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Swiss films suffer image problem abroad

"Vitus", the story of a musical genius, hit all the right notes for US audiences (KEYSTONE/Hugofilm Productions GmbH/Christian Altorfer)

One of the issues discussed at the Locarno film festival this year has been why Swiss films – with a few rare exceptions – fail to make an impression abroad.

Experts say that the barriers to success still remain too high for most domestic productions and that those that make it tend to have a universal appeal rather than being simply “Swiss”.

Last year Swiss films gained 37 awards at international festivals. “Vitus”, the story of a young piano prodigy, was even shortlisted for the best foreign film Oscar.

Within Switzerland local cinema gained a ten per cent market share for the very first time. In the media there was talk of a Swiss cinema renaissance.

But at a round table on Swiss films abroad held at the Locarno film festival on Monday, international critics said Swiss films still remained largely unknown abroad. Part of the problem was language-related or not enough marketing, they said.

In the United States, foreign films simply could not compete with Hollywood and were not shown in mainstream cinemas, explained Jay Weissberg from the entertainment magazine Variety.

Francine Brücher, head of international promotions at the national film agency Swiss Film, agrees that Swiss films are not popular abroad.

“But it’s the same thing for almost all foreign films,” Brücher told swissinfo ahead of the round table.

The biggest markets for Swiss film were neighbouring Germany and France. It was generally not considered worth selling to the tough US and Britain sectors, she said.

Vital “Vitus”

But “Vitus” was an exception. It was sold to 35 countries, including the US, where it received very good reviews.

“The reason why this film is so successful is that it is a very simple story, full of emotion and people are touched by it. It has all the ingredients to please a US audience,” said Brücher.

It was this type of film that tended to make it internationally, she said. “Swissness” did not play a role.

“At the moment we have had a few successes internationally and it looks like Swiss film is popular. But it is not a trend,” said Brücher.

“A film becomes popular because of its uniqueness, or because it’s good or fun or because it has a specific quality.”

Sometimes it is simply not clear that a film is Swiss. Austrian critic Isabella Reicher told the round table she had heard last year’s winner at Locarno, Das Fräulein (The Waitress), described as a story about three women from the former Yugoslavia – rather than as a Swiss film.

Too domestic

Swiss cinema also faces a language challenge, even in neighbouring countries. Many films are in Swiss German, which Germans do not understand, so films have to be dubbed, which is expensive.

Another major problem is a lack of stars. Many big names in Swiss films come from television, whose presence might attract local audiences but not necessarily ones in other countries.

Brücher added that most Swiss filmmakers thought first and foremost about their domestic audience. Most productions are subsidised by the Swiss government, so home success was a guarantee of funding for the next project.

Nevertheless some were taking the co-production avenue with France or Germany. This is a good way of increasing both budgets and audiences, said Brücher.

And of course, there is the Locarno effect. One of the festival hits of 2006, Die Herbstzeitlosen, (Late Bloomers), a comedy about an old lady who scandalises a Swiss village by setting up a lingerie shop, has since been taken up by other European countries.

It has also had several offers for remake rights, including from the US.

“Locarno is a big international festival with high-quality films,” Brücher told swissinfo. “Foreign editors, commissioning editors and television buyers will want to see the new productions from Switzerland. So it’s the best place to show new films.”

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Locarno

The Locarno film festival runs until August 11.
It is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
15 Swiss feature films and 26 short films are being shown – fewer than last year.
Round tables are being held every day on film industry topics.

Apart from making the last nine in the shortlist for the Oscars, “Vitus” by Fredi M. Murer also won the Audience Award at Rome, Chicago and Los Angeles and the Bronze Bear for Best Director at Berlin. It has been sold to 35 countries, including the US and China.

Andrea Štaka’s drama “Das Fräulein” (The Waitress) won the Golden Leopard at Locarno last year – the first Swiss film to do so for 21 years.

Die Herbstzeitlosen (Late Bloomers) has sold more than 550,000 cinema admissions in Switzerland. The comedy has sold well in other countries such as Germany and has had several offers for remake rights, including from the US and France.

Among the upcoming productions, Mike Eschmann’s “Tell” – a parody of Switzerland’s most famous hero William Tell – is expected to do well, according to Swiss Films. Its producers were behind the hit army comedy “Achtung, Fertig, Charlie!”, which sold 560,000 tickets in Switzerland. It will have its premiere in October.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR