closed market for subtitled, non-Anglo Saxon fare.

“I think audiences are very well educated and used to all kinds of storylines, plots, dramaturgy and also language,” says the SVT man. “Because social media is so borderless, we share so much in our personal networks – and one proof of that is the success of Nordic drama on BBC4. Ten years ago, if someone had told me two million Brits would sit down to watch a subtitled drama, I wouldn’t have believed them.

“The fantastic upside for all of us working in Scandinavia today is that we’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before, and that’s a great opportunity for us.”

SVT is Scandinavia’s largest drama commissioner and producer, with an annual output of four longform drama series (10×60’/10×45’) and four miniseries (3×60’) across crime, family drama and comedy, on a budget of around SEK320m (US$46.6m).

Around half its output is coproduced, largely with its longstanding Nordic partners such as DR, NRK and YLE. But it has also attracted a growing band of Europeans and North Americans interested in remake rights to shows like The Bridge, and ‘hubot’ drama Real Humans, with Shine-owned Kudos’s remake of the latter, simply called Humans, now airing on the UK’s Channel 4 and AMC in the US.

Gustaffson: Bigger appetite for Nordic  drama has caused a bottleneck
Gustaffson: Bigger appetite for Nordic drama has ’caused a bottleneck’

Piodor Gustaffson, co-founder and producer of independent production company Another Park Film, and former drama commissioning editor at SVT, says that despite smaller budgets and limited development funds in the region, he’s noticed an overall increase in the quality of drama series over the last few years. “That’s about competing with not only the rest of the world but also your neighbours, as well as occasionally using the same talent,” he says.

At SVT, Gustaffson pushed for a broader range of drama output, leading to projects such as The Bridge and Real Humans. Meanwhile, Baron greenlit Nice’s family drama Thicker Than Water. The show aired in spring 2014 to a million-plus viewers, selling internationally via Germany’s ZDFE. A second season is now in the pipeline.

There’s widespread agreement that Nordic noir has opened doors for Scandinavian producers, themselves refusing to have their output pigeonholed as simply Nordic noir. With crime at its core, the programming stretches far beyond into an exploration of society and human motivations, offering a strong identification with and empathy for characters along the way. It also embraces other genres such as suspense and mystery, and fish-out-of-water crime comedy. And now producers are moving into new areas, exemplified by DR’s family inheritance drama The Legacy.

“Of course it’s about crime – it’s Nordic noir – but it’s always been character-focused,” says Jonas Allen, producer and co-founder of Danish prodco Miso Film. “We care about the characters. It’s not only about fascination with them, but also identifying with the characters, and I think that’s the basic core to all the shows.”

Now majority-owned by FremantleMedia, Miso Film counts local hits such as Those Who Kill and Dicte for TV2 Denmark, as well as the historical drama 1864 for DR, among its productions. Crime reporter series Dicte (10×45’) returned for a successful second run last autumn, with a third season now in development. It includes TV4 Sweden and TV2 Norway as coproducers, and received support from regional Danish regional funds, the EU’s MEDIA programme and DFI’s Public Service Fund.

Forsman: 'It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today'
Forsman: ‘It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today’

For Scandinavia’s public broadcasters, at least, another quintessential ingredient of Nordic drama is how it reflects society. “It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today. It’s imperative that we entertain, but we should always enrich at a deeper level, too,” says Forsman.

Even though Nordic drama appears gloomy and dark, Forsman says one of the reasons Danish drama travels so well is that the characters care about each other. “You can feel it within 10 seconds of watching. You have to have a lot of empathy, no matter how harsh the subject.”

YLE Drama’s latest show is the thriller Tellus, scripted and directed by JP Siili. The 6×50’ drama deals with a group of eco-terrorists, exploring an “important ethical question” of how far individuals will go to fight for their ideals, according to Forsman.

NRK and SVT are coproducers and ZDFE is distributing it internationally outside of Scandinavia, making it “a typical Nordic coproduction,” Forsman adds. The drama opened to 27% shares on YLE1 in the autumn, continuing on 25%, with a second season greenlit before the final episode aired in December.

Pubcaster NRK’s latest traditional Nordic noir, Eyewitness (Øyenvitne, pictured top), which debuted on NRK1 last autumn, is also imbued with socio-cultural commentary. “It’s been a real success among critics and audiences,” says NRK head of drama Ivar Køhn, who’s also the current chair of the Nordisk Film and TV Fund.

It was scripted and directed by Jarl Emsell Larsen who, as the original father of Nordic noir in Norway, has 30 years of TV drama under his belt. “For the last 15 years he’s been really into social drama, when he discovered he could make crime and talk about society and also make it popular,” Køhn says of the director.

Eyewitness follows two adolescent boys who meet secretly in a forest, where they witness a violent murder. The story follows the events that build after they fail to report the crime to the police. It has already sold internationally in both finished (including to Germany) and scripted format forms.

Struggle for Life, 'the opposite of a fish-out-of-water story'
Struggle for Life, ‘the opposite of a fish-out-of-water story’

But NRK is also keen to evolve its drama. Its ‘Nordic humour noir’ show Struggle for Life (Kampen for tilværelsen) “is not so much a ‘fish out of water’ story as a ‘tigers in silent waters’ one – the complete opposite,” says Køhn.

Following in the mould of series like Welcome to Sweden and Lilyhammer, Struggle for Life centres on a Pole who travels to Norway in search of his father. Although a linguist, he can only find work as a carpenter, which exposes him to a Norwegian middle-class life of self-made problems.

