As a small nation within the global realm of film and television culture, Denmark has traditionally had few places for training talent to work in the screen industries. The National Film School of Denmark (NFSD) was established as an art school in 1966, focusing on educating talent that would take the cinematic medium seriously in its own right, and have the opportunity to develop individual and unique artistic voices. As with such institutions in many other countries, the NFSD gradually evolved to include the training of more professions, and to think about visual storytelling for both film and television (Redvall, 2015). Moreover, similar to developments in the UK (Petrie, 2010, 2011; Petrie and Stoneman, 2014), debate about whether to think of film schools primarily as art schools or as places where people learn a craft and the associated skills needed for the national screen industries have become widespread. Most recently, there has been fierce discussion about the balance between academic and practice-based teaching at the NFSD, a debate which ended with film school students striking in 2019 and with the resignation of the Head of the School, followed by a rethinking of the curricula at the main institution for film education in Denmark.
For many years, the state-financed national film school was the only place to get official training for the Danish film and television industries, but some competing programmes gradually emerged during the 2000s. One explanation for this is that the NFSD admits very few students a year, and rejected talent have thus decided to establish their own semi-formal training grounds in collaboration with industry partners, such as the independent film collectives Super16 (established in 1999, https://super16.dk) and Super8 (established in 2000, http://super8.dk/om-super8/). While these programmes have in many ways mirrored the ambitions and structures of the renowned national film school in a low-budget manner, for example, by mainly focusing on traditional formats and approaches, the beginning of the 2020s has seen more specialised training programmes emerge which focus on students acquiring specific knowledge about what can be regarded as a quite particular part of the industry.
This article analyses this development through a case study of a new training initiative for teaching how to create content for children and young audiences. Following a brief outline of the traditional training and career trajectories in the Danish screen industries in general, and for working with children’s film and television specifically, the article analyses the guiding ideas behind Manuskriptskolen for børnefiktion (‘The Cross-Media School of Children’s Fiction’), which was established in 2020. I argue that this initiative marks a new approach to Danish film education in several ways. First, by creating a training ground focusing on a specific audience, rather than screenwriting or film-making more generally. Second, by thinking of creating content for this audience as fundamentally multi-platform, and teaching students how to think of storytelling across different media from the outset, rather than teaching writing and production for a specific medium. Third, by insisting that creating content for this target audience calls for building on knowledge about the current lives of young people, their interests, tastes and concerns, as well as their media use, and encouraging specific strategies for actively engaging or even co-creating content with them.
The case study comes out of the research project Reaching Young Audiences: Serial Fiction and Cross-Media Storyworlds for Children and Young Audiences, supported by Independent Research Fund Denmark, 2019–24 (University of Copenhagen, 2021), building on semi-structured interviews with ‘exclusive informants’ (Bruun, 2014), for example, one of the founders of the Cross-Media School of Children’s Fiction, Elin Algreen-Petersen (2019, 2020, 2021), and screenwriters working with fiction for children, such as Toke Westmark Steensen (2019), Ida Mule Scott and Iben Albinus Sabroe (2020); observations at numerous industry events; and document analysis of industry and news publications on how best to produce fiction for children and young audiences, such as the special issue of the members’ magazine Replikker by the Danish Writers Guild (Redvall and Christensen, 2020).
The article ends by discussing how the new training initiatives analysed point to Danish film education in the 2020s becoming still more specialised in order to address specific audiences and challenges in the current media landscape. The outcome of these initiatives remains to be seen, but the emergence of these new pathways to potential careers focusing specifically on children’s content, and the general discussions about whether creating content for this audience is marked by particular challenges and concerns, is an interesting and remarkable development in the history of Danish film education.
Training for small-nation film and television industries
As analysed in scholarly work such as Mette Hjort’s two-volume anthology The Education of the Filmmaker (2013a, 2013b), training for film and television comes in many shapes and sizes. Particular institutions and approaches can be highly influential in different national contexts when, for instance, encouraging what Hjort discusses as ‘a particular kind of filmmaker, where “kind” encompasses skills, as well as narrative and aesthetic priorities, preferred modes of practice, and understandings of what the ideal roles and contributions of film would be’ (2013a: 1, emphases in the original). In a state-supported, small-nation film culture such as the one in Denmark – with a limited domestic market (of 5.8 million inhabitants in 2021) – there have been few places to get a formal education that could help gain access to the industry. As already mentioned, the NFSD was the only official practice-based film school for many years, while theoretical film studies have been taught at the University of Copenhagen since 1967.
