Captive audience: the Spanish SVOD boom

Scripted-logo-460_2LA-CASA-DE-PAPEL-2Spain’s drama production sector is moving swiftly towards international television’s top tier, fuelled by the SVOD global boom. Emiliano de Pablos reports.

Not so long ago, Spain’s TV drama production sector was completely driven by free-to-air TV broadcasters Mediaset España, Atresmedia and state-owned TVE. However, weighty new players, led by telco giant Telefonica’s  pay TV player Movistar+, have emerged and shaken things up over the past two years.

Having announced an unprecedented €70 million (US$80 million) annual investment in original series production, Movistar+ aims to release its first four premium dramas between October and December, and a further ten next year. These will more than double the average budget of a Spanish TV series.

The impact of Movistar+ dramas on the international market has been immediate. The pay TV operator has sold distribution rights to its most-anticipated series to three of Europe’s foremost TV sales companies: UK-based Sky Vision has taken Alberto Rodríguez’s Seville-set historical thriller The Plague; Germany’s Beta Film is selling Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo’s eco-thriller The Zone and Bambú Producciones’ melodrama Velvet Collection, the sequel of Atresmedia smash hit Velvet; and French company About Premium Content has nabbed Enrique Urbizu’s family drama Giants.

“We are very happy with these distribution deals, closed at the script stage, with the backing of the talent attached to each project,” says Domingo Corral, director of original production at Movistar+. “I think it is a good start.”

Movistar+ maintains first options on its TV drama rights in Latin American territories where Telefonica operates pay TV services, including Central America, Colombia, Peru, Chile and Brazil.

Las-Chicas-del-Cabel-2The pay TV player has made an indeliable mark on Spanish TV, but in the race to dominate local premium drama, it was Netflix that struck first, releasing its first original drama in Spain, Las Chicas del Cable (Cable Girls) (above) on April 28. Produced by Madrid-based Bambú, the series launched to Netflix’s 100 million subscribers in 190 countries.

“The only results we know are related to the activity Cable Girls generates on social networks,” says Bambú co-founder Ramón Campos of the show’s performance.

“We are very pleased with both the social network noise and Netflix’s promotion of the series.”

The 1920s Madrid-set melodrama follows four young girls working as switchboard operators at Spain’s first nationwide telecoms company. It targets female audiences, in line with previous Bambú free-to-air TV primetime hits such as Velvet.

Netflix had reportedly shown interest in a Velvet-style fiction because of the drama’s strong showing in Latin America before the Cable Girls’ commission. Another aim of the order was to drive more adult audiences to Netflix in Spain.

A second season is scheduled for December, and Netflix has already greenlit production for a third, which is planned to launch in 2018.

HBO España, another OTT service, began operations in November last year, tapping seasoned Spanish television executive Miguel Salvat to head its original TV series production.

It will be a long-game play. “It could take two years to produce a first HBO series in Spain,” said HBO Europe CEO Hervé Payan at a mid-December HBO España presentation in Madrid.

For the moment, HBO España is meeting with Spanish producers, filtering through various projects but so far choosing not to develop any, according to Salvat.

“We want a clearly differentiated product; daring, passionate, with an authorial voice, set in Spain, shot in Spain with Spanish talent, and taking into account that our series will also be launched on the other services HBO operates in Europe,” he says.

All in all, this means more Spanish producers gaining commissions for their original drama ideas, with HBO’s model being along the lines of those applied to date by Movistar+ for scripted projects. Both players also emphasise the importance of development investment for premium TV fiction production.

At April’s Series Mania, Movistar+ signed a deal with Spanish production company Portocabo to develop thriller TV series Hierro, the best project award winner at Berlinale’s 2015 CoPro Series, with Lagardère Studios-backed Atlantique Productions and Arte France also attached.

Telefonica’s pay TV service has also signed a deal with Conecta Fiction, the new Spain-based TV coproduction and networking forum, to develop one of the ten drama or miniseries projects selected for a pitch competition at the Santiago de Compostela event.

Public broadcaster TVE has also committed to the same initiative. Spain’s free-to-air TV players have successfully bet on local TV dramas with high production standards over the years, helping to define and refine audiences’ tastes.

