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Zentropa’s co-heads on moving into TV and defending talents

18 MARCH 2021

Sisse GraumJørgensen (left), Louise Vesth / PHOTO: Les Kanner, Robin Skjoldborg

Exclusive: “We follow the talents” say producers Louise Vesth, Sisse Graum Jørgensen, as Thomas Vinterberg is preparing his first TV series and Lars von Trier The Kingdom Exodus.

Twenty-three years after Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier launched the Dogma 95 manifesto against conventional cinematic expression, the director of the Oscar-nominated Another Round is preparing his first TV drama - Families like Ours, and von Trier is soon to direct the third instalment in his cult series The Kingdom.

While producer Peter Aalbek Jensen has taken a back seat in the company he founded in 1995 with von Trier, long-time producers Sisse Graum Jørgensen and Louise Vesth - on the steering wheel with head of administration and legal Anders Kjærhauge, keep very much the auteur and fighting spirit alive. In their bull’s eye are the new power-players, the US streamers and their business model of full financing in exchange of all-or most- rights.

Next to the co-female managers are seasoned producer Karoline Leth head of TV Drama, and young producer Jonas Bagger who bring the next generation into the production powerhouse.

Vesth, Jørgensen and Bagger spoke to us about the ‘Zentropa way’ and projects coming up.

You’ve just made history with Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round - twice nominated for an Academy Award, the first time ever a Danish talent gets a nod for directing. This is also Zentropa’s 5th Oscar nomination for a foreign language film. What does it mean for you?
Sisse Graum Jørgensen: We are absolutely thrilled that Another Round received two Oscar nominations! We are quite overwhelmed by the generosity that has been bestowed upon this film. It has had an amazing festival run, a Golden Globe nomination, four Bafta nominations, a César and now the Oscars. Thomas’ nomination for Best Director is especially dear to me. As he puts it himself: He is so honoured to receive this recognition from his fellow director colleagues from all over the world, including many filmmakers who have inspired him all of his life.

I am genuinely passionate about Danish cinema and getting Danish films out into the world. To me, the Oscar nominations I have been associated with [After the Wedding, A Royal Affair, In a Better World, The Hunt, Another Round] are an important recognition of cinema as an art form at its absolute best.

2020 was one of the toughest years in history due to Covid-19, yet Another Around and Riders of Justice probably saved the film year in Denmark, with their 802,693 and 459,773 admissions respectively. Can you reflect on this?
Sisse Graum Jørgensen
: It was fantastic that both films achieved these results in such adverse circumstances. However, Riders of Justice was in the cinemas only 17 days before lockdown, so it was frustrating as we opened super strongly with 150,000 admissions the first week, despite the restrictions. We’re planning to do a massive re-launch when cinemas reopen.

Another Round [released September 24] was also doing well when the second lockdown came in Denmark. But it had already sold more than 800,000 tickets after 10 weeks on screens - Vinterberg’s best results ever at home - so it was ‘easier’ to decide to move it to home entertainment. It was a good decision. We believe in the cinema audience, which is why we’ve been holding on for so long before launching it on other platforms.


Zentropa’s co-heads on moving into TV and defending talents

Another Round, Druk / PHOTO: Henrik Ohsten

Louise Vesth: The film’s success has shown that in a crisis like this, cinemas are very important to people. They need entertainment, stories that mirror who they are. Another Round was written and shot before Covid-19, still the theme is something we can all relate to - how important it is to seize the day and live while we can. The film is a very good example of how art has an even bigger impact during harsh times, it gives you hope.

It was the same with Riders of Justice. It’s about the meaning of life, the ripple effect one’s decisions have on others. Not all stories succeed during a crisis, but a lot do. Zentropa’s stories are often centred around a personal voice, with emotions and depth, an auteur’s view upon life. So if something good has to come out of this crisis, it’s for us to reflect on storytelling. We need to take a healthy look at what we do, why, how to best communicate with the audience. How to justify the right to benefit from subsidies, to have an impact on society.


Zentropa’s co-heads on moving into TV and defending talents

Riders Of Justice / PHOTO: Zentropa H

It seems like your recipe which is to combine art and business while relying on traditional source of financing - subsidies, co-productions - is as successful as ever…
LV: A few years ago, I started doubting if there would be a place for Zentropa under the rule of global streamers, if it was value for money for society and worth fighting for. But now I can say that we are important, and that high-quality films, with personal voices, is what society needs today. Films that matter can take different shapes, they differ from one country to another, but we need films that reflect society as a whole.

SGJ: The Zentropa production model has always been to make high quality feature films based on directors, writers’ original ideas, backed mostly by the Danish Film Institute, Nordisk Film and co-producers. Film is an art subsidy system, where the money is given to the director, based his original idea. This means that directors have the final cut. This is becoming quite rare in today’s world.

As Louise said, a few years back, we were wondering if there was still a place for our business model, in the era of peak TV. But what we’ve experienced is that there is a place for us-for artists who create art that matters. I feel very strongly about continuing to produce these types of films, and for Zentropa to be the best facilitator for artists to tell their stories.

How has the golden era of TV drama impacted your business model?
SGJ: We were a bit late as a production company to enter the world of TV series. We had done a few mini-series, no long-running shows and were thinking should we do it? How? It’s actually the directors, with whom we’ve worked for several years who came to us, saying long-form storytelling is the right format for their next project. This is why we’ve moved into TV series. It has come in a natural way. In that sense, our major upcoming TV projects have developed from our original way of working with talents and original business model.