The NFSD originally centred on art cinema, but it has gradually expanded its outlook and understanding of what students should be taught, and the range of professions for which it trains. However, the intake of students is still limited. As an example, only six directorial students are accepted every two years. In 2021, there were 206 applicants for these six places (Lundberg, 2021). As documented in the extensive research on the cultural and creative industries, many people dream of working with art and culture (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2010; Taylor and Luckman, 2020), not least in the film and television industries. Attending the exclusive film school is a way to be ‘greenlit’ for entering the industry. However, with many aspiring applicants not being accepted, and looking for other ways in, the 2000s have also seen competing training programmes emerge. Most of these, like the aforementioned Super16 or Super8, have primarily been grassroots-based, with film-makers organising their own training, with the support of industry partnerships, and with professional talent agreeing to take part in more or less formal collaborations.
While more film education pathways for entering the industry have gradually emerged, there has also been a wider focus on what should be taught and how. In previous research, I have analysed how screenwriting only became an established part of the NFSD curriculum during the 1980s (Redvall, 2010). Following this, the school started to teach screenwriting for television in 1996 as an integrated part of the curriculum, leading to the establishment in 2004 of a so-called ‘TV term’, where writers and producers collaborate on developing potential serial dramas for the main national public service broadcaster, DR (Redvall, 2015). Previous Head of Drama at DR, Piv Bernth, has called the TV term ‘the secret’ behind the success of Danish television drama in the 2010s, since talent emerging from the film school managed to create a range of nationally, as well as internationally, acclaimed series, such as Forbrydelsen (The Killing, 2007–12) (Redvall, 2013). During the TV term, writers and producers worked with production designers from the Royal Danish Academy’s Design Education, establishing important and influential collaborations and partnerships that also ensured thinking about the visual arenas of television series from the earliest stages of idea development (Redvall and Sabroe, 2016).
Television is now an integrated part of the NFSD curriculum, and the global interest in Danish television series (Waade et al., 2020), in combination with new co-funding/production opportunities, with global streaming services investing in local original content (Hammett-Jamart et al., 2018), has led to a need for more talent in the Danish film and television industries. The 2010s thus saw fierce discussions of how many people to educate and which skills are the most needed in the national screen industries. Following on from this, new training initiatives have emerged, where talent can try to get a foot in the door if they cannot get accepted on the four-year programmes at the NFSD. Most of these initiatives are part-time and have a much more explicit focus than the broader film school training, such as the shorter courses at Kort- & Dokumentar Filmskolen (‘The Short and Documentary Film School’), which was established in 1999 and now offers a range of specialised courses, such as web-film director or stop-motion designer (https://filmkurser.dk). Since 1970, Filmværkstedet (‘The Film Workshop’) has offered new talent the opportunity to try their hand at film-making in many different forms, and has also organised thematic workshops and courses, becoming a place where many people have started their careers in directing, as well as in other professions in the Danish screen industries (Cordes, 2020).
While offers such as these have thus been around for many years, the early 2020s saw the emergence of several new initiatives and players in the film education market, one of them being Serieskolen (‘The Series School’), established in a somewhat surprising collaboration between several national talent training workshops (among them, the Copenhagen Film Workshop) and Netflix (http://filmtalent.dk/serieskolen/). Serieskolen promises a focused course on developing a new idea for a television series, leading up to three ideas/teams getting 100,000 DKK and access to professional equipment to produce a 15-minute pilot episode. The production company Drive Studios also launched its own ‘screenwriting talent programme’, Drive Writing Studio, in January 2021 (https://drivestudios.dk/case/drive-writing-studio/) to ‘meet the growing demand for fiction, in both the Danish and foreign markets’ (as presented in a masterclass partly on these new talent development programmes (THIS, 2021)).
