Jose Velasco, founder & president of Spain-based iZen Group, tells TBI about his company’s epic new drama El Cid for Amazon Prime – and why the show’s protagonist shares many qualities with those working in the international production business.
The role of the independent producer in these interesting times is not dissimilar to that of the medieval heroes, navigating a kingdom laid waste by war, plague and poverty, but with their sights firmly set on conquering new territory, the promised land of One Thousand And One Nights.
We producers are selling our creative souls in pursuit of dwindling margins as we seek to feed the ever-hungry body of our business
Despite Covid, economic crises, imploding business models, broadcasters that now produce their own shows and the consolidation of the majors, we producers also have what could be El Dorado in sight.
We are very like the protagonist of our landmark series for Amazon Prime, El Cid (which debuts 18 December). The legendary knight and warlord is one of the most famous Spanish heroes of all time. He was a brave warrior who never gave up, becoming instead more creative. He fought for his ideals, yet he was a dreamer who was prepared to make compromises when necessary, even offering himself up as a mercenary in order to survive.
But one of El Cid’s most admirable qualities is that he worked equally diligently for masters of all creeds, whether Moors or Christians – the equivalent, if you like, of our modern-day platforms and broadcasters. He borrowed money, seeking out deficit financing in an effort to establish his own kingdom in Valencia. Like us, he sought to create a perfect, fictitious world. In his case, however, he died just before he could reap the rewards of his intense and continuous efforts.
Profit, bartering & exaggeration
Although the rumours of the death of the independent producer are, as Mark Twain put it, greatly exaggerated, we are like El Cid in that we are standing alone against change. We are dazzled by the golden treasure chests and tinsel-decked palaces of our new streamer masters – the modern-day Arab kingdoms.
But don’t be fooled by appearances: doing business with them sometimes has more in common with bartering in a Marrakech souk than an elegant exchange of presents and gifts. And rightly so, as business is business now, just as it was in the Middle Ages.
We producers are selling our creative souls in pursuit of dwindling margins as we seek to feed the ever-hungry body of our business. But even while our pockets protest, our egos are being fed by the international acclaim being heaped upon our small-screen productions promoted in enormous bill boards, all over the world. This praise, much like El Cid’s epic medieval poem, feeds us, but it also allows us to live on illusion.
Then there are our old masters, the broadcasters, who are surveying their dwindling estates, contemplating their uncertain future and cutting their costs – otherwise known as our profits – accordingly. Even worse, many are starting to produce themselves. They are being threatened on all fronts.
On the one hand, digital monsters like Google and Facebook have hijacked their model by supplying data to advertisers on every penny spent, something the legacy broadcasters never bothered to do, so convinced were they of the divinity of advertising impact. On the other hand, the flamboyant new streamers have succeeded in turning television into a genuine home-cinema experience, leaving the old-school broadcasters to fight among the scraps for news and daytime.
I have no doubt that the streamers will eventually win over the big advertisers, seducing them with content algorithms offering undreamed-of programmatic riches, including maybe direct-to-home product delivery, sometimes even before an episode has finished. With this fatal final blow, video will surely kill the television star, to the joy of millions of eyeballs wide shut on demand.
However, even the Googles, Facebooks, Netflixes and Amazons need heroes to invent new stories and dreams for them. My hope is that this ruthless fight for the viewers’ attention – or, more accurately, the fight for the money they spend while entertaining themselves, or entertaining themselves while they spend money – will ultimately be won by the viewers. As the real emperors of the land of entertainment, it is only right that they should take their place above the upstart streamer kings and their incumbent predecessors.
Viewers also need heroes to tell them tales they can watch through the lenses of these intermediary kingdoms. Those dragon- and army-slaying heroes are, of course, the independent producers, who are reinventing themselves in the face of unprecedented opportunities – and threats.
At the crossroads – or in the crosshairs?
In Spain, independent producers are finding themselves at a very interesting crossroads. Spanish scripted content is at last being given the credit it deserves on the international market.
All we are asking for is a parcel of land, a title that’s more or less noble and a bit of the glory. I only hope that our fate is not that of El Cid, who won his final battle after his death
Added to its attraction is a potential global market of 500 million Spanish-speaking viewers, along with Spain’s generous financial incentives, army of world-class professionals, unrivalled climate and stunning locations. Even in the face of pestilence and Covid, we’ve continued to produce.
We believe that the all-powerful emperor-viewer will make it clear to broadcasters and platforms, and the governments that regulate them, that without a hero there is no story – and without the story and somebody to tell it, there is no business.
Producers are as vital to the entertainment industry as actors, writers, directors, broadcasters and OTT services. All we are asking for is a parcel of land, a title that’s more or less noble and a bit of the glory. I only hope that our fate is not that of El Cid, who won his final battle after his death. We can be good vassals, we only need to have good masters, as the poem says about our hero… “Que buen vasallo si tuviera buen señor.”
Jose Velasco is founder and president of iZen Group, which includes producers based in Spain and the UK such as Zebra, Europroducciones, Chalkboard, Storyboard and Clapperboard. The company also partners with iMagic in the Middle East, and produces drama, documentary, factual entertainment, and entertainment shows for broadcasters and streamers around the world.