The scene is the Berlin Film Festival, February 1999. The place the Scandinavian Films stand in the conference center right in front of the shallow tooth of Gedächtniskirche, and the time is the morning after the very successful in-competition screening of Dogma 3, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune’s Last Song. The crowd gathering in front of the desk occupied by Tust Film Sales is rapidly growing. Buyers – sales agents and distributors – from all over the world are battling hopefully to acquire the film for their territory – and the two Danes in charge of the sale, Thomas Mai and Peter Ålbæk Jensen, are obviously and quite openly enjoying their roles as the talk-of-the-town-hard-to-get-to executives of the entire festival.
In the course of the next week one of the most prestigious (and rewarding) sales efforts of a Danish film ever takes place. Even though the actual figures regarding the minimum guarantees aren’t official, the interviews given at the time by Peter Ålbæk inform us that only small areas are still remaining unsold, and more importantly, that a very good and advantageous American sale is well on its way to be signed with the distributor Sony Classics. The producers of Mifune, Birgitte Hald and Bo Erhardt from Nimbus Film, have accomplished what every European producer only dares to dream of. They have managed – following the success of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen at the previous year’s Cannes festival – to export yet another Danish film worldwide!
The situation and what had happened before it, is more than anything the result of overall excellent film marketing; of how the branding of a specific family or type of films can be achieved; and of how a carefully constructed set of creative rules of limitation can be utilized not only as a strong foundation for artistic endeavors but also as a true concept for the commercial promoting of an entire range of specific films.
But it is also – as it has developed – about lack of understanding of the business; about the crucial distinctions and interactions between internal marketing towards the various players within the industry and external efforts targeted towards the audience; and about how perspectives of short term financial gain can distort a unique set-up.
Historically the Dogma-project started out as a series of negotiations between Lars von Trier and then minister of culture, Jytte Hilden. Hilden had secured a special public funding based on Trier’s ideas on how to do a number of low-budget features. The Film Institute however according to their normal procedures could obviously not handle a support scheme with the name Zentropa written in advance all over it, and the project was left in jeopardy until Denmarks Radio stepped in and, backed by the other Nordic public broadcasters, secured funding for the first five Dogma films. At this time Trier had published the manifesto and attention and interest had been building for quite some time.
It was undoubtedly the extreme creativity of the public relations efforts of Lars von Trier and Peter Ålbæk Jensen that made way for the financing of the initial Dogma project. As it had been the case a couple of years earlier, when their production company Zentropa was launched. The two have jointly better than any understood that the best way to open up for the quintessential public funding – the key to European production – is to win the interest of the press. Especially to find a place – one could say any place – within the general focus of those journalists who cover film and media. In the European situation every national film of any merit – even regarded as part of a business; of belonging to a corporate venture – is still critically observed as art, and that attitude is governed by the press. To have the press working for you is as good a launching for any project as you can get.
Zentropa has cleverly managed to position itself as a company where the artistic endeavors are the core of the activities. They are building an impression of the small idealistic outfit struggling against the financially much stronger and larger traditionalist companies – both on a national level and in the wake of the personal success of Trier with Europa, Breaking the Waves and latest Dancer in the Dark also internationally. This central public relations element – of the creative underdog – has lead to an unsurpassed popularity with the funding bodies. Not only in Denmark but as a matter of fact all over Europe.
Even though the financing of the Dogma project may have been the result of this effective but rather traditionally subsidy orientated Zentropa-way-of-working, it was immediately clear to everybody that the concept itself was far more interesting. Especially when seen as a very appropriate comment on the overall non-European dominance in the world film marketplace. The wonderfully timed and eloquently written provocation of defining the scope of the low-budget films in question and adding a number of both technical and creative limitations is a result of the remarkable film-theoretical approach of Lars von Trier. Back to true filmmaking. Where the aesthetics of the blockbuster films of the day have underpinned the fact that the medium most certainly has the ability to create new-never-seen-before reality, the limited nature of the Dogma techniques enhances quite another sense of the real reality. Our own world of social interaction as it is. It’s like being there – as Thomas Vinterberg must be very aware of when he lets his audience watch almost 48 frames of pitch-black film in a particular scene in Festen.
