Interview with Benjamin Benedict

Head of High-End Drama and CEO of UFA GmbH fiction. Interview by Prof. Dr. Lena Gieseke, Professor of Visual Media Technologies / Technical Direction at Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF, 19.04.2021.


In the interview Hon.-Prof. Benjamin Benedict, Head of High-End Drama and CEO of UFA GmbH fiction, discusses the importance of partnerships and artistic freedom in film education, the importance of art education in fostering critical thinking and creativity, the relevance of political correctness and diversity in the film industry, and the need for open discussions and reflection on these topics. Benedict shares UFA’s practices for partnering with film universities and involving key stakeholders in teaching and emphasizes the important role that art schools play in preparing students for the challenges of the creative (industry) world.



Please introduce yourself briefly and describe your profession.

I’m a producer and managing director at UFA GmbH Fiction, which is part of the production company UFA. I also teach at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF and some other institutions.

How would you describe UFA’s relationship to institutes of higher arts education currently? Are there cooperations?

There are numerous cooperations. Of course, a lot of these have to do with personal involvements in teaching. I have been teaching at Hamburg Media School (HMS) for 10 years, afterward at Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF and the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB), and also at the University of Television and Film Munich (HFF). I believe I taught at nearly all German film schools. At UFA, we try to establish contacts and be in touch with art institutions, but focus mainly on film schools, of course. We do not cooperate a lot with music academies, for example. But it is not only institutes of higher arts education. I am also in close contact with other educational institutions, for example with Freie Universität Berlin, where they are doing a master’s degree in Applied Literary Studies. Our cooperations are sometimes on the edge of film and other arts.

What is the motivation for so many people in key positions at UFA to teach?

It is the strong belief that there should be a dialogue between institutions of higher arts education and the industry. Especially in arts education, it is important to have a dialogue. Both sides can learn from it. In my opinion, everybody who teaches also learns while doing it. I believe education and teaching lead to mutual benefits. However, I don’t think that everything in arts education should focus on the industry. Of course, in education, you need artistic freedom and possibilities to experiment and to learn things that do necessarily have an immediate practical value.

What is the benefit of this relationship for UFA specifically?

There are several benefits. As I said, you always learn when you teach. Especially when you see teaching as a form of dialogue. In my seminars, I try to initiate also controversial dialogues. This way I have learned many things from my students’ perspectives. Often it is not only their position as students I learn from, but also from their perspective as being from a different generation.

In an ideal world, after graduation, we would continue to collaborate. But more often it does not turn out that way. However, that is how I started my career. Collaborations during my studies developed into professional relationships. It was not planned but worked very well.

Overall, to me, education is very important. I understand education among other aspects as a space where you are free to develop as an individual. This can be within the context of a study program but does not have to be. I, however, experienced the value of education within a study program as I studied arts and humanities. Maybe my own education and my experiences with my learnings are the most influential reason why I value education greatly.

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Are you also getting inspiration for developing and producing content from the dialogue with your students?

Yes. However, I would like to point out that the dialogue with students is not required to be productive on a professional level. Professional productivity is not the focus. I am not using the relationship with my students to get into contact with the talent earlier. That is not my approach or my motivation. Professional collaborations can happen but do not have to happen. We see the cooperation with our company as a good opportunity for the students. But it is equally important that students make their own decisions. Nothing is forced on them and most of our interactions have nothing to do with our company. A purely professional focus would be too narrow. I believe in the freedom of education and board education.

Do you value academic degrees of institutes of higher arts education? Is a degree beneficial for a successful career in your field?

I think a degree in higher arts education has value and it can be beneficial in our field. I can not say for sure if this applies to other areas but I believe it to be true for most areas. In music, for example, a degree is even more important than it is in film because of technical skills and such. And for film, I believe having a degree is a good way into the profession. But it is not the only way. Nonetheless, I here want to come back to the value of education. This is a personal belief as much as a professional one: I believe in education. Personal development needs to have time for learning and thinking! Of course, you are also learning and thinking on the job, but differently. I value the space and liberty that education provides.

In the future, how do you see the relationship of UFA and yourself with institutes of higher arts education develop in the future?

There has to be trial and error to find the best ways to collaborate. I do not want students to be under pressure of being productive for the industry too early.

On the other hand, I saw that it was very helpful for some to focus on getting material produced, for example. Practical experiences during the studies can be fruitful.

