Solmaz Azizi has been working with the Berlin International Film Festival for over ten years. She worked closely with the festival director as Programme Manager for the Competition and Berlinale Special and has been focusing on series for the past years. As Head of Berlinale Series, she now selects the drama series line-up for both the festival and the market.
Ahead of the upcoming Berlinale, Tara Karajica caught up with her to discuss the series world at film festivals, the Berlinale’s impact on it and women in film.
With Berlinale Series, the Berlinale was early to recognize the changing desires and viewing habits of its audience and was the first A-festival worldwide to give them an independent platform. In what way does the Berlinale nurture series?
Solmaz Azizi: When Dieter Kosslick decided to create an official platform for series it was an organic process both on the festival and on the market side. We had been showing series at the festival before – In Face of the Crime in Forum in 2010 and Top of the Lake in 2013 – and realized that the audience enjoyed seeing these gripping stories on the big screen. At the same time, the market was changing rapidly and it was becoming more and more clear that both on the creative and on the business side there was a big shift happening and a demand for an official platform to do business, network and find content. The creation of the Drama Series Days, the EFM’s industry platform as well as Berlinale Series simultaneously made sure to cater to both needs and groups. The main goal for the festival is to always showcase international series and give the audience the chance to experience them in a movie theatre on the big screen.
How has Berlinale Series evolved in the five years it exists?
S.A.: The program has been evolving just as the industry has, but the core of Berlinale Series was and is storytelling. We have always had between six and eight series with an international lineup of bigger titles with renowned talents attached as well as productions that were not necessarily on everybody’s radar and which could be discovered by the audience and the press as well as potential buyers. The program took a big step by moving to the Zoo Palast last year, which gave the premieres a different environment, surrounded by both the Drama Series Days event and the other festival sections as well. With Berlinale Series, it feels like we have by now built an audience which knows that they can find gems in our lineup and who enjoy the unique experience of watching a series on the big screen at one of Berlin’s most beautiful movie theaters.
Series have long demonstrated that the “cinematic” and its aesthetics can be refreshed, tried out and succeed in many forms and across many channels. Berlinale Series makes it possible to enjoy these productions as a cinematic audiovisual event on the big screen. Can you elaborate on that?
S.A.: In this day and age where there is a lot of debate going on about whether content should be screened on a small screen or not, in my opinion, it is not a decision of one or the other. If I had the chance to experience something on a big screen, I would never not go for it – which doesn’t mean that I won’t be perfectly happy with continuing to watch the same story at home on my couch in my sweatpants. These are very different experiences and, in my opinion, they are both great. But having the chance to see a series on a big theatre screen does not come across that often and at Berlinale Series, we are creating a unique environment for that, which I think makes all the difference. The series which premiere are treated the same way a film is, meaning we have a red carpet for the team to walk and greet their fans, a press line for interviews and Q&As after the screening, which are a wonderful opportunity to interact with the cast and crew and get to know more about the background of a story, the making of and the creative approach they took to bring a story to life. That’s what makes a festival premiere so special and why even the most experienced creators are moved when they get the chance to interact with the audience directly and see their reaction.
The rapid development of episodic content in Europe is reflected in this year’s program. In that sense, what can you say about this year’s edition? What is special and what should we be on the lookout for? Have you noticed any particular trends in serial storytelling in the five years that the Berlinale has been showcasing series?
S.A.: This year’s lineup reflects how much the European series landscape has developed in terms of new and different approaches to storytelling, collaborations between streaming services and public broadcasters and so many great stories to tell that it was a particularly hard choice for this edition. We have two returning series which was a coincidence but nice timing for the fifth edition and they both show how strong Danish and Israeli storytelling was and still is. They were sort of pioneers and still are experts in absolutely gripping crime and thriller stories that will keep you at the edge of your seat. It’s amazing to see the development we have had in Germany and Austria this year with two very different series which both reflect on the one hand how the level of production has been raised and how very experimental and open broadcasters have become. Some of this year’s contenders would not have been able to make it to TVs in Germany a few years ago. So, all in all, I can’t tell which series is particularly special because a lineup of seven is not the world and it would be tough to just mention one or two, but I think we have something for everyone in store this year, so you will have to come and see for yourself…
What is your artistic direction?
