Denmark: a small film industry with great shape

Article  by  Axel SCOFFIER  •  Published 01.04.2014  •  Updated 11.04.2014
Denmark has managed to build up an important film industry within the European audiovisual landscape, while encouraging artistic risk.


Danish cinema, whose international emblems include Lars von Trier, Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Vinterberg and Suzanne Bier, plays a pivotal role in the audiovisual landscape of Northern Europe. This dynamic industry is supported by the public sector and built around established private companies, serving as a model for many small countries with fragile film industries.

A dynamic Danish market

With a population of 5.6 million inhabitants and a language only spoken in its own country, Denmark constitutes a small market on the European scene, and yet the Danes go to the cinema more than the European average (13 million tickets sold in 2010, ie more than 2.4 tickets per year per person compared with 1.57 tickets on average within the EU)… The share of national cinema is rather high there, accounting for 30% of tickets sold annually (compared with 36 % in France, the highest level in Europe). In 2012, five out of the ten top films at the box-office were Danish: This Life (Bjarup Riis), Love is All you Need (Suzanne Blier), A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel), Father of Four - At Sea (Claus Bjerre), and My Sister's Kids Home Alone (Martin Miehe-Renard). According to the Danish Film Institute, 28 Danish fiction feature films and 9 documentaries came out in 2012, and Denmark produces on average 25 to 30 films a year. But these successes do not hide the drop in sales and viewing figures on other platforms: a fall in DVD sales, a drop in television viewing figures (-13 % between the first semester of 2012 and 2013 according to TNS Gallup), while Netflix continued to rise in 2013 with 400,000 subscriptions …
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A film industry with a long history undergoes a recent revival

Yet, Danish cinema is not very well known. It enjoyed its first great period of success during the silent film era, in particular thanks to the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer (Master of the House, 1925; The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928; Ordet, 1955; Gertrud, 1964) and the successes of the actress Asta Nielsen (The Abyss, 1910). It was mainly the productions of the Nordisk Films studio that exported particularly well, in particular thanks to the New York office, the Great Northern Film Company. But the advent of talkies in the 1930s pulled Danish cinema back to its own domestic market. State financial assistance started to develop from 1964, gradually supporting an industry that had known some public and critical acclaim, with film for example by Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror, 1987) and by Gabriel Axel (Babette's Feast, 1987), which respectively won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar for best foreign film. A second period of glory started in the 1990s, thanks to film-makers of Dogme 95 (hand-held cameras, live sound recording, and the rejection of aesthetics) in particular Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, whose films received several awards (The Idiots by the first and, Festen by the second). This confirmed the career launch of these two film-makers and a few others, even if Dogme 95 films continued to be distributed in quite a confidential way.
Danish cinema can now boast other internationally recognised authors, including Lars von Trier (Europa, 1991; Breaking the Waves, 1996; Nymphomaniac, 2014), Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, 1998; The Hunt, 2012), Suzanne Bier, who won an Oscar in 2011 for In a Better World (After the Wedding, 2006; Revenge, 2011) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, 1996; Bronson, 2009; Drive, 2011; Only God Forgives, 2013). Several of them (Trier, Bier) regularly make films in English or French, and Refn has even geared his career towards American cinema.

  Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen)
Danish cinema has also been popularised by a few emblematic actors, in particular Mads Mikkelsen (seen in Casino Royal, Mickael Koolhas, and in the series Hannibal), as well as by Sidse Babett Knudsen, an emblematic actress from the series Borgen, and not forgetting Nikolaj Coster-Walda, known for his role as Jaime Lanister in the HBO series Game of Thrones. This internationalisation of national talent is not the sole reserve of Danish cinema, but it helps to bolster its power and broaden its reach. Should the international renown of the actor, achieved thanks to his leading role in the renewal episode of the James Bond franchise, Casino Royal (Campbell, 2006), be put down to the success of Danish cinema?
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The power of the Egmont group and its subsidiaries

Several large companies give structure to the sector. These include Zentropa, the production and distribution company created by Lars von Trier and Peter Aalbæk Jensen in 1992, which makes several films a year and pulls in the main Danish actors (in 2012: The Hunt, Love is All you Need, A Royal Affair, The Caretaker). In 2008, Nordisk Film, a subsidiary of the Egmont group bought 50 % of the company’s shares. Its decentralised organisation is characterised by the creation of offices in several countries throughout Europe – notably in Germany, with Zentropa Entertainment Berlin and Cologne, as well as in France, Spain, Estonia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Italy and Poland. The company has also diversified, making documentaries and series as well as pornographic films for women through its subsidiary, Puzzy Power. The company also set up Filmbyen, a studio that hosts several Danish producers and distributors (notably TrustNordisk, Wise Guy Productions and Picture This Films) on a former military camp in Hvidovre, on the outskirts of Copenhagen.

Much older, Nordisk Films is now a leader in the production and distribution of films in Northern Europe. Nordisk Films was bought out by the media company Egmont, of which it is the main audiovisual arm, and is also the distributor of the film catalogue of Sony Pictures and of the video games of Sony Entertainment in Northern Europe. The company makes around ten films a year, and distributes a catalogue of over 3,000 films. It is a key partner for Scandinavian co-productions, with the Swedish (Yellow Bird Films for the Millennium trilogy) and Norwegian companies (the thriller Headhunters co-produced with Yellow Bird Films and Friland).
Egmont is one of the largest audiovisual companies in Northern Europe. Directly or through companies which it owns or co-owns (like Nordisk Films, Solar Films and Zentropa, in particular), Egmont has produced three films selected for the 2013 Oscars: the Norwegian film Kon-Tiki (Rønning, 2013), the Finnish film Purge (an adaptation of the novel by Sofi Oksanen), and the Danish film A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel).
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A proactive state policy

The Danish public system is for a large part behind its film industry’s success. The Danish Film Institute, founded in 1997, is allocated a budget for four years by the Danish parliament, amounting to 281 million Euros for the 2011-2014 period. In 2013, with an annual budget of 63 million Euros, 39 million Euros are allocated to the production of fiction films. The state grants on average a third of the budget every year for the development and production of 25 feature films, 30 documentaries, by way of three different schemes: the Commissioner Scheme (for artistic films), the Market Scheme (for films with a high public potential) and the Minor Coproduction Scheme (for co-productions with a Danish minority stake…). The average budget of a fiction film is 3.3 million Euros. The DFI also provides a workshop for young film-makers, and helps with distribution, the promotion of new films, as well as protecting heritage films. A significant percentage of public aid is geared towards productions that target young people, such as the feature films Gloups (Hegner, 2000) and Ronal the Barbarian (Christoffersen, 2011), and series (Jungle Jack, 2003). A quarter of the annual budget is geared towards youth productions; and policies that promote access to cinema for the entire youth population round off the assistance given to production.

Between the confirmation of well-known talent (Lars von Trier) and the revelation of new film-makers (Nicholas Winding Refn), the Danish system has managed to promote a risk-taking attitude, while acting as a key co-production partner for a whole segment of the Scandinavian film-making industry, in particular that of crime series that have flourished in the wake of Millennium. Danish cinema, personified by a leading actor, Mads Mikkelsen, who had had a successful career for many years already in Denmark, before being unveiled on the international scene, has over around twenty years turned itself into an essential piece in the European audiovisual chessboard.
Translated from French by Peter Moss
Photo credits:
Drive (Le Pacte)
Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale / Gaumont Columbia Tristar Films
Borgen (press
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