Mad Heidi, a splatter comedy in which the Swiss literature icon Heidi engages in a bloody war against cheese fascists, was released online on December 8. The producers hope to shake up the old-fashioned film industry with an unconventional distribution model.
By Kaoru Uda
It was a pretty good start for Mad Heidi. Movie fans who had filled the theatre at the Zurich Film Festival last September reacted thunderously to the cheesy jokes and the scenes where a grown-up Heidi mows down her enemies. After the screening, the cast and creators were greeted onstage with a burst of applause.
In addition to featuring in the official film selection at Zurich, Mad Heidi has screened at over 20 international film festivals. It won the Audience Award at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF) last August, one of the world’s three major fantastic film festivals, which showcase highly entertaining features from a variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, action, and suspense.
A successful crowdfunding campaign
The movie is set in a dystopian Switzerland that has fallen under the fascist rule of an evil cheese tyrant. The grown-up Heidi goes on a mission to liberate her motherland from the dictator.
This first-ever “Swissploitation” film project began in 2017. Industry veterans Tero Kaukomaa (Iron Sky), Valentin Greutert (Paradise War: The Story of Bruno Manser), and the Swiss director Johannes Hartmann have created an innovative business model for financing and distributing the film that they hope will become a template for small productions.
Heidi, the Swiss icon, was the perfect vehicle to help them achieve their dream. The storyline and production model caused a buzz when the teaser movie was first released on its official website in September 2018. Fans of the genre loved both the idea of an adult Heidi fighting a group of fascists and the proposed funding model that would allow them to invest in the project and even get a return on it.
The original goal of the team behind Mad Heidi was to raise CHF2 million ($2.12 million) through crowdfunding to finance shooting and post-production. The plan was to release the film worldwide, but exclusively on the film’s website, in order to skip the need to involve major distribution companies and to avoid piracy.
The crowd investment scheme, which relied on blockchain technology, was launched in September 2020. By April 2021, the producers had reached their financing goal.
A total of 538 people from 19 countries invested CHF2 million into the project. “Investments have mainly come from Switzerland and Germany but also from Japan, where the Heidi animated series was born,” says Valentin Greutert, the producer of Mad Heidi.
Hiccups along the way
After that, however, not everything went smoothly.
The first casualty was the lead actress. Jessy Moravec, the actor who played Heidi in the teaser movie, left the production in summer 2021 before shooting was to begin. Moravec wanted to devote more time to her film directing and production career.
The bloody storyline also raised a few eyebrows. The climax of the film is a scene in which Heidi, dressed in a traditional Swiss costume, viciously slashes her enemies with a halberd, a medieval two-handed pole weapon. However, the Swiss traditional costume association Trachtenvereinigung considered the corsage on Heidi’s costume to be “an affront to Swiss tradition”, according to Greutert. “The association even wrote an e-mail to all fabric shops in Switzerland urging them not to sell [any material for making Mad Heidi costumes],” the producer tells SWI swissinfo.ch.
The film was shot in late 2021 at a studio in Bern and a Roman amphitheatre in Martigny, in the southern canton of Valais, over the course of 27 days. That’s an unusually short time for an action film.
“We would normally need at least 40 days for shooting such a film, but we could not do that due to budget constraints,” says Greutert. “But we were blessed with a great crew.”
Similar projects have failed
Institutional investors, film commissions and public funding organisations usually shy away from hardcore films such as Mad Heidi. Aware of these limitations, the producers bet their chips on a fan-based strategy, while still keeping in mind the many potential pitfalls of this model.
Kaukomaa’s 2012 film Iron Sky was a successful example of crowdfunding. The idea of Nazis from outer space invading Earth tickled the hearts of B-movie fans, and the film quickly raised €1 million (CHF990,000).
However, the outcome was a bitter disappointment for investors. The film failed financially due to a flawed distribution strategy that led to massive piracy. A sequel was delayed because of a copyright lawsuit, and its Blu-ray discs, offered as a perk to investors, were never delivered. Ultimately, the production company filed for bankruptcy in 2020.
One investor, who did not want their name published, told SWI swissinfo.ch: “I was more disappointed by the insincere attitude of the producers – who were not willing to disclose information to investors about what was going on – than by the low returns.”
Some movie fans voiced their concerns on Facebook and Twitter about Kaukomaa taking part in Mad Heidi when the crowdfunding campaign was launched. Kaukomaa, however, withdrew from the project a year and a half ago due to differences of opinion, and is not involved in any decision-making or financing of the production, according to Greutert.
“This Mad Heidi investment is based on trust and credibility,” he says. “We kept our promise: we finished shooting and delivered the film as planned. We are proud of that.”
Together with fans
Despite the plan to release Mad Heidi exclusively on the internet, cinema companies took note of the buzz surrounding the film. Fans already fired up by an ad campaign on social media also wanted to see it in the theatres.
“That’s why we agreed to show the film in local theatres in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Spain for only a two-week window before its online release,” says Greutert. “We also hired a specialist to prevent piracy as much as possible.”
Investors will automatically receive a so-called shared revenue (net revenue after the deduction of operating costs) once the film goes online. Greutert did not want to say how much profit they expect at this stage but adds “there was a very wide interest at the film festivals. I have been in film production for 20 years and I can tell from my experience [that] Mad Heidi will fly.”
Greutert stresses the good relationship between the producers and the investors.
“They loved this ride with us,” he says. Since the very beginning of the project, the production team created a remarkable social media community, keeping close contact not just with investors but also with a wide fanbase. The fans even helped the creators find shooting locations and costumes.
“For many of them, the behind-the-scenes of film production is something they would not normally know about,” says Greutert. “They were happy to be a part of this special journey.”
Greutert is also convinced that “our times really need silly movies.”
“Climate change, the war, Covid pandemic: in these depressing times, silliness can save the world.”