This past weekend the Icelandic feature “Sparrows” from director Rúnar Rúnarsson won the main prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival. This caps off an impressive 12-month period for Iceland’s film industry. Last year, director Benedikt Erlingsson won the the Nordic Council’s Film award for his oddball ode to equine-human relationships “Of Horses and Men” – the first Icelandic feature to take home the prize
This followed a string of successes. “Virgin Mountain” from director Dagur Kári won three prizes at the Tribeca Film Festival; Best Narrative Feature, Best Screenplay and Best Actor. Director Grímur Hákonarson won the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section with his story of two sheep farming brothers “Rams” and last but certainly not least, director Baltasar Kormákur opened the Venice Film Festival with his massive disaster epic “Everest,” which might not be a “Icelandic” film, but coming from an Icelandic director it is nonetheless quite an accomplishment.
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It’s undeniably impressive that a nation of 320,000 has all these achievements within a 12-month span. But nonetheless the industry is in constant struggle to finance their films; both from the state funded Film Centre, and from financiers and the banks that are wary of stepping into the world of film financing. It is therefore apt that the Reykjavik International Film Festival would a host a panel discussion with the delightfully blunt title: “Is an Icelandic film a Good Investment”?
Gathered to answer the question were director Baltasar Kormákur himself, producer Agnes Johansen (from Baltasar’s own production company RVK Studios), Grímar Jónasson, producer of “Rams”; investors Gísli Gíslason and Heiðar Guðjónsson; along with Rob Aft, a distribution and financing analyst for feature films. As might be expected, no one was willing to state that it’s a bad idea to fund Icelandic features. But it was illuminating to hear from both sides of the table.
One of the most telling points brought up during the panel came from producer Grímar Hákonarson, namely that while the number of films produced in the country has increased (last year 11 films qualified as possible submissions to the Academy Award as best foreign language film), the scale of these stories has become smaller and the budgets have decreased. As a result, many features struggle to join European support initiatives, as their budgets fall below the minimum budget asked for by the EU and other organizations. He also mentioned the model in Denmark, where the state actively invests in the films, instead of just having a support model as an interesting avenue.
Heiðar Guðjónson, one of the investors present at the panel, took a more pragmatic point-of-view, based on his work on the crime thriller “Black’s Game,” which was a huge box office success in Iceland upon its release in 2012. In his view the filmmakers should actively work on projects that will be likely to be broad commercial successes. Any projects with a pure artistic goal should be come as a secondary option, made on the backs of previous financial successes.
But it’s clear that the arthouse and the more commercial don’t have to be at odds with each other, case in point Kormákur’s own “Jar City” from 2006, which worked well both commercially and critically, something the director himself brought up. He also stated that the while the countries substantial work as a servicing provider for U.S. and foreign productions was great for the industry’s infrastructure it was more important to actively work to create these large productions within the country. These larger scale projects bring the potential for even greater financial success and a richer cinematic culture as a result.
While looking at the Icelandic successes of the past 12-months it’s hard to feel too worried. The country’s filmmakers are producing great work on a regular basis. As an independent observer I can only note that the smaller budgets and scale producer Grímar Hákonarson lamented has actively increased the quality of the films being produced, something apparent in this year’s crop of films, and also in films such as “Either Way” and “Paris of the North” from director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson.
Baltasar Kormákur is actively pushing towards a future of grander scale productions in Iceland, and it’s a future that is clearly within the country’s grasp (his TV production “Trapped” has sold extremely well worldwide, not least thanks to its budget, which rivals similar Nordic crime series produced in Denmark, Norway and Sweden). But to achieve this the country doesn’t just need talented artists and craftsmen, but also investors willing to take risks and pay the bill.