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Les Arcs Industry: Study of the international success of Dutch cinema re-activates local film industry

by Lisa van der Waal

This year, the Les Arcs Film Festival decided to pay special attention to Dutch cinema, organising a Focus programme consisting of eight feature-length films released since Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book in 2006 and including one documentary, 2019’s They Call Me Babu by Sandra Beerends as well as the 2016 animated hit Red Turtle by Michaël Dudok de Wit.  

Solenn Durmord, Head of Les Arcs’ Film Department, says: “Our Focus programme encompasses our favourites from the past few years, including works by established filmmakers as well as emerging talents. We were keen to screen a diversity of genres, from thrillers to westerns and road movies, but also a diversity of types: from fiction and documentaries to animated films.” 

“Each year, we explore the cinema from a particular country. The Netherlands was a priority for us, since it developed a very diverse and creative cinema over the last ten years,” explains Frédéric Boyer, Artistic Director of the festival.   

Guillaume Calop, the festival’s General Manager, adds: “The Netherlands is in an interesting phase. There is a very interesting new generation of Dutch filmmakers coming up, so it was the perfect time to explore the cinema of this country.” 

Modern classics such as Brimstone by Martin Koolhoven and Borgman by Alex van Warmerdam were also selected for the Focus program, as well as Zara Dwinger’s first feature film Kiddo. But Dutch films could be found outside the Focus programme as well: Sweet Dreams by Ena Sendijarević (pictured on top) was part of the Official Selection, whereas Stephanie Kolk’s feature film debut Melk was selected for the Hauteur section. As important as the films selected for the festival is the fact that a large and diverse delegation of Dutch film professionals was invited to represent the industry in Les Arcs.


Dutch films are internationally underperforming

An interesting choice to focus on Dutch cinema, one might think after reading the report of an international benchmark study published by the international creative industries consultancy Olsberg SPI in September 2023. This study was commissioned by the Netherlands Film Fund with the aim to conduct an evaluation and analysis of the status of Dutch feature films against the output of comparable European countries. The conclusion? “Dutch films are internationally underperforming,” as film journalist Edo Dijksterhuis wrote in the Dutch film magazine Filmkrant

According to the study, the Netherlands produces more feature films than Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Belgium, but achieves less international success. Between 2010 and 2022, no Dutch film reached the figure of 250,000 European admission of (this figure combines tickets sold at home with those from releases in other European territories) and were selected for one of the four key film festivals the makers of the study decided to focus on: Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Sundance. Another criterium were nominations for the European Film Awards (EFA), and no Dutch films seem to fit that either.  

Going through the report can be a bit confusing, because some Dutch films were indeed selected for these festivals and nominated for the EFAs. Brimstone screened in the main competition at Venice and was nominated for the EFAs, as were Tirza by Rudolf van der Berg and Kauwboy by Boudewijn Koole. Borgman competed at Cannes. But since these films did not reach 250,000 European admissions, these nominations were not taken into account in the study. 

“In order to analyse the artistic recognition of Dutch films, the European admissions requirement was dropped to 150,000 to capture a larger set of films,” says the study. By doing this, Olsberg SPI shows that four films do meet the adjusted parameters but none of these films won a top prize or award at one of the key film festivals. “However, beyond the main categories considered, Dutch films are receiving acknowledgment, in the form of selections, nominations and wins, across various other categories – such as those for screenplay, acting, editing, and cinematography, for example."

Borgman by Alex van WarmerdamBorgman by Alex van Warmerdam


High standards of the study

So why did Olsberg SPI use such high standards? Ilse Ronteltap, Head of the International Department at the Netherlands Film Fund, explains that this high bar with a double lens (admissions and festival recognition) was chosen in order to make a good comparison between the Netherlands and the four other countries with a more or less similar kind of film market. 

“The Olsberg SPI report indeed shows what happens if the parameter of 250,000 European visitors would be decreased to 150,000: more Dutch fiction films would come into the picture, but still fewer than from the countries that are taken into account in the comparison. The final conclusion doesn’t change: when it comes to fiction features, the Netherlands performs the worst in comparison with Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Austria,” says Ronteltap.

The report explains: “These countries were selected because they all have similar market sizes, and they all are subject to similar market dynamics.” However, the aspect of language has not been taken into account, so the comparison with the Austrian and Belgian film industries seems unbalanced. Dutch is only spoken in the Netherlands and Flanders in Belgium, while the markets for German- and French-language films are much larger. It would have been interesting if Olsberg SPI had also included this aspect in the study. 

Ronteltap responds: “It is true that Belgium also produces films in French and this way has an easier  access to a larger international stage. However, Denmark and Sweden appear to be the most successful countries regarding producing fiction films, and both are smaller language areas than the Netherlands, so this shouldn’t prevent similar success.”

