French producer and sales agent Philippe Bober (pictured - Coproduction Office), well-known for nurturing singular filmmaking voices, is enjoying the exceptional international exposure of his Swedish protégés Roy Andersson and Ruben Östlund, the first with his Golden Lion award in Venice for A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, and the second with his multi-awarded drama Force Majeure. We spoke to Bober at Nordic Talents in Copenhagen that he attends every year.

When did you start collaborating with Roy Andersson and Ruben Östlund?
Philippe Bober: The first time I became aware of Roy Andersson was in the mid-90s. His short films Something Happened and World of Glory were shown at L’Etrange Festival in Paris. I thought they were highly inventive so I visited Roy when he was shooting an Air France ad in Stockholm. I then met him later in Karlovy Vary and our first project together was Songs from the Second Floor, which started production in 1996.

With Ruben Östlund, the first time we met was in Rotterdam in 2005. Erik Hemmendorff, his producer, gave me his short films to watch. Strangely enough I have no visual memory of that first encounter. Then six months later I was programming the short film section of a festival and selected Ruben’s Autobiographical scene number 6889 out of hundreds of submissions. This is how I virtually "encountered" Ruben the second time. The next time we met was again in Rotterdam in 2007. Erik and Ruben showed me scenes of Involuntary. I was very impressed and offered to come on board as sales agent and Danish co-producer as there was still a lack of financing to complete the film.

You are very auteur-driven and work with very few directors. What convinces you to take people on board?
PB: The first thing one sees in a film is the visual aspect. I work with some of the most extraordinary directors from a visual standpoint. However I don’t believe in ‘l’art pour l’art’ i.e. art for the sake of it. I’m interested in art with content and both Roy and Ruben’s films combine these elements. But in the first place, I’m interested in the language of film. 

Do you usually enter both as co-producer and sales agent?
There are no rules. I have two businesses: production and sales and my company has offices in three countries: France, Germany and Denmark. What matters the most is the quality and uniqueness of the film. I can be a Danish co-producer and sales agent, or just a sales agent. For instance with Ulrich Seidl I’ve worked with him since 1999, on every film, but not in the same positions.

With Roy Andersson, I started working with him on Songs from the second floor in 1998. I have the same position on all his films: French and German co-producer and sales agent. With Ruben, I was sales agent only for Involuntary, for Play I was German co-producer and sales agent and for Force Majeure I was French and Danish co-producer plus sales agent. 

You’ve worked on three films with Roy and Ruben and have known them for many years. Is it generally the same distributors taking their films on board every time, arthouse distributors collecting their works?
PB: It really depends. For instance I just closed a sale on A Pigeon with Artificial Eye in the UK who had Roy’s previous films, but there is no rule. For Roy it makes sense for distributors to have all his films as Songs from the Second Floor, You, the Living and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence are part of a trilogy.

Is it possible to pre-sell Roy or Ruben’s films now that their names are so well established internationally?
There are few pre-sales locked on their current films and it’s a choice. Roy’s A Pigeon is for me his best film. When I started discussing the film with distributors, they expected the film to be of similar quality as his previous two films and I already knew who would like it or not as his films are very similar. The sales negotiations were focused on the admission figures achieved by Songs for the Second Floor and You the Living.

With Ruben it’s different as you can’t really compare Involuntary with Play and Play with Force Majeure. It’s less interesting to keep the same distributors. Of course we take offers of distributors from previous films always seriously as building a reputation of a director is a long time process, and if you share the investment, you can also share the benefits. In some cases with Force Majeure, we chose not to go with the highest bidder but to stay with a distributor who had released Play in the past. So if some distributors didn’t make much money on Play, they would still get a chance to recoup their previous investment as Force Majeure is more commercially oriented. 

How has the Venice Golden Lion award influenced the sales on A Pigeon…?
Sales-wise the film stands on its own, even without the award. We probably won’t close so many more territories because of the Golden Lion. But distributors seem to be ready to pay perhaps 20% more for some territories where the award has a meaning, such as Western Europe or Japan. Also, few distributors who had said no to the film came back to discuss it after the Golden Lion award. That was for territories where I knew I would sell the film anyway. I now have more distribution options in some territories.

So far how many territories have acquired A Pigeon?
Around 25 territories in total including 19 European territories. We expect to close even more deals and have also offers from the US.

Are digital distributors approaching you and their offers of any weight today?
PB: Yes, but their offers aren’t relevant for A Pigeon or for sales figures in general.

What about Force Majeure. How many pre-sales were closed?
We pre-sold to Benelux, and Denmark and Norway although those were co-production territories.

Was the sale to Magnolia Pictures in the US a ground-breaking deal for you?
We had a good price from the US, and it is a pleasure to be working with Magnolia. However, this is not the highest price we have received from the film, which is from France. One should not over-evaluate the value of the US market. Scandinavian films' first market is traditionally, and also with Force Majeure, France and Germany.

How has your job as sales agent evolved over the last five years with distribution changing and getting tougher on the arthouse market?
In a way, nothing much has changed for me. Experience will prove for instance with A Pigeon that we will achieve as much sales if not more than for Roy’s previous films. Of course, offers from television are declining and DVD sales that didn’t count for much two years ago just don’t exist anymore. 

Still isn’t the arthouse market shrinking as so many arthouse distributors are struggling these days?
PB: The arthouse market is not shrinking if the films are very good. But yes one can say that players are also less speculative. Companies like Artificial Eye or Lumiere in the Benelux that have bought both Force Majeure and A Pigeon have sound businesses.

People who overpaid basically went bankrupt. With Songs from the Second Floor we had higher revenues, but those who overpaid for their MGs couldn’t pay the agreed price at the end for reasons not related to the film. That was in 2000, when IT bubble exploded. Some distributors went out of business. Today, the new players on the market don’t have the same financial resources, they are risk averse and do not put the same money on the table. We have less income, but those revenues are not speculative, they are sound. But as far as tickets are concerned, the European figures are the same for Roy Andersson today as they were 15 years ago, in that sense, there is no crisis.

Will you get on board Roy and Ruben’s next projects?
It would be logical and a great pleasure but nothing is confirmed yet. 

Are you looking at other directors in the rest of Scandinavia?
Yes of course that’s why I attend Nordic Talents every year.