S.A.: I always ask myself: “Would I watch this at home? How will this look on the big screen? Does it represent what is currently happening in the series world? And what makes it special?” None of the series have to tick all the boxes and, in the end, it’s all about gut feeling. Sometimes, you make risky decisions which turn out amazingly and sometimes you have to ask yourself whether it would be a right choice even if it may not be your own personal taste. And, in the end, the only thing that really matters is whether it’s a good story because that’s what it’s all about.
How do you see the serial form today? What is your opinion of it? What are its specific possibilities, according to you?
S.A.: On the one hand, the serial form feels like a big open playground where everyone is welcome to play, which is great, and the last years have a bit of a gold rush feel to them. So many series have become big hits, so many directors and actors are experimenting with new things in the drama series’ world. It seems like everything is possible. But on the other hand, it’s also becoming harder and harder to find your way around the content jungle and to find new stories which haven’t been told before. This is a bit of a curse and blessing at the same time.
The great development that I see is the fact that after many years of being the ugly little cousin of Film, drama series have finally been getting the critical acclaim they deserve and so many talented creatives are venturing into that field and back. For example, last year Edward Berger presented The Terror at Berlinale Series after having had a film in Competition before. After that, he shot Patrick Melrose and now he is back at the festival with a feature film in Panorama and giving the keynote speech at the Drama Series Days. At the same time, young writers and creators especially are experimenting with independent productions; a lot of short form drama with great stories is being told and formats aimed at new and different viewing habits are being produced. It’s very exciting and I feel incredibly lucky to be somehow involved in this world.
Can you talk about the tight collaboration between Berlinale Series and the Drama Series Days?
S.A.: The connection and collaboration with Drama Series Days is an essential part of our work. The official partner of the Drama Series Days is the Film und Medienstiftung NRW and the platform is supported by the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg.The fact that we have moved to the same venue and take place alongside each other on the same days has been a big boost for Drama Series Days as well as for Berlinale Series. We actually put together two separate programs which are both curated – the second one being the market screening lineup for the Drama Series Days. Those feature series which are looking to be sold and are aiming at the industry only. At the conference program, we always feature some of the creators, writers and actors that are presenting a series at the festival, so both audiences and the industry get the chance to get in touch with them and interact.
Behind the scenes, we work very closely and the feedback we have been getting shows that this combination of a market and program within a festival makes for a great combination to both do business and promote a series to the press, audience and the industry at the same time.
Past shows that we have presented at both the festival and the market and that have gone on to be big hits represent that quite well. False Flag was the first non-US show that was bought by Fox and the U.S. remake was ordered after the Berlin premiere. Splitting up Together was discovered in Berlin and a U.S. remake was produced by Ellen DeGeneres. Deutschland 86 was the first German show to be screened in the U.S. without dubbing, 4 Blocks sold in many territories and they both went on to win multiple awards.
Women in film is a hot topic today. What is your opinion on the matter? How do you see the situation in the world of series and what should change there?
S.A.: Of course, this a topic that is very close to my heart. As a woman, the world of film and festivals is not necessarily male-dominated since there are a lot of women working in both areas, but it’s not necessarily women-friendly either because the leading positions are for the most part still male. When I started working at the festival, almost all of the head programmers where men. Today, it’s the opposite, which is a great development. We still have a long way to go and I think the Berlinale is definitely on the right track, but as to the series world, I feel that it could use a bit more movement in that direction, especially here in Germany where a lot of the decision-makers are men.
How well are female filmmakers represented in your program this year? And in comparison with the previous years?
S.A.: At first glance, it might not appear like we have a lot of women in our program, but when you take a closer look, there are quite a lot of women involved not only as directors and creators but also on the production side and as writers who play a crucial role in the series’ world. Some of the stories being told feature amazing female characters and center around women. Compared to last year, it might be less of an obvious focus, but I think this year’s edition can compare and inspire just as much.
What is in store for Berlinale Series?
S.A.: As you may have heard, the festival will be experiencing a change of management in June, so I think that can’t be answered at this point. We have many ideas for the future, but for the time being, we are looking forward to the upcoming festival and will take it from there.