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Industry Report: Television

Masterclass Série Series 2016: Lars Blomgren


- Producer Olivier Bibas interviews Lars Blomgren, managing director of Swedish company Filmlance International AB at Série Series 2016

Masterclass Série Series 2016: Lars Blomgren

(© Sylvain Bardin & Philippe Cabaret)

Olivier Bibas is glad to welcome Lars Blomgren, one of the best-known producers in Scandinavia. Around 20 years ago, he and seven other producers co-founded the company Filmlance International AB (which has since been purchased by Endemol Shine Group). Originally specialising in the production and development of feature-length films, Filmlance grew to occupy a position of choice in the Scandinavian audiovisual landscape, working with all genres, from animation to drama via, of course, the “Nordic noir”. It was in the latter genre that Scandinavian series earned their stripes, as well as international renown. After decades of Anglo-Saxon hegemony, Nordic countries became the new benchmark for crime series. More sombre and realist, Nordic series travelled all over the world. One of the jewels in the crown of this great genre is the Swedish-Danish series The Bridge (Bron/Broen), produced by Lars Blomgren and his teams.

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Bron: A Bridge Between Two Nations

The series arose from Swedish public channel SVT1’s desire to forge links with its Danish counterpart DR1. Swedish television has a long history of co-productions, whether with Norway or with Finland. Danish channels, on the other hand, tended to keep to themselves, only very rarely collaborating with their Scandinavian colleagues. What is more, Danish television viewers have always expressed a clear preference for domestic series (while Danish series are very successful in Sweden) and Danish broadcasters did not see how they could benefit from a co-production with their neighbours. SVT Group wanted to dip its toes into the Danish audiovisual landscape. But they still had to find the right series. Several projects were developed over the course of five years, all in vain. Until the day when Hans Rosenfeldt brought the offices of the Swedish channel a golden project: Bron.

Lars Blomgren offers to revisit the pitch for Bron. The plot begins on a bridge: the bridge that straddles the bay of Øresund, connecting the cities of Malmö and Copenhagen. The body of a woman is left precisely on the border separating the two states, the feet on one side and the head on the other. The enquiry is jointly entrusted to Saga Norén (Sofia Helin), inspector for Malmö criminal justice, and Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), a Copenhagen city cop. The former is a dry, anti-social woman, approaching autism. The second is a bon vivant, as affable as he is care-free. Our two heroes are required to join forces despite themselves to solve this crime.

In the same way that the two protagonists of the series will use their antagonisms to solve a particularly complex inquiry, the groups SVT and DR had to overcome their differences, particularly cultural ones, to create a unique series. In a reflection of the series itself, two countries, Sweden and Denmark, must learn to work together, despite differences in creative methods.

Sweden has a longstanding tradition of art-house cinema, and is home to Ingmar Bergman. There, the producer is king. In Denmark, on the contrary, it is the scriptwriters who occupy the foreground. “The two countries had so much to learn from each other,” Lars Blomgren explains. To shuffle the deck and ensure complete cooperation between the two broadcasters, the writing of the scenes was entrusted to a writers’ room composed primarily of Swedish screenwriters, while the production was entrusted to a Danish director.

Anatomy of Success

The series encountered immense success, both in Denmark and in Sweden (where it even broke viewing records). Very quickly, its success expanded worldwide. A third season was broadcast in 2015, while the fourth is currently in the development stage.

Lars Blomgren has been asked many times why the series has been so successful. For him, one of the series’ main strengths is the subject itself. But beyond the story, Bron’s strength lies in its characters. In Bron, everything rests upon the personalities of the two main characters. The political, social and economic context is secondary. This is also characteristic of Scandinavian works. Lars Blomgren notes that “Sweden is an unusual country: it has no enemies, and has known very little war”. This lack of major geopolitical conflicts and tensions goes some way in explaining why the plot lines developed in Swedish fiction take place within the family or friend circle. “The Nordic crime drama is a family drama with testosterone.”

The second reason is that, despite the difficulties encountered – during development, production and shooting – the series always remained faithful to the principles that were defined prior to the development stage. The project was never adulterated. After a month of writing, Lars Blomgren highlights, DR decided that the series was too violent and frightening, and that if the scenes were not toned down, it could not be broadcast during prime time. Despite the pressure, the creators and screenwriters held fast, refusing to bend to the desires of the Danish broadcaster. They always knew they could rely on the unfailing loyalty of SVT and NRK (another partner in the series). After ending up on the losing side of the debate, DR reduced its share of funding and the series was to be broadcast in Denmark at 10pm.