While the traditional trajectory in Danish film-making has been to attend film school and build a career from there, there are thus several other film educational offers currently available, many of them with a specialised profile and building on close collaborations with industry partners. Moreover, 2020 saw the emergence of a new school for talent aiming specifically at working with fiction for children and young audiences, pointing to an even more specialised approach of teaching talent to write for a specific audience, which I will move on to analyse following a brief introduction to the traditional training grounds for working in Danish children’s film and television.
Traditional training backgrounds for talent working with children and young audiences
Since the very first years of Danish television in the 1950s, producing quality content for Danish children has been an important part of the public service remit. This has led to a strong tradition for children’s television in Denmark (Christensen, 2006, 2013; Sahl, 2013), but the programmes have normally been made by people without any formal training in film or television. For many years, legendary Head of the Children and Youth Department at DR, Mogens Vemmer, encouraged a rather rebellious production framework where sought-after skills were to be young and playful, and to have a wide range of ideas (Vemmer, 2006). This led to a number of still-famous children’s programmes marked by what has been hailed as a particular Scandinavian approach to making children’s television that was not afraid to be the ‘children’s spokesman’, as the Danish scholar Helle Strandgaard Jensen (2013, 2017) has put it, or to try out new things.
Most recently, the animated series John Dillermand (DR, 2021) revived discussions of this long tradition, when critical voices complained about the main character in a children’s programme having a several-metre-long red-and-white striped penis that can be used for all sorts of helpful purposes. (See Lundtofte (2021) for more on this discussion.) The head of DR’s children’s channel Ramasjang, Morten Skov Hansen, defended the decision to make the series, partly based on the argument that Danish children’s television is different from what is produced in the rest of the world, for instance by not being afraid to push the borders of what subjects one can normally make content about for children (in Christiansen, 2021).
Many people working with children’s television have started their careers as hosts of popular programmes, and then later made programmes of their own. When producing fictional content, budgets have traditionally been small, and the productions of the children’s channel DR Ramasjang and the tween/teen channel DR Ultra have not been made by talent coming from the world of film or a background in film education, but rather by younger people working their way up by starting in the less prestigious children’s television formats. This is different from the world of film, where talent writing and directing films for children have most often had a formal film training, and have used the children’s film genre to launch careers.
In the state-supported film-funding framework administered by the Danish Film Institute (DFI), since 1982, 25 per cent of the production funding for Danish feature film has been earmarked for the production of films targeting children, leading to a long tradition for feature film content for this rather limited age group (and their parents). Making a film for children has been a way to get funding for the difficult first feature for several Danish directors, most of them coming from the NFSD. The number of debutants in this kind of content has been remarkable, as has the fact that talent making children’s films most often quickly ‘grow up’ to make regular films for wider audiences.
While there is thus a long and acclaimed tradition for taking children and young audiences seriously as a particular audience, both within the film funding system and the public service remit, there has been surprisingly little interest in creating training schemes specifically aimed at making content for this audience. The NFSD has not focused on teaching production for this audience as part of the official curriculum. DR has organised some training events, for instance, a talent workshop that led to the production of the series Oda omvendt (‘Oda Upside Down’, DR, 2018–present) by two upcoming screenwriters (Scott and Sabroe, 2020; Redvall, 2020). In 2020, DR started teaching people working in the DR children’s and youth department basic dramaturgy and storytelling techniques for making fictional content, to see if it is possible to train people with extensive knowledge about, and interest in, the young audience to create strong fiction for them, rather than teaching professional film-making and television talent to take an interest in this kind of content. Observations of the three-day workshop in December 2020 illustrated how the intimate knowledge of what children currently think and care about led to a wide range of ideas for potential series, but also that there are major differences in coming from making factual television or entertainment shows (such as the annual national song contest for children) and having to suddenly think in terms of dramatic premises, episode dramaturgy, character development or season arcs.