“It’s a really original story and a brave one for us,” says Køhn. The project was completely controlled by scriptwriters, and co-written by Erlend Loe, Per Schreiner and Bjørn Olaf Johannessen – “some of the most exciting writers we have in Norway,” says Køhn. NRK has greenlit two seasons of the eight-part comedy drama.

Miso Film is also evolving the Nordic noir genre. “It’s one of the things going on right now,” says co-founder Allen. “A lot of creatives who we’re dealing with are looking for and trying to tell new stories.”

One of its latest offerings is NOK65m (US$8.8m)-budget mystery drama Acquitted (Frikjent) (10×45’), made for TV2 Norway and launched in March this year. The project, which received NOK10m funding from the Nordisk Film and TV Fund, became TV2’s biggest drama premiere, pulling in a 46.6% share of its 20-49s target group and a 38.8% overall share (12 years-plus).

Scripted by two female writers, Siv Rajendram Eliassen (Varg Veum) and Anna Bache-Wiig, the drama is inspired by a real rape and murder case in Norway. “They were very interested in the character, and it was always about finding out about the man who was acquitted, why he came back to his hometown, what he was looking for, and the forces that drove him back. That’s the core of the development of the show,” says Allen.

SVT’s Wikander, too, is keen for producers not to come to him with the next The Bridge. “I think we need to be brave. Take Real Humans, for instance – that’s an example of being brave, and for a public broadcaster today that’s extremely important,” he says.

C21 Drama Award-winning The Fat and the Angry
C21 Drama Award-winning The Fat and the Angry

“We need to try out new stuff but, of course, without abandoning the established crime formats. We’re going to see a third and probably fourth season of The Bridge, but we need to balance that with bravery, and we’ve started a lot from scratch, finding stories relevant to a Swedish audience because that’s our mission. When you have that mission, you can then go into the international market, but not as a first step.”

One of SVT’s newest dramas, Jordskott (10×60’), takes the pubcaster in yet another new direction. It’s made by established Swedish commercials prodco Palladium, which formed new division Palladium Fiction, headed by producer Filip Hammarström, for its first TV drama. The show, which launched on Monday February 16, opened to 1.6 million viewers and has since averaged 1.4 million so far across its debut run.

The story follows a detective who returns to her small home town to work on the case of a missing boy, 10 years after her own daughter disappeared, and tries to find links between the two mysterious incidents. Wikander calls it a “Nordic crime meets mystery” drama.

After four years developing the idea, Palladium brought a 10-minute tape to SVT. “If they hadn’t had that 10 minutes, we would have said no, because the company had never produced a drama series before,” says Wikander.

The UK’s ITV Studios came in on the project very early, he adds, making it possible to take it to the next level of production, and is distributing the series worldwide. Finland’s Kinoproduktion is also a coproducer and the series has been pre-bought by YLE, TV2 Norway and Iceland’s RUV.

“The biggest difference of the last two to three years has been an increase in the amount spent on development, alongside international companies investing in or acquiring Nordic companies and increased budgets at the TV channels. More projects are now very well developed even before they reach the commissioning editors,” notes Another Park’s Gustaffson.

SVT has upped its development budget to help develop more new projects, a challenge many countries without the US-style showrunner/writers room approach face. “The best writers are occupied so we also need to focus also on the writers beneath them and on finding ways to get them together with producers to lift them,” Wikander explains.

Another Park is currently busy developing a number of (as yet undisclosed) film and TV projects across a range of genres, working with top writing talent. “We will go out to the market when we’re ready,” Gustaffson says. “We wanted to have that freedom when we created the company. But, obviously, we would also be open to start earlier with some partners if we shared the same vision at the development stage.”

However, Gustaffson says a key challenge for Nordic drama is the “limit to how much Swedish-language drama the local market can finance and consume.”

He adds: “There’s a bigger appetite for Nordic and Swedish drama than what TV stations commission, and that’s caused a bottleneck. A lot of interesting projects will come out of the increase in development money but this won’t result in more Swedish-language drama series – and it could mean some of the top talent start to write for companies in other countries because what they develop here won’t be financed.”

Yet Scandinavian producers remain unfazed by growing international competition in foreign-language drama from countries such as France, Spain, Israel and Turkey. Rather, they see greater potential synergies developing.

NRK is no stranger to global partnerships. It was the first Scandinavian broadcaster to strike out when it joined forces with new entrant Netflix to coproduce the crime comedy series Lilyhammer by Rubicon TV, which premiered in early 2012. Season three of the drama returned on flagship NRK1 last October, with the broadcaster this time taking a leaf out of Netflix’s book by also making the entire series available straight away on its online streaming service. Meanwhile, HBO Europe picked up remake rights to NRK’s six-part thriller Mammon.

“We were all taken and shaken by Netflix and House of Cards, when the whole series was made available on day one, while Netflix rose extremely quickly to around 650,000 subscribers in Sweden,” says Wikander. “But that has now levelled out, and one of the reasons for that – not unique to Netflix – is that 98% of its catalogue is old titles. The audience has now gone through it, and an output of four new titles a year, whether you’re a broadcaster like us or a Netflix, is too little to keep a subscriber audience with you.”

There’s another reason why distribution platforms like Netflix and HBO make interesting bedfellows: they can do niche drama, because ultimately they can aggregate lots of smaller audiences, says YLE’s Forsman. “In other countries where we have really strong public service companies with good audience shares and very well-educated audiences, we can do that too,” she notes.

“It’s really great to see channels like France’s Canal+ doing the same,” adds Forsman. “They want their drama to have deep characters and to speak about society in a new way, to be brave, risky and so on – all imperatives for public service broadcasters. We could have written the same words, yet they’re a commercial broadcaster.”

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