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Lasse Saarinen • CEO, Finnish Film Foundation

“I don’t make promises I’m not sure I can keep”


- Cineuropa went to Helsinki to talk to Lasse Saarinen, the chief executive officer of the Finnish Film Foundation, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year

Lasse Saarinen  • CEO, Finnish Film Foundation

As the Finnish Film Foundation turns 50 after its inception in 1969, producer-turned-CEO Lasse Saarinen took part in a discussion with Cineuropa to take a look back at its past achievements, but also to discuss its goals for the future.

Cineuropa: Having worked as a producer for years, you came to the Finnish Film Foundation from the other side of the fence. Do you think it gave you any kind of advantage?
Lasse Saarinen:
It was the first time I ever applied for a job [laughs]. I did it because there has never been a Finnish Film Foundation head from the filmmakers’ side. I have been their “client” for the last 30 years, always blaming them for one thing or another, but it has been healthy for me – I had to change my point of view.

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When I applied, I pointed out that distribution is changing and we need to react; there are different ways to screen films and different ways for people to enjoy them. We would like to support TV series more, but we would need to take money from two or three films, and why should we punish them? We have €1 million right now, and it’s not enough, but more talent is heading to TV, and they use a bigger workforce than films. Our support could help them get more money abroad, and this international aspect is very important for us nowadays.

It seems that Finnish films are more visible internationally than, say, a decade ago, when it was still all about the Kaurismäki name. How do you see the foundation’s role in that?
There is a new generation of talented filmmakers – directors, screenwriters and also new producers – who have emerged during these last ten years. And luckily, there have been people at the foundation wise enough to support them! They present themselves better at festivals, are more open and can talk about their work. Our international department has recognised that. There is more interest in films like Aurora [+see also:
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, which are completely different from what people traditionally expect from Finland.

I have been there a little under three years, but I always tell our consultants that we need these new voices, and if some companies have established themselves internationally, we can’t ignore it. That’s the future. You shouldn’t just support the projects you personally like; you should choose the ones that can be important for the country.

You have been supporting many films by female filmmakers; is this a conscious decision?
We don’t really care, but generally, these projects are well prepared and the applications are better. It’s funny because it’s something that’s reflected by my personal work history. Two years ago, I was participating in a panel, answering questions about everything that’s wrong with the system – including the claim that the Finnish Film Foundation gives all its money to men. I said that if you took all 82 projects I had ever produced, over 40 were made by women. I didn’t even know these numbers before – I counted them because of these panels.

It’s funny because all of these countries calling for 50/50 by 2020 can’t keep their promise. Let’s take Sweden: our figures are better, even though they were promoting it all over the world. It’s one thing to say how good we are and another to say what we are actually doing. I don’t make promises I’m not sure I can keep. Last year, 43% of our production support went to female producers and 42% to female directors. Average production support for female directors was €640,000 and for male ones €609,000.

In Finland, people still pay to see local films. How do you keep it that way?
We are usually in the European top ten, and in the year of The Unknown Soldier [+see also:
film profile
, we were number three. If you support 18 features per year, you need to make sure that includes films for the Finnish audience, arthouse titles meant for the festival circuit and those in the middle, which are artsy but with some commercial potential. Every year, we try to find a few of those because our numbers depend on them. This year, we supported Birds of a Feather by first-time director Hanna Bergholm, for example [see the news], which is a bit of a horror story, and genre films often fall into that “middle” category. They are easier to distribute abroad, but we prefer them to be shot in Finnish or Swedish, rather than English, although language is also something we need to think about. After all, we supported the world’s first Somali-language film [Khadar Ahmed’s The Gravedigger], and there is another set to be shot in Russian.

The foundation is financed through the Ministry of Education and Culture from lottery and pooled funds; was this always the case?
It changed in the mid-1970s, when the lottery money started to grow and Lotto came to Finland. Nowadays, the revenue from that is dwindling, so the only way to make films with bigger budgets is to look abroad. We would like to support more international co-productions, films with budgets of between €3 million and €5 million. For the first few years, the Finnish Film Foundation was actually funded through sold cinema tickets. American blockbusters paid for Finnish productions! Unfortunately, that has not been the case in the last 35 years.

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