Ronteltap wasn’t surprised by the outcome of this study. However, she sees the negative conclusion as a positive thing. 

“It’s not only a wake-up call for the fund, but for the Dutch film industry too,” she says. “Dutch feature films are lagging behind, so how can we improve this situation? Where are our opportunities and where do we have to take a step back? We now need to take time to reflect on these questions. The report has sparked a conversation about the status of the Dutch film industry, it was the reason why DAFF (Dutch Academy for Film) organised a debate on this topic on 15 December 2023. This is super positive, because only together - everyone from their own specific role and strength - we can reinforce the industry.”

Some scepticism about the report could be detected among the Dutch professionals that attended Les Arcs. Lisette Kelder, producer and co-owner of the production company The Film Kitchen, had quite a few questions. 

“Does the report do justice to the Dutch film industry as a whole? I think the Dutch film industry is studied through a very narrow lens; a big number of the films this industry produces has been ignored. Moreover, how do you measure a film’s success? In this study, it’s done by counting the amount of selections of films at four key film festivals. What happened outside these festivals is not taken into account,” she says. 

Wouter Janssen, founder of the international sales company Square Eyes, illustrates this: “Some recent Dutch films haven't been acquired by many distributors in foreign countries, but have been a great success at film festivals.” A good example is Sweet Dreams. Despite the lack of commercial success, artistically it is a successful film. 

Sweet Dreams wasn’t selected for one of Olsberg SPI’s four key film festivals, but it premiered in the main competition at the Locarno Film Festival, which is also among the most prestigious film festivals in Europe, and actress Renée Soutendijk won the Best Performance Award. It was also the Dutch submission for the Foreign Language Academy Award, and screened at Toronto, the top North American festival next to Sundance.  


Spotless by Emma Branderhorst

Spotless by Emma Branderhorst


How to improve the prominence of Dutch cinema?

Whether the Olsberg SPI study gives a good overview of the status of contemporary Dutch cinema or not, the following question is still interesting to think about: how can the international prominence of Dutch film productions be improved?

Ronteltap mentions three main points to work on: “We have to acknowledge the value of co-producers from other countries and the different perspectives that co-producers bring in. Moreover, we have to work on the visibility of the Dutch film industry and stimulate talent.”

Janssen agrees and adds: “I have the feeling that we have such a good financing climate in the Netherlands. Therefore, Dutch film professionals don’t need to cross the borders to look for financial support. This way, we miss a lot of international influences and different perspectives through which we can learn how to introduce ourselves in the market. Moreover, we have to invest in talented filmmakers.” 

Young Dutch filmmaker Emma Branderhorst's short film Spotless was part of the Focus short film programme at Les Arcs, and had previously won the Crystal Bear in Berlinale’s Generation section in 2022, along with two other of her shorts that competed at the Berlinale, thinks that financiers do not invest enough in Dutch film talent. 

“I think that Dutch short films are quite successful at international film festivals, but the contemporary generation of young Dutch filmmakers struggle with producing feature films. There is not enough money for young filmmakers to develop and to work on auteur driven feature films.” 

Les Arcs’ Calop has concluded the same after talking to Dutch filmmakers over the past few years. He understands that “they suffer from a lack of audacity of the financers”.  

Branderhorst adds: “The Netherlands has a lot of talented film professionals. What we need is less focus on commerce and stronger, better stories, told from the perspective of the filmmaker. That is what we need to work on.” 

Nevertheless, she emphasises the value of co-productions. “It’s beneficial for Dutch filmmakers to get inspired by different points of view. This way, we can create Dutch film production with international appeal.”

Dutch cinema has been copying recipes from other countries: Antoinette Beumer’s The Loft is a 2010 remake of Erik van Looy’s Belgian thriller of the same name from 2008, while Will Koopman’s Alles op tafel is a 2021 remake of Italian director Paolo Genovese’s 2016 hit Perfect Strangers. This way, the Dutch film industry produced popular but unoriginal films. 

But there seems to be a shift, according to Calop: “Now the industry understands that they should support more personal and creative films in order to develop their own cultural language and be more present in international film festivals. Let’s hope this will continue!”

However you decide to view the Olsberg SPI report, one thing is certain: it has reactivated professionals working in the Dutch film industry, including the Netherlands Film Fund. It has pushed them to think about the international status of Dutch films and as Ronteltap noted, initiatives were organised after the report had been published to bring these professionals together and  talk about how they can together improve the current situation. Whether the potential solutions lay in the financing, production or marketing, the Dutch are willing to show to the world that they are able to make high quality films.

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