The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Musings on the daunting task to persuade a theatre audience to try a movie from Finland

with 12 comments


The best thing my parents ever did to me was to teach me that there wasn’t such a thing as “good” literature or “bad” literature. There were different kinds of books and it was perfectly fine to mix classics with crime novels and comics. They provided a wealth of literature. I was free to explore it without being judged.

Thanks to their attitude, I’ve always had an open mind towards literature in all its shapes, never ruling out a book as “rubbish” because it’s popular or “unreadable” because the author has received the Nobel Prize in literature. There’s a place and time for every book. Almost.

I came to think about this as I read a recent blog post by Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute. In the post she expressed her frustration over how difficult it is for a movie from Finland to find an audience in Sweden.

”What is it about our Swedes that make us dismiss so many films? We watch so many American movies, but we are impossible to persuade to go to the theatres to watch Nordic films (apart from certain Danish ones).”

When friends of world cinema bring this kind of issues up for discussion, they usually put the blame on the distributors and the theatre owners. It’s their fault that people don’t watch movies from Finland. They’re convinced that if the movie from Finland was screened in as many theatres as the blockbusters, the audience would come.

What makes Anna Serner’s blog post interesting is that she turns the spotlight in a different direction. Rather than demanding of commercial businesses to risk their money on movies that they from all experience know won’t sell, she wonders what’s up with the audience.

“I wish more people were curious about those Finnish movies” she writes, asking for the audience to be more open-minded.

Advertising not the solution
The standard answer would be that the movie from Finland needs more marketing. The idea in the cultural establishment is that if it only had a campaign as big as the one for Skyfall, people would come in droves. However I don’t think it’s that simple. Advertising is just one factor out of many when you decide whether to watch a movie in a theatre or not.

For the vast majority, going to a theatre is a way to relax. You watch movies to laugh, to get scared, to cry a bit, but most of all to be entertained. It’s not as if you’re going to an intellectual gym to exercise your brain, getting new perspectives and insights about the human condition. You’re looking to get away from it all in a two hour pocket of time, protected from reality. If there’s any suspicion that a movie will require some kind of effort, if so only to overcome prejudices or reading subtitles, it will take more than an ad to persuade the broad audience to give it a try.

So what would it take to make people be more open-minded about movies from Finland and other obscure countries? Is it possible at all? Being an optimist at heart, my answer is “yes”. But it requires us to change the way we think about movies. We must stop assuming that movies that are commercially successful are horribly bad for you or that art house and a small audience is a guarantee for high quality.

If the cultural establishment wants the mainstream audience to stop frowning at movies from Finland, a good start would be to stop being so sniffy about blockbusters.

The story of film
This summer I’ve watched Mark Cousin’s TV series The Story of Film. It’s a series that I highly recommend to every film fan. Cousin’s ambition to include world movies and female directors, his passion for the topic and his charming Irish accent makes it worth watching. But sometimes I think he goes a little bit too far in his dismissal of popular movies, like when he said that nothing of interest was made in Hollywood in the 80s. This meant that a movie such as Blade Runner, which has had a huge influence on the science fiction genre, was ignored. Instead he kept going on as usual about movies by unknown directors from far distant countries.

I think that the problem with this approach, despite its good intention to educate, is that builds a wall where there didn’t need to be one. In his world it appears as if almost nothing that comes out the English speaking world is worth watching, while movies from Asia, Africa and South America constantly are spoken of as ground breaking and the best movie ever made. This is rather off-putting. Why should I trust the judgement from someone who doesn’t care about Blade Runner?

Anna Serner dreams of an open minded audience that doesn’t sneer towards Finnish movies. In order to get there we need to spread the idea of a more relaxed approach towards cinema in society. We need to tear down whatever imagined walls that keep audiences appart. We need to stop using our taste for movies as a status marker. We need to teach our children that movies come in all shapes, that a workout in the theatre can be pretty awesome between the action films and that a movie from Finland can be entertaining too.

It’s a big task, so we’d better get started right away.

photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via photopin cc

Written by Jessica

September 15, 2013 at 11:54 am

12 Responses

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  1. Great post, Jessica. I think you’re on to something there. If the serious critics treat blockbuster movies the same way they treat the latest from Abbas Kiarostami it will allow them to “lure” their readers and the audience to smaller movies. It’s about being open, and that applies to everyone.


    September 15, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    • Thanks! I definitely think this is an important aspect if you want to point people to movies that are outside of their comfort zone. You need to earn their trust by showing that you’re “one of them” and not a strange, snobbish film buff that has an extreme taste.