The main reason for DR trying to ‘rewire’ people to be able to move from making other formats to creating original fiction is a need for more fictional content for both the Ramasjang channel (targeting 3–6 year olds) and the Ultra channel (targeting 7–14 year olds). Fiction is popular content on both channels, and the 2010s saw the production of a still greater variety of series, particularly for DR Ultra (Christensen and Redvall, 2019). In 2015, Ultra produced 23 episodes a year; in 2020, it produced 257 episodes (Hansen, 2020). Ultra focuses on everyday serial fiction with many episodes, such as the popular hit serial Klassen (‘The Class’, 2016–present), which is in its tenth season in 2021, with more than five hundred episodes. This requires having talent who can produce this kind of content quickly. However, Ultra also aims to move into more genre-based formats, such as the whodunnit children’s drama Skyldig (‘Guilty’, 2019–present), which demands having skills for plotting and creating a narrative with many twists and turns (Steensen, 2019).
While Danish children’s film is still working in quite traditional ways, and is not undergoing major innovations in terms of the content produced or changes in the production framework, television drama for children underwent major changes in the 2010s, which underscored the need for talent who not only know about screenwriting and film-making, but also about what one can tell and how to best tell it to young audiences. It was therefore not surprising to see the establishment of a new educational initiative targeting this audience in 2020, but the approach taken was in many ways innovative in insisting that one now has to think of and teach content creation across platforms, rather than training new talent to work in a particular medium.
New cross-media approaches to film education in the 2020s
The Cross-Media School of Children’s Fiction was established in 2020 by Elin Algreen-Petersen and Dennis Glintborg. Algreen-Petersen has a background at the major Danish publishing house Gyldendal, where she focused on children’s books, while Glintborg has attended Forfatterskolen for børnefiktion (‘The School for Authors of Children’s Fiction’) and has worked as digital editor for DR’s children and youth department. Together they managed to find financing for establishing a new two-year school based in Copenhagen through a mix of public and private funds and partners.
The new school is in many ways a rethinking of the previous school for authors of children’s fiction, but now with a cross-media focus. Part of the reason for this was that Algreen-Petersen’s previous work experiences pointed to content for children being still more based on story universes and characters that can move between different media and platforms (Algreen-Petersen, 2019). Accordingly, rather than thinking about teaching the writing of children’s stories for a particular medium, the ambition with the new school is to develop story universes from the outset that can work across several media. This mirrors developments in the current media landscape marked by increasing media convergence and new challenges for media education (Jenkins, 2006, 2009), where major franchises can, for instance, successfully present their stories in many different forms and genres across traditional and new media (Johnson, 2009).
The school accepts 12 students a year, who pay 17,500 DKK per term for teaching sessions every Monday evening and one weekend per month (the whole programme is assessed as 216 hours per year). Most students have full-time jobs, but they are also expected to work on their projects between teaching sessions. The school targets new and young talent, but also welcomes more-established names with an ambition to learn more about writing specifically for children and to think about telling stories in different media forms. The first group of students has a mix of interests and backgrounds in literature, theatre, film and game design, and ages range from 22 to 49 years (Algreen-Petersen, 2021). The teaching is based on guest teachers being in charge of six main modules with the titles: ‘World-building’, ‘Storytelling’, ‘Impressions and expressions’, ‘The life-worlds of children and young audiences’ and ‘Media forms’, followed by a ‘final project’ where students spend the fourth and final term developing their own project (https://www.manuskriptskolen.dk).
All teaching is based on students working with world-building and storytelling for books, film, television, theatre or games, or a combination of these. The cross-media element is thus a precondition from the outset, rather than being an add-on that students might consider once they have learned the craft of developing stories for a particular medium, as is the case in most schools focusing on working with a particular medium. In the Reaching Young Audiences (RYA) research project, we are currently following how this is done, and we are eager to see the final projects, but already the intentions and ambitions behind this approach to film education mark a new way to think about creating content for a particular audience in the Danish training context.
Another element that is of particular interest is the way the programme insists on the value of having an intimate knowledge of the target audience. A qualitative survey by the RYA project, which was sent to members of the Danish Writers Guild with experience in writing for children, pointed to how many writers draw extensively on their own childhood experiences when writing for children of today. (The survey answers are published in Redvall and Christensen (2020)). This tendency was supported by the Danish Film Institute’s film commissioner for children’s films, Lotte Svendsen, at an industry seminar in February 2021, where she argued for the value of research to nuance one’s personal childhood experiences and to make sure that one is up to date about what characterises growing up in a digital age (Svendsen, 2021).