However, as TV consumption moves towards the VOD market, ratings of new primetime TV dramas seem, in general, less robust than in the past, generating smaller returns for networks’ investments. Though widely sold on the international market, Mediaset España series I Know Who You Are and Atresmedia’s Lifeline, both new auteur thrillers, averaged 15% and 13% audience shares respectively, results far lower than those of more established series such as Plano a Plano-produced Down Below, whose third season topped Atresmedia-owned Antena 3’s primetime ratings with a standout 19.7% share.

“We need to support different ways of telling stories, but don’t forget that part of our work, when it comes to telling them, is reaching the audience,” says producer María Cervera at Plano a Plano.

“We are more demanding of high quality standards that call for bigger investment. To fill the gap, we are forced to look for new financing strategies,” she adds.

Thus, financial structures plotted for a growing number of new local TV drama projects now take into consideration coproductions, pre-sales and distribution alliances.

“TV fiction production is evolving,” says Alfonso Blanco of Portocabo. “On the one hand, there will continue to be local market-oriented series productions, with tighter budgets. On the other, there will be high-budget dramas that need to look to the international market for further financing.”

“Spanish TV series production is undergoing a change of financing models,” adds Javier Méndez, head of content at Mediapro, coproducer on HBO’s Paolo Sorrentino-directed The Young Pope and its spiritual sequel, The New Pope.

The small-to-medium size of the Spanish TV market has made Mediapro look for production partnerships abroad. By bringing on board Homeland-producer Ran Telem as head of international development and buying a significant stake in Daniel Burman’s prodco, Oficina Burman, the firm has multiplied its presence in international high-end TV drama projects since last year.

With Oficina Burman starting production on Edha, Netflix’s first original series in Argentina, Mediapro also plans to roll Mediterranean noir The Paradise, co-developed by Telem with Finnish broadcaster YLE, by next fall.

For the English-language survival-thriller project The Head, presented at Series Mania, Mediapro has teamed with Patrick Nebout’s Sweden-based production company Dramacorp, which is a joint venture with Beta Film. Also in development is El Fútbol No es Así (Football is Not Like This), an adaptation of a crime novel set in the Spanish football world, in partnership with DirecTV Latin America.

“Somehow, independent cinema’s traditional financing model, based on pre-sales, is being transferred to TV fiction,” says Méndez. “More and more TV producers are ready to assume risks, while TV channels are increasingly interested in stories coming from other countries. I think it is working.

“In fact, we are already working on models where TV networks no longer bring the full financing to the table, and we assume part of the risk, because we are very confident about the international sales of our series.”

In the search of more financing resources, Netflix is becoming a significant partner for Spanish TV drama producers.

EL-MINISTERIO-DEL-TIEMPO-2 The streaming giant has pre-bought the third season of Onza Entertainment-produced El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Department of Time) (above), with 13 episodes airing on pubcaster TVE’s La 1 from June 1 before joining the Netflix offer.

“We are more and more compelled to coproduce, because our TV dramas are demanding bigger budgets,” says Fernando López Puig, TVE’s drama director.

“Netflix has provided more resources for these series, facilitating episodes with higher production quality,” adds Gonzalo Sagardía at Onza Entertainment.

Accordingly, The Department of Time’s third season shot in locations on the Mediterranean coast, luring bigger caché actors, and more resources were invested in special effects, key for a sci-fi period series.

TVE’s bet on higher budget TV drama projects also includes Hernán Cortés, which is about the life of the titular 16th Century Spanish conquistador. It was developed alongside Endemol Shine Spain’s Diagonal TV, US Hispanic broadcaster Telemundo, Mexico’s Televisión Azteca and producer BluePrint.

“The challenge is to create more universal content that don’t seem strange to Spanish audiences,” says the pubcaster’s López Puig.

“There are many things going for Spanish TV production, including language and actors known on both sides of the Atlantic, that will help it become a bridge to the Latin American market.”

LA-CATEDRAL-DEL-MAR-2Netflix, meanwhile, has extended an already close relationship with DeAPlaneta-controlled broadcaster Atresmedia through adventure TV drama La Catedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea) (above), which based on Ildefonso Falcones’ best-selling book of the same name, and coproduced with Diagonal.