After a month of shooting, the series was more than 100,000 Euros over budget. But the first shots were nothing short of exceptional. “When we saw the first rushes, we were convinced that we had found the winning formula. If you change a project during shooting, you weaken it to the point that it could collapse.” The producers decided to stay on course, changing nothing of the series concept. When shooting ended, the budget had gone over by 800,000 Euros, which is far from negligible. But, as Lars Blomgren points out, “nobody has ever been fired for going over budget on a successful series.”

One Story, Three Series

The first season of Bron ended up achieving international success. Distributed by ZDF, the series was broadcast in more than 150 countries! Lars Blomgren takes the opportunity to underline the influence of the ZDF’s support, particularly financial, on Scandinavian audiovisual production. In fact, for the last thirty years, the German channel has been funding up to 30% of the budget of Swedish series. This involvement is evidence of the enthusiasm of the German public for Nordic noirs. “But it is a one-way enthusiasm,” Lars Blomgren notes. “Swedes don’t watch German series. Deutschland 83 recently managed to capture the favour of the Swedish public, but that’s a one-off case.”

The theme developed in Bron is universal. “All countries have borders and have relationships with their neighbours, for better or worse.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the series has been honoured with two re-makes: the first American (The Bridge) and the second Franco-British (Tunnel).

The initial plot is taken up in all three versions: a body, cut in half, is found on a border. Two countries must work together, despite differences in working methods and language difficulties. In Bron, the Swedish and Danish languages are close enough that the characters in the series understand each other. In the American version, English is imposed on the characters from the first episode (Spanish is almost never used). The story in Tunnel is completely “bilingual” and subtitles are used to help viewers on both sides of the Channel.

In the version produced by the American cable channel FX, an American police inspector (Diane Kruger) must join forces with a Mexican colleague (Demián Bichir) between El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Mexico. In the Franco-British version, a co-production between Sky Atlantic and CANAL+, the French inspector is played by Clémence Poésy (best known for her role in the Harry Potter saga), while the role of her counterpart went to Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones).

Although the remakes are somewhat faithful to the original series, at least in spirit, Lars Blomgren notes certain differences, particularly in the method of dealing with the character of the female inspector. In the Swedish-Danish version, Saga Norén is anti-social and cold. The character played by Diane Kruger in the U.S. version is much more fragile. In the Franco-British re-make, Clémence Poésy plays a confident and determined investigator. It should also be noted that The Tunnel is much more humour-based. The adventure of Bron does not end with the Franco-British and American versions: another version is currently being developed in Russia and Estonia.

The Evolution of the Television Series Market

A series like Bron bears witness to the changes taking place in today’s global audiovisual landscape, starting with the growing internationalisation of television series. “Series no longer have borders.” The best of them are viewed the world over. “For series, it is now the idea that takes precedence: the location is completely secondary.” Lars Blomgren observes that the public, particularly its youngest members, “are no longer afraid of subtitles”. Language has also become secondary.

The major broadcasters are now global (Netflix considers itself “a global network”) and co-productions have become the new paradigm of the audiovisual market. A market that offers immense opportunities for European productions. The competition is such that series budgets have skyrocketed. “Even a channel like HBO, unable to provide all of the funding for its series on its own, is getting involved in co-production,” and Lars Blomgren believes we should be witnessing an increase in co-productions between the United States and Europe.

Among the changes shaking up the television series market of today, Olivier Bibas highlights the emergence of two new, shorter formats (episodes of between 10 and 20 minutes long). For his part, Lars Blomgren thinks that more classic formats (series lasting 6-10 hours) will always be the dominant model. At the same time, although we are witnessing the decline of the mini-series, TV movies are on the rise.

Despite the euphoria that comes with series creation, Lars Blomgren highlights the shortage of screenwriters, which threatens to paralyse the market. Because it must be noted that this market remains closed to the youngest writers. It is for this reason that he says he supports the creation of pools of screenwriters, writers’ rooms that will allow those with the least experience to work hand-in-hand. More generally, Lars Blomgren remains convinced that the success of a series rests on its development, an essential phase in the creative process that must be completely separated from the following phases of production and shooting. It is partly for this reason that he is not in favour of the showrunner model.

In conclusion, Lars Blomgren gives two pieces of advice for young producers. The first: get to know the needs of the channel. There is no point in proposing a project to a broadcaster, no matter how good, if it doesn’t respond to their editorial needs. The second: shoot pilot episodes!

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