While building on personal, and in many ways universal, experiences of growing up and coming of age definitely has value, many things are in flux in the everyday lives of children, for example, their main interests, media use, language or music preferences. Having knowledge of this is thus a great advantage in terms of creating, distributing and positioning new content for them. In the Scandinavian context, this was successfully proven by Julie Andem’s web series SKAM (NRK, 2015–17), which based its characters and storylines, as well as its publishing strategy and use of music, on extensive research into the lives, dreams and concerns of 16-year-old Norwegian girls (Redvall, 2018). SKAM in many ways indicated a paradigm shift in the Scandinavian film and television industries by showing that national/Scandinavian content could be highly popular with young domestic audiences, and could even manage to cross borders. At several industry events, a major reason for this was highlighted as the fact that the makers of the series had taken the audience seriously through the extensive research process, followed by a continuous dialogue with the fan community.
The idea of having to know your audience intimately is an important part of the curriculum of the Cross-Media School of Children’s Fiction, where one module is dedicated to students learning about the current lives of children, not only through lectures and field studies, but also by working with children as co-creators during their time at the school (Algreen-Petersen, 2020). Co-creation has become a still more prominent approach in the children’s television framework at DR, with the series Klassen working with involving children in many different ways during all stages of production. At the DR meeting for external producers in 2020, DR emphasised that they expected all proposed projects to have ‘junior editors’ attached, referring to tweens or teenagers who are an integrated part of the production framework to ensure that what is produced seems relevant and appropriate to children of today (Redvall and Christensen, 2021).
While one can discuss the consequences of involving children to this extent, and whether it is better to aim to give audiences what they say they want, rather than surprising them with what they did not know that they wanted, the structure of the curriculum reflects this idea that content for children needs to build on extensive knowledge about this particular audience. As a creator, one can then decide to use this knowledge as one pleases, but one is at least not ignorant about current trends or developments. The new screenwriting school has a clearly stated focus on developing the individual ideas and voices of students, but this is supposed to be firmly grounded in knowledge both of different theories about (or models for) creating content in a cross-media environment and of the imagined audience for this content.
At the time of finishing this article in June 2021, the first year of the programme seemed to be going well, even though there had been some challenges (partly caused by COVID-19) related to students meeting and co-creating with children during the spring term. As noted by Algreen-Petersen (2021) – before moving into the first pitching session by the students for industry practitioners at the end of the second term – there are naturally many challenges when doing everything for the first time, which calls for ‘constantly evaluating all aspects of the education’. Since there are no established methods and approaches for teaching and working with cross-media content and co-creation with children in this educational context – and no curricula to copy from other places – one has to constantly reflect on what seems to work or not. One can draw on experts, for instance people working with co-creation with children in television or theatre, but their work processes need to be adapted to the particular purpose and the specific educational setting. Until now, the overall structure of the programme seems to have been constructive for both teachers and students, but this might very well be adjusted and rethought when evaluating after the end of the first two years (Algreen-Petersen, 2021).
Discussion and concluding remarks: Training talent to make content for a particular audience in a specific media landscape
The approach and structure of the Cross-Media School of Children’s Fiction in many ways mirror general developments in the Danish film and television landscape during the 2010s. As already highlighted, there has been a need for more training schemes, and many of the new short courses that have emerged now target specific parts of the industry, such as focusing on writing web series, or are based on specific national or international industry partnerships, such as the television writing courses of Drive Studios, or the collaboration between the Film Workshops and Netflix. While the NFSD still has what Duncan Petrie and Rod Stoneman (2014) would regard as a rather classical art school approach, many of the new initiatives are based on certain stakeholders in the industry looking for specific kinds of content, and trying to teach talent specific skills and perspectives to create the desired output.