LV: I’d like to add that we haven’t adhered to the global streamers’ modus operandi. Global streamers should stop acting like producers and start acting like distributors! By behaving like producers, they look for content that fits their business model. This is the contrary to what we do at Zentropa. We work for the content, not for the business model.

The giant streamers want to own the IP, pay a price upfront to control global rights. They offer millions to established talents for them to create content. Will this guarantee the diversity that we need in the future? I’m not so sure. We as European indie producers, need to stick together, if we want to protect plurality, diversity and creativity.

Have you had US streamers knocking at your door?
LV: They haven’t called that much. But perhaps other companies are better than us at delivering the type of content that major streamers are looking for-young adult, true crime etc.

Jonas Bagger: Karoline Leth who is driving our TV drama department is the one trying to find the connection between the way we work at Zentropa, the platforms and traditional broadcasters. She was at Zentropa before working at DR Drama, then Apple Tree Productions, and now she's back with us.
The entrance of the streaming platforms has been a vital injection to the Danish film industry, in terms of financing, demand for content and their distribution platforms. They are gaining from a very strong local industry both on an infrastructure and artistic standpoint, built thanks to a cultural policy that includes film schools, talent development, clever public funding and a public service commitment. And on top of all this: a strong auteur tradition. The streamers need to supply to that to keep the industry sustainable. If they do, I see that this can be some kind of golden era.


Zentropa’s co-heads on moving into TV and defending talents

Jonas Bagger / PHOTO: Stine Vesterskov

Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom-Exodus is being produced for DR and Viaplay. How did this ‘unholy’ collaboration happen?
It’s the first time that Viaplay and DR collaborate. It came about because DR had other priorities with their drama budget and couldn’t raise the whole financing. We wanted to protect the IP with DR -as they had the two first seasons of The Kingdom- plus keep rights in the project, but needed another partner. It makes good sense to work with Viaplay as they are such a major player in the Nordics. We had never worked with them before.
The series will be released in the fall 2022, first on Viaplay, then on DR’s main channel and on their streamer DRTV. That’s the plan right now.

Flexibility is what industry people say is crucial in today’s audiovisual ecosystem…
TV series are getting more expensive as all the best talents are moving in that space. TV format is a strong driver for the entire industry; it hires a lot of people, and is a great training ground. The challenge I believe is for the industry to educate more people. But flexibility is indeed important. One broadcaster can’t raise all the financing today. As a producer, you must be prepared to give something, but we have to make sure we’re not the only ones making concessions.

What can you say about The Kingdom-Exodus? When and where will it be shot?
We will shoot it in Copenhagen, the first half of this year and hope to be finished by the end of the summer. It’s extremely hard working under Covid-19. You’re so vulnerable from many different sides. But I have a great feeling that after all these years we can close the circle of The Kingdom.

How is Lars’ frame of mind?
He had a clear vision for season 3 and always wanted to finish The Kingdom. There are so many aspects in that universe that can be told. He writes it with his long-time friend Niels Vørsel. They have done a terrific job. It’s so scary, funny - Everything that it has to be.

When will you announce the cast?
LV: We haven’t decided yet.

Sisse at what stage is Thomas Vinterberg’s Families Like Ours?
Thomas is writing it with Bo hr. Hansen. He had the idea for quite some time, before we started working on Another Round. It’s like a saga therefore the TV format is ideal. It’s about saying goodbye to the country you live in, your family, everything you know because of climate change. We’re planning to shoot in 2022. So far, we’ve received financial backing from TV2 Denmark and the Danish Film Institute.

Who are the upcoming talents on Zentropa’s roster?
To name a few, right now we're shooting Frelle Petersen's next feature film Resten af livet (working title For Life). With his previous feature Uncle, he has shown a strong and artistic grip on storytelling. With this film, he is moving into a full budget film; we want to keep his very strong tone of voice, and broaden it up even more towards the audience.
I’m also preparing a feature film with Mads Matthiesen who did Teddy Bear, The Model and lately Equinox for Netflix. The next film will be a humorous coming-of-age drama with the working title Mr. Freeman.

LV: We have a few young producers working with young talents. They have their own relationships with writers/directors. As a producer, it’s important to share the same energy and values with your talents, and being from the same generation can be beneficial. We also have a long-running internship programme where young talents create shorts and develop their own network in the industry.

Are you investing more in development?
We don’t have a development division. We just follow the talents and new voices take us to new directions. If a talent has a good idea, we will develop it and make sure we protect his/her vision.

You seem to be covering all angles now-those are exciting years ahead for Zentropa…
SGJ: we are at a wise place, where we have different formats and projects. With Karoline working on TV series, Louise and I having a TV series in production and development with some of the talents we’ve worked with a very long time, we have an attractive slate of features -the core of our business for many years, then strong young producers with young talents that we’re developing. And we can’t wait for the audience to discover Christoffer Boe’s A Taste of Hunger! The release has been delayed several times due to the pandemic. Hopefully we will know soon when it will premiere.


Zentropa’s co-heads on moving into TV and defending talents

A Taste of Hunger / PHOTO: Zentropa aw