The streamer and Antena 3’s parent first worked together two years ago, when the US company acquired SVOD rights to a package of Atresmedia series.

Following the December 2014 launch of TV drama channel Atreseries, Atresmedia is consolidating its Series Atresmedia brand in order to further international business around the broadcaster’s scripted dramas.

Diagonal, whose credits include TVE’s historical series Isabel, is also developing Barcelona-set thriller series The Barcelona Connection alongside UK-based Nevision, which owns distributor About Premium Content.

Studiocanal-backed Bambú, meanwhile, has a long-term pact with Atresmedia for primetime series, and this has generated standout successes such as Grand Hotel and Velvet.

For Atresmedia, Bambú is producing two real-life inspired TV series: historical war TV drama Love in Times of War and Galicia-set drug trade series Fariña: Snow on the Atlantic. Beta Film has teamed as coproducer and international distributor on both, just as it did with Grand Hotel and Velvet.

After experimenting with English-language production through 2014 BBC Worldwide coproduced drama The Refugees, Bambú’s focus is firmly back on purely local projects.

“We think our first market should be the Spanish market and for that we must produce in Spanish,” says Ramón Campos, who has recently inked a two-series development deal with giant Televisa in Mexico.

“Spanish TV dramas are increasingly selling better abroad because they are better made and audiences around the world connect with them,” says HBO España’s Salvat. “Not all the Spanish series work well abroad, but many more are working much better than before.”

“Spain is keeping up with every other country in terms of TV fiction production and talent,” says Mediapro’s Méndez. “There is still a long way to go, but we must trust in our productions on the international market a little bit more.”

Since coproduction has become almost inevitable when undertaking ambitious, big budget TV projects, the pioneering Conecta Fiction event, aimed at connecting Europe with Latin America and the US Hispanic market and currently in progress, looks to be landing at the right time for the growing Spanish drama market.

Can Portugal put telenovelas on the shelf?

Portuguese TV drama production has traditionally focused on telenovelas, which is easily the most popular scripted TV genre in the country.
Though in-demand abroad and appreciated by buyers as a cost-effective product, Portuguese telenovelas facing strong competition on the international market from Latin American and Turkish productions. Some territories are even importing long-running Indian dramas.
The format continues to work at home, however. In May, Ouro Verde (Green Gold) and A Impostora (The Impostor), both produced by Plural Entertainment and for Media Capital’s TVI, and SIC’s Amor Maior (Greater Love) and Espelho de Agua (Water Mirror), from SP Televisao, dominated the monthly free-to-air TV ratings.
Debate over the future is arising, however. Recently, pubcaster RTP urged Portuguese independent producers to raise the bar on TV drama by increasing the volume of production and boarding shorter-format series.
“We produce a lot of telenovelas – and we are very good at doing so – but now we are starting to produce more miniseries,” says Susana Gato at independent TV producers organisation APITV, which is aiming to internationalise the territory’s drama output.
Portuguese TV drama budgets are far lower than those in Spain, however. That’s understandable given the smaller size of the local TV market: TV advertising investment last year was around €420 million (US$472 million), about a fifth of Spain’s €2.1 billion.
Happily, connections between the Iberian territories are growing. Religious miniseries O Milagre de Fátima/El Milagro de Fátima (The Miracle of Fatima), a coproduction by TVI with Juan Baena’s Coral Europa, “has reached international markets where Portuguese TV dramas never had been sold before”, says to Gonzalo
Sagardía at Onza, which handles The Miracle’s overseas rights.
Elsewhere, RTP and Vocento-controlled Veralia have produced a Portuguese adaptation of Spanish pubcaster TVE’s time-travel series The Department of Time, and RTP has already greenlit a second season.

VIDAGO-PALACEAnother example is Vidago Palace (above), a 1930s-set RTP drama coproduced with Galicia’s regional pubcaster TVG and La Coruña-based Portocabo, whose co-founder, Alfonso Blanco, says financing remains the biggest challenge. “Portuguese broadcasters have no other way out than to coproduce,” says Blanco.
APITV’s Gato sees an answer in the international market. “If we want to be relevant, we need to have great fiction to export,” she says.

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