Scandinavian producers have become prolific over recent years but is a deluge of scripted product from the region diluting the quality and damaging the ‘Nordic drama’ brand? Nick Edwards reports
When the Danish public service broadcaster DR made The Killing in 2007 and then collaborated with their Swedish counterpart SVT on The Bridge in 2011, everything changed in the world of high-end TV drama.
These shows proved drama series made outside of the US could match – and frequently surpass – the quality of their Stateside rivals. After shows such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad finished their runs, Nordic productions became the next fix for binge-viewers all over the world, who then went on to seek out subtitled shows from France, Italy, Germany and beyond.
Denmark continued to have a huge impact on the world stage with shows such as Borgen and Follow The Money, as did Sweden with Jordskott and Real Humans.
The dynamism spread around the Nordic region: in 2015, Iceland made Trapped, one of the most popular and acclaimed hits of that year.
Norway also became recognised as a creative hotbed with teen drama Skam, a show about teenage life in Oslo that was later remade by Facebook, and Nobel. The latter explored the personal struggles of a soldier returning from Afghanistan and was a worthy successor to Nordic shows such as The Killing and Borgen – but it got lost in Netflix’s library of content and did not get the attention it deserved.
It was the start of a global trend, which is playing out in the Nordics like most other regions. Public service providers such as DR, SVT and Norway’s NRK, as well as their commercial rivals, have to compete with Netflix and Amazon, as well as the newer streaming services entering the scene.
Perhaps the most significant change to the Nordic TV landscape has come in the shape of its regional streamer Viaplay. Part of Nordic Entertainment (NENT) Group, it has been ramping up investment in scripted drama since 2016.
Most notably, whereas regional public service providers make around five productions a year, Viaplay made 21 in 2019, will make more than 30 in 2020 and has an ultimate goal of premiering a minimum of 40 original productions per year.
“Looking a couple of years ahead, I don’t think we will develop much more in the Nordic region than we are already producing,” says Filippa Wallestam, EVP & chief content officer at NENT, “but then, of course, we can work on quality and more target groups.”
However, they are not planning on restricting themselves to the Nordic region. NENT will sell the non-scripted, branded entertainment and events wings of the company to focus their commitment on making even more drama. “We’re entering Iceland this year and we’re planning on taking on more new markets. Exactly how many and which ones is yet to be defined. So of course we will produce more content that doesn’t just have Nordic appeal,” says Wallestam.
Such productions are often in English, have plots which are not just based in the Nordics, or recruit internationally recognised stars such as Wisting, which features The Matrix trilogy’s Carrie-Anne Moss.
“When we reach a tipping point and when we make more content with appeal beyond the Nordics, that’s harder to say,” adds Wallestam.
Nordic drama itself continues to travel and the range of choice available is reflected in the thoughts of Christian Modersbach, curator of the TV series wing of the Nordic Film Days festival in Lübeck, Germany, which was recently expanded to reflect the burgeoning sector. “There is such a wide variety of stories, characters, genre and formats, and often a mix within every show. There is so much to choose from sometimes I feel like I am a kid in a candy store.”
The creativity and abundance of content within the region is a direct result of the competition brought about by entrants such as Netflix. And it works both ways: 30 Degrees In February, for example, was commissioned by SVT in 2012. The show is a collection of various personal stories that unfold in Thailand and was particularly adventurous in terms of narrative style and subject matter, such as the focus on the relationship between a stereotypical male Swede and a transgender Thai woman. The series found its way to global audiences via Netflix.
“It was not mainstream but it worked really well with audiences and critics, not only in Sweden but worldwide, which helped our local commissioners to widen the types of series they dared to commission,” says Hakan Hammaren of Gothenburg-based Fundament Film.
“Now, Nordic drama is just part of all the other good drama that’s around. It’s not a sensation anymore. And we are not just known for crime,” adds Piv Bernth, former head of drama at DR, whose ITV Studios-backed Apple Tree Productions has just created supernatural thriller Equinox, which will premiere on Netflix in September.
In this arena, subscription service HBO Nordic has been able to push challenging storytelling as far the medium will allow, just like its bigger US sibling did with shows such as The Wire and Game Of Thrones.
Hanne Palmquist, the outgoing commissioning editor & VP of original programming at HBO Nordic, describes its upcoming production Beartown as “a place where civilisation and wilderness meet and where individuals have this conflict within them.”
“It’s a story about a sexual assault,” she explains, “but there is a complexity around the reason why this happens. It’s not as simplistic as the boy is a monster and the girl is the victim. It’s a far more nuanced look at how we raise children, particularly boys,” she says.
However, the opportunities that have come since the days when The Bridge, The Killing and Wallander broke out of the Nordic region have put new pressures on an industry that has grown fast.
