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