Sweden’s Millennium Trilogy could mark a watershed moment in the way producers think about scoring a pan-continental hit - and it doesn’t involve thinking about the US market

The extraordinary success of Swedish thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first in a trio dubbed the Millennium Trilogy, could be a major breakthrough in the European business. Here is a bestselling literary property turned into a theatrical film which not only broke out of Sweden and made records in the rest of Scandinavia but is now a hit in France, Spain and Italy. Momentum has bought UK rights, its sister company Alliance is enjoying success with the film in Canada and, at time of going to press, a bidding war was underway in Germany, a territory which has always embraced Scandinavian detective fiction.

Last week, I spoke to Pascal Breton, chief executive of Paris-based Marathon Group which is handling the sales of the films, and he said that by the end of their theatrical run in 2010, the three thrillers will have grossed more than $200m worldwide.

It’s the kind of pan-European success story which only happens once in a blue moon. PolyGram Filmed Entertainment in its heyday was designed to create films that could work within European borders without dependence on the US market. Indeed many of the Working Title films from that era - principally romantic comedies such as Four Weddings And A Funeral and Notting Hill - routinely did better in Europe than in the US, though their US distribution was always a factor in that international success.

The films were made with integrity in Swedish and set in Sweden. No eye was ever cast to the US market, as is the tendency for many failed Euro-puddings which favour US cast members and the English language.

Pan-European distribution networks from StudioCanal to Wild Bunch to Alliance to E1 have all as yet failed to score a cohesive hit across the continent, although the idea of mainstream European films principally for a European audience has always been the aim of the game.

So what makes Millennium special? It is, after all, 152 minutes long and in Swedish. Perhaps the 14 million readers around the globe of the late Stieg Larsson’s three novels know the secret - principally the title character, a twentysomething sociopath called Lisbeth Salander who is also a brilliant computer hacker.

In Salander, audiences have found a thoroughly original heroine or anti-heroine. Prone to violence and anti-social behaviour, she is pierced, tattooed and bisexual. Played in the film by newcomer Noomi Rapace, she is also a crusader trying to clear her name and a righteous defender of women against the abuses of men.

The character is not too distant from Jason Bourne or Daniel Craig’s James Bond - ruthless, homicidal kind-of-good guys out for blood.

European franchises have been attempted before - Alex Rider in the UK’s Stormbreaker in 2006, French action film Largo Winch last year - but neither of the lead characters was engaging enough to kickstart box-office excitement across the continent.

What is most notable about the Millennium phenomenon is that Zodiak Entertainment, whose subsidiaries Yellow Bird and Marathon are behind the films, has so far made no US deal on the trilogy. And while Breton has fielded interest from US distributors, he is biding his time. For once, the US is of secondary significance. The films were made with integrity in Swedish and set in Sweden. No eye was ever cast to the US market, as is the tendency for many failed Euro-puddings which favour US cast members and the English language.

Zodiak, which is owned by Italian giant De Agostini, and has principally operated in TV and new media to date, is already planning new theatrical films based on other Scandinavian crime properties. The appetite in Europe, as everyone now knows, is there. Much like Asia where producers can now finance films and recoup investment out of audiences in mainland China and the rest of the region, European audiences alone have made Millennium a smash hit.

Lisbeth Salander, it appears, could be the herald for a new breed of pan-continental blockbuster, or The Girl Who Changed The European Film Business.