Robert A. Saunders on Screen Tourism, Nation Branding and the Nordic Noir Effect

How important are the filming of movies and television for the economic development of places and nation brands? Robert A. Saunders in this interview shares his insights and research findings on screen tourism in the Nordics, nation branding and the Borat Effect.

Robert is a Professor at Farmingdale State College – SUNY and a leading scholar of popular geopolitics, as well as an internationally-recognized researcher in the field of nation branding. His geographic areas of focus include Russia, Central Asia, and Nordic Europe. His research explores the impact of popular culture and mass media on geopolitics, nationalism, and religious identity.

In addition to his academic activities, Professor Saunders also works as an independent brand consultant, assisting clients in place- and nation branding campaigns, as well as providing strategic thinking in the areas of sustainability, biosecurity, and the effective use of provenance attributes.

Robert, you are a leading scholar of popular geopolitics, as well as an internationally recognized researcher in the field of nation branding. Do you remember what got you interested in those topics?

My investigation of both fields of study began with Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Borat’ parody back in 2005 when his appearance at the MTV Music Awards as a ‘Kazakhstani journalist’ triggered threats of a lawsuit from the country’s foreign ministry. Kazakhstan then launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to positively brand the country. My first book The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen: Politics, Parody, and the Battle over Borat (2008) examines how a British comedian and the Kazakhstani government ended up in a battle for control of the international image of Kazakhstan. Since then, I have been investigating how films, TV series, comics, and social media inform the ways in which nations are seen at home and abroad, and how governments respond to and employ popular culture for purposes of nation branding.

My most recent book, Geopolitics, Northern Europe, and Nordic Noir: What Television Series Tell Us About World Politics (due out on 1 January 2021) precisely addresses these topics, specifically via a focus on crime dramas set in northern Europe.

Can you describe the current wave of fascination in all things Nordic, and what role television series play in promoting interest in the countries of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland?

We are indeed witnessing a period of intense interest in the countries of northern Europe. Topping the charts in the Happiness Index, gender equality, and overall quality life, the Nordics are lauded for finding the right mix between the free market and social welfare, as well as building liveable, sustainable cities.  Nordic fashion, design, and cuisine are all commodities that are very much en vogue, with less tangible aspects of culture like the Danish concept of hygge (‘cosiness’) being all the rage in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

Our obsession with consumer brands like IKEA, 66˚North, and Bang & Olufsen are certainly part of the story, but increased interest in travel to the region spurred by films and television are also key to understanding why we are increasingly turning our gaze to the North.

Following the global success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and its film adaptations, Nordic noir television series have exploded in popularity around the globe, but most importantly in Britain, Germany, and America.

With well-known actors such as Daniel Craig (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Kenneth Branagh (Wallander) appearing in English-language adaptations of Scandinavian crime novels, viewers began tuning in to watch original series produced in Scandinavia and Finland. Defined by their troubled characters, complex narratives, thoughtful meditations on social and political topics, and long, slow shots of the dramatic landscapes, such fare is increasingly in demand.

Are crime shows like The Killing, The Bridge, and Trapped actually beneficial for the nation brands of Nordic countries?

It may be counter-intuitive, but the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Despite these series’ focus on gruesome murders and their perpetually-autumnal settings, viewers are intrigued by the accessible otherness of Nordic Europe. Airing on BBC4 and increasingly available on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, watching these shows prompts positive rather than negative associations with the people, culture, and places of northern Europe, from a desire to buy an iconic Faroese jumper like the one Sarah Lund wears in The Killing to making the decision to fly to Iceland to see the aurora borealis after watching a season of Trapped.

This paradoxical effect of crime drama triggering an emotional connection to a place is especially profound in relatively crime-free Scandinavia. Indeed, viewers embrace the irony of the way these shows present Nordic society, and that’s part of the fun.

Is there a downside to such series in terms of place branding?

Over-tourism in small towns and fragile ecological zones is one big downside, something we are already witnessing in the UK and elsewhere with screen tourism stemming from popular police procedurals like Broadchurch (Dorset) and Shetland (Shetland Islands), as well as the crush of Game of Thrones tourists overrunning Northern Ireland, Seville, and Dubrovnik. With Nordic noir focusing more on Arctic settings in recent years, series like Twin (Lofoten, Norway), Fortitude (Svalbard), and Thin Ice (Greenland) run the risk of attracting too many visitors to places that are unable to accommodate large-scale (screen) tourism.

