The World Wants More Danish TV Than Denmark Can Handle

The World Wants More Danish TV Than Denmark Can Handle
By: WNG NYT Posted On: December 14, 2019 View: 288

The World Wants More Danish TV Than Denmark Can Handle

COPENHAGEN — Merete Mortensen, the founder of a successful television production company here, is used to having her pick of the industry’s top talent in Denmark. But when she was trying to hire a new developer this year to help her create new shows, her first and even second choice turned her down.

She sweet-talked them with everything she could think of — a larger salary, a longer contract, beers — but with no luck.

“It’s been crazy this year in Denmark,” said Ms. Mortensen. “We’ve been having bidding wars over the best people.”

Netflix, Amazon Prime and their ever-growing number of competitors have dramatically reordered television, creating a boom in TV shows as well as jobs for actors, directors, producers and writers. A lot of that content is being developed far from the usual hubs in Hollywood, New York and London, as the streaming services mine international productions from countries including France, Japan and Brazil.

Perhaps nowhere is that expansion more evident than in Denmark, where thanks to years of rising demand, there are many more critically-praised series and movies being made than ever before. But what there isn’t, in this country of just 5.6 million people, is enough skilled professionals to produce them all.

Help-wanted ads are popping up all over industry Facebook groups. Certain shows have had to postpone production by six months, or indefinitely, said Claus Ladegaard, the director of the government-sponsored Danish Film Institute, which helps fund many productions here. There’s a two-year wait for skilled line producers, who oversee productions, Mr. Ladegaard said, noting there is also a shortage of scriptwriters, cinematographers and directors.

Both TV2, a public station, and the film institute recently called on the Danish Film School — the country’s only training center of its kind — to double its enrollment to meet the demand. Currently, only 42 students are admitted every two years.

A decade ago, there might be two or three television series in production in Denmark at any time, Mr. Ladegaard said. Now there are close to 20. That’s in addition to 20 to 25 films being shot, a number that has remained steady, but exacerbates the labor shortfall because they draw from the same talent pool. The country’s theater producers, who tend to book actors far in advance, are also suffering.

Stine Meldgaard, a television producer, said her staff frequently must coordinate with other shows over their actors’ increasingly complicated schedules.

“They’ll call another production and say, ‘We need him here until 2 p.m., but we can get him over to you after that,’” Ms. Meldgaard said during an interview on Thursday at Hvidovre Hospital outside Copenhagen, where her show about a con artist couple, “Pros and Cons,” was shooting in an examining room.

“Luckily,” she added, “we’re very cooperative in Denmark.”

Long known for generous social welfare benefits, minimalist furniture design and Lego, Denmark was until recently just a pixel in the television world.

About a dozen years ago, Danish broadcasters began ramping up their investments in high-quality TV dramas. Shows like “The Killing” and “The Bridge” helped establish the popular genre known as ‘Nordic noir,” which features brutal crimes set in bleak landscapes, and builds narratives around complicated, often tormented protagonists who contradict the region’s reputation for contented, well-behaved citizens.

Denmark is in demand for other genres, too. One of the most popular Danish shows of the last decade was a political drama, “Borgen,” a fictional series about the country’s first female prime minister struggling to balance the demands of family and consensus politics.

The Danish programs became huge hits at home and abroad and “broke the subtitle barrier for TV,” said Hanne Palmquist, the vice president of original programming for HBO Nordic. The shows also sparked a broader interest in Scandinavian productions, including Sweden’s “Wallander” and Norway’s “Lillehammer.”

“The Killing” and “The Bridge” earned English-language remakes in the United States, and many of the Danish projects in development today are being produced for American companies. On Dec. 3, HBO Nordic announced that its first Danish production, a young adult drama called “Kamikaze,” will begin shooting next year.

Netflix premiered its first Danish series, “The Rain,” in 2017. A sci-fi tale that follows a band of young survivors after a virus wipes out most of Scandinavia, the show is currently shooting its third and final season.

The first season was “one of Netflix’s most successful non-English series to date,” said Tesha Crawford, Netflix’s director of international original series. Yet it never would have been made, the show’s producer and co-creator Christian Potalivo said, had it not been for the streaming platform. “We knew that no big broadcaster in Denmark would have touched it,” he said. “Budget-wise and target audience-wise, it was out. We put it in a drawer until Netflix came along.”

The Nordic streaming service Viaplay, which airs “Pros and Cons,” is even thinking of launching an all-Nordic platform in the United States and Britain. Anders Jensen, the chief executive of Viaplay’s parent company, Nordic Entertainment Group, said that today “the likelihood of a Nordic service finding an audience is much stronger.”

While all this global interest might be putting strain on production companies, it has been a boon for those working in the industry, especially people starting out. Mads Mengel, who graduated from the Danish Film School this summer, found high-profile work right away, directing a new series for DR, Denmark’s largest broadcaster. “You always hear, ‘Yeah, you want to be a film director, good luck with that,’” he said. “So it was way beyond what I expected, to find a job in one and a half months.”

As a producer of reality and documentary shows, Ms. Mortensen’s company, Heartland, tends to hire graduates of the journalism school, rather than the film school. But they, too, are in high demand. “You have people right out of school, with no experience, getting jobs that pay 40,000 krone ($6,000) a month,” she said.

Besides pushing the film school to increase enrollment, the Danish Film Institute is also collaborating on an initiative that, if it is approved, will require broadcasters and streaming services to pay Danish production companies to cover the costs of including trainees on all their feature films and TV shows, so people new to the industry can learn as they work.

Unlike other European countries, Denmark does not offer tax incentives to production companies. The Danish film and television industry does, however, have idiosyncrasies that serve it well. Professional relationships formed at film school tend to last throughout a producer or director’s career, and a strong subsidy system helps launch new filmmakers. Fluid boundaries between media mean that directors and screenwriters can bring the same degree of artistry to television as they do to film. “Even back in the 1990s,” said Ms. Palmquist of HBO, “it wasn’t shameful for a film director to do television.”

Most important to the success of these Danish exports, industry insiders agreed, is the local talent for storytelling.

“We are very good at telling stories about people and relationships,” said Louise Vesth, a producer of “A Taste of Hunger,” a new Danish film that faced difficulties hiring crew, despite having a prominent director and a starring role for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who played Jaime Lannister in “Game of Thrones.”

“It goes all the way back to Nordic mythology,” Ms. Vesth said. “We’re very good at telling big stories about small problems.”

The “feeding frenzy,” as Ms. Palmquist described it, has led some to worry that by attempting to meet the demands of a global audience, Danish films and shows will sacrifice the things that made them great in the first place.

A reputation for complex narratives is one of them. So is faithfulness to a sense of place and national character, as seen in the post-apocalyptic but still recognizable Copenhagen of “The Rain,” and in the wry underdog spirit of “Pros and Cons.”

“It’s extremely important to write the story that is based on your own locally-based existence,” said Adam Price, the Danish writer and creator of “Borgen.”

“If you aim for too big an audience,” he said, “you might find yourself with no audience at all.”


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