As a student, I already worked for theatre and it helped me a lot to understand certain processes, for example. There are different possibilities for trying things out and testing yourself. When it comes to creative development, I try to offer all students to have at least some work experience. These experiences can help them to make decisions for their careers. That career can be very well a different path and might not include working for a big company like UFA. Many, for example, want to start their own business or want to be a freelancer. For experimenting and learning how collaborations with institutes of higher arts education can change and develop in fruitful ways, we connect as many of our colleagues as possible with universities. At UFA we have a group of about twenty people working on reaching out to different universities and shaping these educational aspects. We are invested in that. There is a task force for each institution. Apart from me, two more people at UFA are working with the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF, for example.

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Moving on to more general considerations: How would you describe the most impactful roles of the arts, including film, in our society?

This is a good question. But it is difficult to answer. Of course, it has to do with personal conditions and beliefs and also with taste. I think the arts are extremely important as art reflects both our society and what it means to be alive. It reflects how we want to be in and connect with the world. I believe art is an essential part of society and also of education but not in an academic sense, but in the sense of “Herzensbildung” (education of the heart) to quote something which is not entirely translatable. I believe art is part of our society and that it is truly important. But I also think that art does not need to defend itself. It has meaning in itself. But here we are now in the middle of a philosophical discussion.

Which role does artmaking have for you professionally, producing at UFA? How would you describe the interplay of ‘the outcome should be artistic’ versus ‘let’s make money’?

These aspects are interesting to compare. For film, you always have to look for a balance. Filmmaking is extremely expensive, even nowadays where you can shoot a movie with a smartphone. There is still is a lot to organize and you need several people from different backgrounds. It is different than writing a novel. This does not mean that writing a novel is easier, but the question of economic reasoning is more prominent in filmmaking, I would say. You can not be a good producer if you ignore the importance of economic obligations. Of course, everybody has to make their own decisions and find their own balance. But, for me, personally, the economical side can not be the only reason for making a movie. Like that all the fights and all the struggles would not be worth it. As I said, it is all about balancing artmaking and moneymaking.

Is this balancing usually a struggle or are films that are artistically meaningful to you often also economically successful?

No, unfortunately, that is not the case. Usually the balancing is a struggle. It starts with me thinking that something is artistically brilliant and other people just simply do not agree. Also, we do not know what will be an economic success. We do not know what the audience will think. I might believe something is good, but it is not successful in terms of viewers, hence economically. This is why this balance is so hard. But of course, there are some best cases where I believe a film has it all, where I believe it to be important and beautiful and it becomes successful. But this is not the rule.

With the FAST45 project are aiming to understand future trends, challenges and drivers in general. In your specific opinion, what would you say are the most influential trends and developments currently in society, economy and the arts?

One driver at the moment is COVID, of course. Beyond that, it is hard to tell. How will things evolve in the coming years? I have never been less sure about the future than I am now. I think these are very interesting and demanding times because there are a lot of strong factors and elements in motion in society. There is, for example, the big question of equality and inequality. We have the question of diversity and how to reflect on it. There are questions of how to reflect on identity, on how we want to live as a society, how globalized do we want to be, and so on. And of course, I believe that the climate crisis is an extremely important topic.

All in all, it is not just one factor which is relevant for the future but all of the mentioned points are important. In my opinion, they are important for society in general, but also for the arts specifically. I do believe that society and the arts should not be separated per se. Much more art should reflect on what is important in society. Similarly, society should take a look at art and realize its importance more.

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Looking specifically from UFA fiction’s point of view regarding economic aspects, which changes and trends do you see currently?

For many artistic fields, the digital world is the main driver as everything changes due to digitalisation. Digitalisation also changed how we perceive movies and series. In economics, that is the most important driver. And this has consequences, meaning that on the one hand, we have more possibilities to produce, but on the other hand it is more difficult to reach out to an audience as it gets more and more fragmented. These are the major changes and challenges.

Regarding digitalisation and film production, I think you have to be both: free and also somewhat detached from the business of it, while at the same time being economically responsible. Once again, it is all about balancing different aspects.

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Is social media a factor for your field?

Yes, social media is a big factor. Digitalisation is a broad topic and I understand social media as part of it. It is important in general but also for my field specifically. Through social media, the reception of media gets more individual and personalized, and that means communication changes as well. On one level everything is personalized, and on another level, we have these gatekeepers, like Amazon, Netflix, Disney, and HBO. They also make use of social media. At least in my business, you can not ignore social media. But there are not only our distribution channels to work with. We also work with partners.

Concerning trends and challenges, you mentioned digitalisation, climate change, COVID. Is there anything institutes of higher arts education should do regarding those challenges?