Perhaps a larger issue is that the region becomes overly-defined by these shows. There is a threat that when cultural consumption shifts, ‘Nordic noir’ will become something of a punchline. We are even starting to see parodies of Scandinavian police shows, which means that the genre’s time in the spotlight may be passing. That being stated, Nordic dramatic television clearly punches above its weight, and public service broadcasters like NRK, DR, and SVT are keen to build upon the popularity of their crime series around the world by greenlighting projects that tap into the fervour for noir and the North.

The international success of geopolitical thrillers like Norway’s Occupied and Nobel are two key examples, with HBO and Netflix hoping to cash in on the trend with their respective Norwegian-language fantasy-crime series Beforeigners and Ragnarok.

Which northern European cities or regions have benefited the most from screen tourism in recent years?

With film-induced tourism becoming one of the fastest areas of growth in the industry, various locales across northern Europe are well-positioned to profit from screen tourism. The Swedish capital remains a mecca for Millennium-based tourism, with the anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander continuing to draw fans to Stockholm, where they can walk in her footsteps.

Moving to TV, my colleague Anne Marit Waade coined the term ‘Wallanderland’ for Scania, the southernmost part of Sweden. The idyllic region became an instant tourist destination following the premiere the BBC’s Wallander, which measurably increased tourism spending and added jobs to the local economy.

The port city of Ystad has capitalised on this success with the Ystad Studio Visitor Centre, which features Kurt Wallander’s apartment and other installations associated with filming in the region. This includes production of the world-famous series The Bridge; however, the larger cities of Copenhagen and Malmö, where the show is set, have benefited more directly from Bridge-based tourism. Smaller towns like Aarhus, Denmark (Dicte) and Lappeenranta, Finland (Bordertown) have also reaped dividends from screen tourism, although these have been relatively short-lived.

Overall, Iceland is the heavy-hitter, with Nordic noir-themed tours associated with Trapped and other series being just a portion of a steadily growing industry that thrives off of Game of Thrones, as well as a dozen big-budget Hollywood productions that have featured the island’s unique geography over the past 15 years, from the Batman, Aliens, and Star Wars franchises to Interstellar, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Frozen II (the latter featuring animated depictions of real places in Iceland).

Can you discuss the relationship between television production companies, tourism development boards, and local stakeholders?

As the links between television production, tourism, and place brands have grown stronger in the new millennium, we are seeing more cooperation across different sectors of the economy, which in turn produces virtuous circles of value creation. Parks, neighbourhoods, and beaches, as well as shops, restaurants, bars, and other establishments, all benefit from being featured in a given series (the Scandic Segevang hotel outside of Malmö, where Martin Rohde stayed in the second season of The Bridge, is a great example).

Moreover, cultural and creative industries – from museums to artisans – often see tangential support from the elevation of their location’s place brand in eyes of television viewers. National tourism boards (e.g. VisitDenmark) and more regionally-focused concerns (e.g. GoSaimaa in south-eastern Finland) can serve as the link between TV production and enterprises, agencies, and individuals at the local level, often by making walking tours a key part of the overall visitor experience.

However, state broadcasters and the cultural producers behind particular series are the lynchpin to the overall dynamic. In recent years, series have been increasingly set in more remote locations, not only to raise the profile of these places in the minds of tourists, potential residents, or investors, but also to create jobs in the entertainment sector and ancillary industries via on-location shooting. Series such as Norskov (Frederikshavn, Denmark), Thicker than Water (Åland Islands, Finland), and Monster (Varanger Peninsula, Norway) are all good examples where we see filming outside of the oft-screened capital cities.

Are there any benefits beyond tourism when it comes to promoting these TV-centric forms of place identity?

There are countless intangibles that come with strong place-based associations that emerge from the TV viewing experience. One might choose to buy this product rather than that one: something as simple as a throw-blanket or a candle thus becomes a consumable item that reinforces one’s personal affinity for Scandinavia via mimicking aspects of interior design.