The implications of the rules upon the artistic outcome of the films have been discussed – and are undoubtedly the topic for much of the discussion in this issue of p.o.v. – but it is clear that as a jointly artistic and commercial starting point for a vertically integrated understanding of the entire production process, Dogma works wonderfully well. The sum of limitations becomes an effective platform for building the simple expression that is at the very core of communicating on film. During a debate on Dogma which was arranged by the London Film Festival, questions were constantly being asked about the impact of the rules upon almost every aspect of filmmaking. At a certain point Thomas Vinterberg felt inclined to put an end to the arguing and said something like: I’ll tell you what Dogma is about. It is about that the five of us met one evening every week for almost a year with the one purpose of discussing what our films were all about. That was the wonderful thing – we talked our films into existence.
But the nature and exposition of the manifesto was also constructed as something that could be utilized as a means of "selling" the films once they were made. What was being cleverly constructed was a so called branding of the Dogma concept. Branding is the naming of a certain genre or type of films, which share similarities, that can be commonly referred to. For instance a Disney-film or a James Bond-movie. To place oneself as a producer in a position where you are able to brand your product is actually very rare. It often takes a lot of time and a great number of successful films. But here it was achieved with stunning originality almost overnight.
The selling – or marketing – of a given film takes place a number of times during the production process, and as we have seen in connection with the selling of the Dogma project to the financiers the successful handling of the film is from the very beginning a result of how the balance between the entire range of artistic and commercial elements is presented.
This was also the case when the two first finished Dogma films Idioterne and Festen should be "sold" to the Cannes Film festival in 1998. Over the past ten to fifteen years the festival circuit has become a parallel method of film distribution and even though eighty-five percent of films shown at film festivals never reach commercial screens, it is obviously very prestigious to be in competition. And of course on top of that it might very well be – depending on your having the right film at the right festival and your ability to tell about it in the right way – that you might end up in that fifteen percent category.
It almost certainly helped Lars von Trier that he and festival director Gilles Jacob have a very close relationship. But Jacob must also have realized that where Idioterne – with its famous controversial director at the helm – was a somewhat difficult film, the other Dogma entry, Festen – with its relatively unknown newcomer – was much more accessible to a wider audience. A situation that made the Dogma concept the central element in the decision to admit both films to the main competition.
The public relations strategy and the marketing campaign up to and towards the festival was very well handled by the producers of the two films. Idioterne was a Zentropa production, whereas Festen was produced by Nimbus Film, an affiliate company headed by Birgitte Hald and Bo Erhardt, who had been associated with Thomas Vinterberg since they all graduated from the Danish Film School. Jointly the companies contacted Swiss sales agent, Christa Saredi, who accepted to take charge of the foreign sales of Festen.
The decision to take on board a professional sales agent at this early stage in a film’s lifetime was a corporate move of excellence and reflects the rather outstanding level of creativity of Danish film in general. Following the success of Bille August and others in the early nineties in the realm of realism on the screen, the impact of von Trier’s expressionism was now taking over and effectively enhancing the notion of Denmark as a place where things were really happening in the cinema. And Dogma obviously had already played an integral part in this.
Christa Saredi was aware of the extraordinary possibilities of striking worthwhile deals with distributors for Festen – the next very important "sale" in the film production process – because she knew that the film’s ability to perform well in the commercial marketplace would be backed by the discussions and the buzz following the screening of Lars von Trier’s film. Idioterne – Dogma I – was scheduled to be screened in competition a couple of days prior to Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogma II film. In this way von Trier’s imaginative and practical concept accompanied by the realization in his own work was turned into a strong marketing fundament for the supposed critical acclaim of Vinterberg’s utilization of the principles. The result was appropriate world wide sales for both films. Idioterne went – as was to be expected – primarily to the art-house circuit, whereas Festen was sold to distributors equipped to handle cross-over products, i.e. low budget films that do have potential to perform successfully in the commercial marketplace.