Again, for me, education has to do two things at the same time: It has to provide a space of freedom where the arts and also the history of the arts can be looked at independently. Education should be a space where students are not forced to see art through the lens of social media or digitalisation. At the same time education should, and I think that is also the pleasure of education, offer some input and thoughts about the current state of the world we are in. It should provide knowledge and ask for critical thinking regarding the foreseeable future and hereby sensitize and prepare students.

Regarding institutes of higher arts education, education should be under an ongoing development process. I think this process is never completed. Of course, this is easy to say and hard to do. I know that a curriculum or teaching style can not be changed every two months. But institutes should constantly reflect on what and how they teach. Even if certain things can not frequently change, I do think institutes of higher arts education should become more flexible regarding topics and structures. Also, through COVID a lot changed. Through online teaching, you can invite experts more easily. We are in the new situation that talking to a colleague or expert living across the globe is only one click away. In my courses, the students learned a lot from encounters with such experts. Inviting experts and colleagues has been incredibly difficult before. I had to fly the visiting lecturer in. This is an example on how teaching can and should adapt to the possibilities of our times and see the upside of it. Of course, I also believe you can not digitalise education per se. I believe you need personal contact. This is also something we realize in these pandemic times.

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Which role does political correctness currently play for the development of content?

Political correctness is a big deal. I’m reflecting on that topic a lot. Just today a colleague said to me ‘How much is political correctness an obligation? Where is it needed? Do you have to be politically correct or do you want to?’ She question the trend of it. She questioned me, whether I am just following this trend or is it something I am reflecting on? It is about the motivation. Why do we say something or not? This is an important question to ask yourself.

Political correctness as a term is sometimes perceived as critical. Political correctness is sometimes seen as something you impose on things. When is political correctness applied as a term? When is diversity actually executed? Of course, I believe this to be a good trend. But it is important to think about trends and they should not dominate everything you are doing. Again, it is about the balance.

I believe that you can not develop by formula. It always has to resonate with something inside you. Resonating means that a trend can affect people in different ways. It can also resonate in a way that a person thinks, ‘Well, no, I don’t get it’ or ‘I don’t want it’. I think I am even less sure about that topic of political correctness than I was five years ago. Five years ago, I would have said ‘Well, okay, this interests me and that doesn’t interest me.’ And now I say: ‘Perhaps I’m somehow limited by my perspective.’ I do not believe in dogma. I do not believe that you can just say, ‘This is the way it is’.

And I think we should reflect on this in the education of the arts as well. There have been several studies saying that it is important to switch perspectives. But it is also important to reflect on these new perspectives and not just adapt them without questioning. This is complex. I perceive it as difficult if new trends become too dogmatic. There always has to be space for reflection and discussion. It must be possible that you can, for example, say, ‘I want to open the debate on diversity’. This is a topic we discuss a lot.

In this context interesting questions came up, for example, ‘Should only actors with queer identities be allowed to play queer roles in film?’ This should be a discussion and not a decision simply made. In my personal opinion, of course, queer actors should play queer roles. But they also should not be limited to that. They should play heterosexual characters as well. And vice versa. To me, that is important. But also I want to exchange thoughts and I want to hear different opinions. We need to have discussions and to stay open-minded.

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Moving on to the big picture of 25 years. As of now, how would you imagine and describe UFA in 25 years? Do you have any visions, any utopia or dystopia in mind?

Regarding the future, I’m more humble than I used to be. As I get older, I’m starting to feel less sure about things. Also, I think differently about the future since I have kids. The last two years and the pandemic made me realize that it is impossible to foresee the future. I am convinced that I can not say anything for sure about the distant future. But I believe that all the things we talked about, digitalisation, climate, and the question of how we want to live as a society, will be relevant questions for the future. And, surely, this will not be resolved in two or five years. Things will be tough. It will be hard to shape a world we still want to live in.

Regarding arts education, I can only hope that things develop differently from what I read about the US. In the US, people are worried because they think the liberal arts are in danger. They say ‘Computing, economics and science are well funded but the liberal arts are basically on a way out’. This position is not something everybody agrees on, but still, it is part of the ongoing discussion. Of course, I’m worried when I read this. Of course, I do not believe that this would be the right way. I believe we need the arts, even if it might not be as obvious but the benefit is there. It needs work to convince people that the arts are relevant. It needs work to allow future generations to also make these experiences.

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As a final question, is there anything you want to add, which we haven’t asked, but what you consider to be relevant to the topics we have discussed?

What comes to my mind is the atmosphere in education and creativity: When I taught at the Hamburg Media School we always had our lunch breaks at the art university. Walking there, I realized each time how much I treasure this open space of possibilities and how much I get inspired by the people there. I much liked the atmosphere at the university, I liked the experiences there. I believe it’s very, very important to keep these spaces going.


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