Talent attraction is another area where the benefits of good TV redounds to the spaces where it takes place. In an era when many people can choose to live and work where they like, location promotion via the screen certainly helps cities like Oslo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm to attract talent.

Going back to Iceland, there is a downstream benefit that comes from on-site movie and television production, as the North Atlantic nation is emerging as a go-to location for filming automobile advertisements. In other words, the geography of this small country is itself now a (digital) commodity.

Going deeper into the theoretical aspects of country branding, we should not overlook the ‘good nation’ effect. Despite Nordic noir’s tendencies to point out what is wrong with the Scandinavian model, for viewers in the fractious US, UK, and Brazilian markets, the little problems of the North seem like good ones to have. Thus, imaginative excursions to Borgen’s Copenhagen, Midnight Sun’s Kiruna, or Stella Blómkvist’s Reykjavík help promote the value of a well-governed Denmark, an unspoilt Sweden, or a chic Iceland as strong competitors in what Simon Anholt once called the ‘global supermarket’ of nation brands.

Looking at the bigger picture, are there brand-promotion lessons that we can learn from the Nordic experience on the small screen?

Absolutely, but not necessarily ones that can be easily transferred. Let’s take Switzerland as an example. While sharing a lot of branding attributes with Scandinavian countries (iconic landscapes, sustainable cities, good governance, high quality of life, etc.), the dynamics of the television industry are not comparable. The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation operates across three languages, and its content is overshadowed and often outmatched by competition from the German, French, and Italian markets. Thus, the chances of producing a Swiss analogue to the fabulously-successful The Bridge are almost non-existent.

Alongside the Dutch, the nations of Nordic Europe also benefit from their openness to film and TV from outside the region with viewers watching content in the original language (often English) with subtitles rather than dubbing. This cultural trait became a competitive advantage when Scandinavian series started to become popular abroad as their narratives tended to ‘rhyme’ with more globally-oriented series even as they employed loads of local colour (rural landscapes, cultural traits, historical legacies) in their production.

Moreover, the commitment of players like Denmark’s DR to making the highest quality dramas for the nation it serves is a decades-long investment (one which also happens to sell well overseas), and not something that just happened overnight.

Thinking about where there are synergies, I would argue that regional broadcasters in the UK are a case in point because they have a better chance of replicating the success of the Nordics (and I should point out that even within the region, there are differences as Iceland and Finland only recently got into the business of producing ‘exportable’ series such as Trapped and Bordertown). Set in western Wales and airing on the main Welsh-language channel S4C, Y Gwyll/Hinterland is a great example of how a good crime drama can promote a place (i.e. the Ceredigion region), while also benefiting Welsh-speakers in the process.

How will the coronavirus pandemic affect film tourism?

Looking ahead, everyone in the field of place branding is guessing what things will look like on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic. A return to patterns of long-haul travel to destinations like Bangkok and Cape Town, as well as tourism in overcrowded metropolises like London and New York, seems – at least for the time being – to be slow in coming.

However, I would argue that the Nordics are extremely well placed to bounce back after international travel resumes, particularly as continental Europeans are likely to stay a bit closer to home over the next few years.

On the one hand, the sustainability of the region’s capitals, as well as smaller cities like Aarhus and Lappeenranta, will serve these places well in terms of more conscientious tourism and as centres of talent attraction.

On the other hand, the seeming interminable lockdown of 2020-2021 has provided more than ample screen time, which has been a boon for the television industry (even if filming schedules were temporarily interrupted). We are already seeing travel web sites identifying future destinations for screen tourism based on series’ premieres during the lockdown.

Given the pent-up demand for travel in the second half of 2021, it is highly likely that Nordic Europe will be one of the first places to benefit.

Your thoughts on The Place Brand Observer?

Since its launch, I have been an avid reader of The Place Brand Observer. As an academic in the field of nation branding and an independent place-brand consultant, I find that TPBO provides me with the best access to voices from across the field, while also helping me to develop a wider perspective and stay on top of current trends.

That’s great to hear – thank you, Robert!

Connect with Robert A. Saunders on LinkedIn or Twitter, or visit his website.


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