This development is similar to what Duncan Petrie (2011: 125) has described as a still greater emphasis on ‘industry approved vocational skills’ in relation to the UK context, or what he and Rod Stoneman more critically have called a ‘fetishization of instrumental skills’ (Petrie and Stoneman, 2014: 9) in their polemical book on the state of film education. They argue that many film schools have gradually begun ‘to adopt a more overtly professional role, dictated by the needs of industry, which has served to reproduce commercial forms and arguably discourage genuine creativity’, rather than ‘being primarily a site of innovation and new thinking’ (Petrie and Stoneman, 2014: 108). There is much to discuss in relation to balancing art school agendas and industry interests, as the dramatic debates in 2019–20 about the role and curriculum of the NFSD clearly illustrated in the Danish context. These debates also illustrated a critique of what some found to be the more academic, rather than practice-based, approach of the main national institution for film education – as documented in a number of articles, for example, Benner (2019) and Søndergaard and Benner (2019), with the newspaper Politiken even providing a visual timeline of the conflict (see Politiken, 2019).
As discussed by the Head of the Danish Directors Guild, Christina Rosendahl, in relation to news about the state-financed Film Workshops establishing a new collaboration with global streaming video-on-demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix, it is in many ways fruitful to have more training initiatives offering new opportunities in film and television education. However, one also has to monitor how film education can become instrumentalised to serve quite specific purposes, and Rosendahl raised concerns about issues of intellectual property when talent is suddenly being trained by specific industry partners, who might own the rights to their ideas in the process (in Monggaard, 2021). Broadcasting corporations such as DR have previously organised talent workshops or been involved in the NFSD TV term, but creative practitioners have owned the rights to their projects, and have been free to take them elsewhere.
In the context of the Cross-Media School of Children’s Fiction, Algreen-Petersen finds that there has already been remarkable interest from the industry in the work of the students during their first year at the school. While there can be problems in having too close ties to industry partners focusing on specific skills and product during a training programme – as discussed by Petrie and Stoneman (2014) – Algreen-Petersen (2021) argues that this is less of a concern when most students already have experiences working in various media industries, and are less fragile in terms of finding their specific approach or artistic voice than younger art school students. Accordingly, the school tries to facilitate and encourage industry collaborations (except for the first term), but this is also an aspect of the teaching which will be evaluated following the first two years.
Regarding new training schemes now also targeting specific audiences, several initiatives in 2020 illustrate a stronger institutional and industry focus on film and television development and screenwriting being tied to different forms of audience-building or research. In 2020, the Danish Film Institute commissioned reports into the value of knowing more about one’s audience even at the early idea development stages (Alberg, 2020), and launched a special funding initiative, ‘PublikumsFokus’ (‘AudienceFocus’), with the purpose of encouraging more processes whereby film-makers actively investigate and interact with a film’s potential audience during the creation of a film (DFI, 2020). Building on this line of thinking, even writing for adults has been more segmented and based on research; for example, the film Madklubben (2020) was partly based on several focus groups with women aged 60 years and older, before moving on to developing a film about and targeting women in this age group (Freudendal, 2020).
Children and young audiences have, for natural reasons, always been regarded as a specific demographic, but this has never been reflected clearly in the national film and television education frameworks. The Cross-Media School of Children’s Fiction marks a new development in this regard, and even though it is not a state-financed, full-time programme where students can get study subsidies (at least not yet), it is an ambitious attempt to offer a two-year curriculum in which talent wishing to make content for children get the opportunity to focus on this, and to refine their voices and skills. Moreover, the early 2020s have already seen the emergence of other more DIY-oriented initiatives which encourage and teach new talent to make content specifically for children – for example, a session hosted by the Film Workshops on writing for teenage audiences by writer/director Jonas Risvig, who built a name for himself when shooting the no-budget series CENTRUM (2020) during the COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020 (Christensen and Redvall, 2020). Moreover, in summer 2021, the platform NoJSe (https://www.NoJSe.org) for Nordic children’s film festivals was exploring possibilities of jointly initiating script labs and writing initiatives targeting children, based on a conviction that there needs to be more focus on quality writing in children’s cinema to attract the best talents (NoJSe, 2021).
While most people who have made careers for themselves in Danish film and television have traditionally come from the NFSD, it will be interesting to see what the talent pool will look like following the new training opportunities outlined above, particularly in terms of production for children and young audiences. Hopefully, the new focus on educating talent specifically in storytelling across media for young audiences will lead to interesting new content that appeals to what Mogens Vemmer (2006) has discussed as ‘the world’s worst viewers’, since children know what they like, and are first-movers in terms of finding other activities, content and platforms if they do not like what is being offered.