      September 15, 2013 at 6:10 pm

  2. The wall that keeps audiences apart is not an imaginary one, it’s a real one: the vast majority of people I know would never think of watching a film for any other reason than fun, entertainment and no kind of advertising campaign will ever make ’em change their disposition, you mention literature, then just think of Le Clézio – a marvelous writer in my opinion – not even a publicity bomb like the Nobel Prize has transformed him into a best selling author, he has sold a few more books and has been translated in a few more languages thanks to the prize, but if you look at Goodreads or Anobii you see that this popularity has turned him from an unknown author into an unpopular one. No one of us can have good taste and refinement in all areas of human activity, but in my experience people having good taste and refinement in the field of arts tend to be more tolerant and/or interested towards more popular forms of culture.


    September 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    • It’s a real wall and it’s sad that it’s there because it deprives so many people from great watching and reading experiences. But we can’t give up seeing it. After all people have opened up in the last few years, for instance towards Japanese culture. Thirty years ago very few people had even heard of anime and manga. And now the kids are all into it. This could happen in more areas.


      September 15, 2013 at 6:14 pm

  3. This is certainly an interesting topic and I think you’re on to something. However, part of what I believe the cultural elite is so sniffy about is that the majority of movie goers never exerts itself, never challenges itself. There’s nothing wrong with liking blockbusters but it becomes a problem when you’re unwilling to even try something else. Which cuts both ways of course — one should be willing to try a blockbuster once in a while although one prefers Polish art house movies.


    September 15, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    • I think that if you want the average movie goer to be more open minded, you’d better become more open minded yourself. That’s a good start for a relaxed conversation I’d say. “So you love Bond movies you say? So do I. I think you should try this [insert exotic country] movie. You’d totally love it!” Build the trust!


      September 15, 2013 at 6:16 pm

  4. This is a really great post. I think part of the “problem” many audiences might have with watching foreign-language films in the UK (and I think the same is true for the USA etc) is that subtitles automatically requires a little more effort, and even if the film you are going to watch is very light on the brain (something action or rom-com for example) it just feels like more effort than entertaining. One of the weirdest things to have happened in UK culture recently is the success of The Killing and Borgen. I’d like to think it has opened the door for other foreign-language film and tv, but I am doubtful.

    I think you are spot on about the “wall” between the popular and the arty, and it is such a false wall! To take from another genre – that of books – I always find it helpful to remind literary snobs that some of the greats of literary fiction – Charles Dickens especially comes to mind – wrote in their stories in serial-form in popular periodicals. The operative word being popular.

    I also wonder if there is not a sense of exclusivity. For certain people (none here) being able to talk about relatively obscure films makes them feel special, part that elite. If suddenly Polish art house movies became massively popular (to borrow the example from the commentator above) then the elitist film-watcher would move onto something else because it was no longer exclusive, probably complaining that the newcomers ruined it all. You can see that dynamic when a niche computer game starts to go even a little mainstream (I have seen it play out in EVE Online several times over my years in that game, for example).

    Sorry for the rambling comment.


    September 16, 2013 at 12:57 am

    • Thank you for your comment. Not rambling at all, just thoughtful. I agree with everythng you say and I think you’re right about how certain people want to have an exclusive taste, either it’s in movies or games.


      September 17, 2013 at 12:01 am

  5. I used to be a big fan of Mark Cousins but if he’s not showing any love for one of my all time favourites, Blade Runner, then I don’t think I’ll be inviting him round for tea again. 😉

    Mark Walker

    September 16, 2013 at 11:01 am

    • I was very disappointed at the dismissal of the entire 80’s in one show. Now I should be fair enough, I just watched a later show, part 14, where Couisins all of a sudden started to talk a lot about what Hollywood was up to in the 90s. There’s a long section where he speaks about and with some very nice contemporary directiors. So it may not be as bad as it seemed. Still: I wish he had been more open towards the movies from the 80s.


      September 17, 2013 at 12:05 am

      • I can name many movies from America in the 80’s that worked very well for me. Wether or not they’re classed as Hollywood is another matter but the likes of Once Upon A Time in America and Blade Runner make my personal Top Ten. I also enjoyed the likes of the highly underrated DeNiro movies Angel Heart and Midnight Run. I recently done a post on an 80’s cult classic Big Trouble In Little China. I could go on and on but the 80’s delivered some very memorable films in my opinion.

        Mark Walker

        September 17, 2013 at 12:26 am

  6. […] So under the heading of “you learn something new every day”, Swedish people don’t like Finnish films. Allow Jessica to explain. […]

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