With so much drama being made at home, talent and crews are booked up for months in advance.
“Right now, it’s really hard to find a good team for your productions, because so many shows are being made,” says Fundament’s Hammaren, speaking from the Lübeck festival where his latest show Inner Circle – produced for Viaplay – was showcased.
Commissioners who are investing millions of Euros over a season want established names with a record of success to oversee their new productions. However, because of the demand for talent overseas, many of the best writers and directors who made their names on shows such as The Killing and The Bridge have been lured abroad, particularly to the US, where fees are so much higher.
“The extreme increase in content, like in the rest of the world, has come with a fluctuation in quality,” says Christian Wikander, former head of drama at SVT, which was behind The Bridge and Jordskott. His current role is head of drama for Europe at the Pinewood Studio-owned Twelve Town, which has recently been behind Conspiracy Of Silence for Viaplay.
Others agree and these growing pains are perhaps natural when the numbers of shows emerging from one region rises so quickly. Ultimately, the main issues stem from the increasing cost of production. As Wikander points out, “co- financing has never been harder for the Nordics.”
In the early days, Germany was the go-to partner for those in the Nordics. Most of the early Nordic noir shows were co-financed by channels from the country but they are now making more original productions themselves, such as UFA Fiction’s Deutschland 83/86/89, Sky’s Babylon Berlin, and Netflix’s Dark. The result is that they can no longer be relied upon to get the most groundbreaking Scandi shows off the ground.
However, in terms of crime – and particularly when it comes to selling rights – the German market and Europe in general, has never been more buoyant.
“They really need crime dramas that fit into 90 minutes, shows like Wisting and Backstrom work really well,” says Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Banijay Rights. “Every time that the media announces the death of Nordic noir, it doesn’t happen. We’ve just had a huge hit with Wisting on BBC Four in the UK – out-performing the slot norm by 55% and adding even more viewers via [the BBC’s on-demand service] iPlayer.”
And as Wikander admits, “to fill the financial gaps you need to be successful outside of the Nordics.” Projects looking beyond local funding need to have an international element, which most commonly involves an English-language element or stars who resonate outside of the region.
The results are shows such as Viaplay’s Wisting, Conspiracy Of Silence, or its new project Cold Courage. The latter stars British actor John Simm, was written by English-language scribes Brendan Foley and David Joss Buckley, and produced by Finnish Luminoir, with Lionsgate onboard for global sales.
Apple Tree Productions also uses this model, says Bernth. “We are working on a script that has an American writer. We helped develop it and we think it will be a Danish director. It’s a natural US/Danish story – one of the antagonists is Danish but living in London. We hope to start filming in the next couple of months.”
Whilst streamers’ demands for content are growing because of their business models, they are no longer necessarily the home of edgier content.
“When Netflix started they were new and commissioning the cool stuff, but now a lot of commissioning is aimed at a broader audience and the edgier stuff is being done by the PSB’s,” says Wikander, citing SVT’s Caliphate, which explores religious fundamentalism, and NRK’s Exit, which explores the toxicity of the banking world.
“It’s great they’re doing this as they have the security of public finances to do so, which means they can take risks. If they don’t, who will?” he adds.
Despite making supernatural thriller Equinox for Netflix, Bernth agrees. “The industry is less risk-taking than it was.” However, as a former commissioner herself, she understands the dilemma. “It’s so hard when you have to pick only two out of 20 potentially great ideas,” she says.
For Viaplay, the aim is to offer “something for everyone,” says Wallestam. “We started off doing a lot of crime,” such as Alex and the reboot of Those Who Kill. “Then, we moved into more innovative drama, such as the political-thriller Inner Circle, as well as rethinking crime with shows like Honour and Box 21.
“And then we have Love Me, a comedy-drama, which is the most original show we’ve done, precisely because it was so quirky, so it was talked about, then word spread and traditional audiences started to want to see it.”
“You have to go for quality, not volume,” adds Wikander. “The only path to success in the market today is to find a project that awakens curiosity in you. Then you and your team can discuss if it will work in the broader market.”
For Palmquist, this has always been the ethos of HBO Nordic. “We make roughly three shows a year but it’s not fixed. Sometimes it’s two, sometimes it’s four. If we don’t find them it’s better not to make them.”
“Everybody wants channel-defining series, and channels are willing to pay for them because audiences want to watch them,” explains Torrance, speaking from a distributor’s perspective.
“If you’re a buyer, you’re not going to struggle to find shows. As a distributor, we look for strong IP and really good storytelling because those shows are the ones that will travel around the world.”
And for those who believe the surging amount of content from the region is diluting the Nordic brand, Wallestam makes this observation: “People can’t get enough of the shows that are really good and they are are impatient for the next season. So there can’t be that much.”