This distinction is crucial to the philosophy of film sales and marketing. As a sales agent you need to be sure that the product you are pricing and selling to a distributor will also work effectively at the last "sale" in this back-end chain of distribution, marketing and exhibition. The "sale" of the film (from the exhibitor) to the audience. This is also the point where all the elements within the entire marketing campaign, which hopefully has accompanied the film all through preproduction, production, postproduction and distribution shall prove their efficiency towards the general public. Needless to say marketing costs are sky high and a distributor – or even an exhibitor – who ends up with a film that nobody wants to see and that cannot be marketed effectively is far more likely to turn away from the risky cross-over films and turn towards the toptrimmed product that he can acquire from the major US companies. And which an average of 87 % of the European cinema-goers prefer – let alone the fact that it is almost impossible to get any European film into the US market.
In this respect the targeted, distinctive and well-prepared sales of the two first Dogma films at the Cannes Film Festival and in the period that followed were extremely well handled – and maybe even more importantly they left the concept intact. Dogma was indeed very much alive and kicking as both films within their respective market segments were brought to the right screens and audiences all over the world.
Proof of this could be detected by everyone who was present before, during and after the screening of "Mifune" in Berlin. The buzz was fantastic, expectations high as rumors of how Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s humanism had added something special to this third Dogma production. However Saredi World Sales was not going to handle the film. Nimbus had made an agreement with Zentropa’s sales company, Trust Film Sales, and one could get the idea that the representatives of this fairly new outfit were just as overwhelmed by the cheering following the screening as everyone else.
Seen from a strictly business orientated point of view the sales couldn’t have gone any better. In the confusion and extremely competitive atmosphere the highest bidders would get the deal. Maybe it would have taken extreme professionalism to consider the long term aspects and the nurturing of relations to a number of friendly players in the overall marketplace, but the conclusion is, that many distributors from a number of territories all over the world later discovered that they had bought a film with which they were not even able to recoup their down payment.
Everybody – sellers and buyers alike – made the mistake of confusing the internal marketing elements and the specific arguments which needed to be applied in the sale between the agent and the distributor, with the potential of the external marketing. It was in other words impossible for the distributors locally to recreate the sensation that they had experienced at the market in Berlin, and have that work for their audiences.
The results of the hit-and-run strategy that hopefully inadvertently and unconsciously was brought forward in the handling of Mifune, which by the way probably would have made wonderful business at the box-office, had realistic measures been added in a well-prepared sales and marketing strategy, have especially victimized Kristian Levring’s The King is Alive. Even in spite of critical acclaim in connection with its opening in Cannes this year in Un Certain Regard, the producers (and investors) are still struggling to make an art-house distribution deal, and it has long ago been decided not to label the film a Dogma production as part of the marketing.
The way that Dogma – even considering the prestigious sales results – both as a concept for artistic guidelines and as a marketing vehicle was weakened in the months after the Berlin Film Festival is a scary example of how intricate – and integrated – the international movie business really is. It is a lesson of how corporate filmmaking, from idea to final audience consumption, is a much more collaborative effort than we are led to believe in our part of the world, where the subsidy driven approach has resulted in a joint – and very dangerous – understanding of the production process culminating and ending with the opening of the film. Film sales, distribution and marketing are areas we are just approaching, and maybe we need to respect the expertise, that our ideas can attract, as a first careful step towards building that European industry, which all European filmmakers so desperately want and are preparing for in our institutions, in our development efforts and in the launching of our productions – and that some of us may accidentally think is already here.
Paving the way for Idioterne and for the buzz in Berlin – because the balance between the second last sale – that of the sales agent to the distributor – is equivalent to the last sale – that of the exhibitor to the audience.
Distribution is the key to building an industry in each of the European countries – and with a bad relationship between producers and distributors this shall never happen.
Dogma died in Berlin with the prestigious sales efforts.
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