No es TV, es HBO Latin-style

Paybox scores again with its original skeins

HOLLYWOOD — That well-known catchphrase “No es TV, es HBO,” is not lost in translation in Latin America, where HBO is becoming as much a watchword for quality content as it is Stateside.

No surprise that its first original local production, Argentine-made detective story “Epitafios” (Epitaphs), is a hit across the region.

What did surprise the paybox was the skein’s success in the U.S. “Epitafios” began airing on U.S. Spanish-lingo channel HBO Latino in September, but word of mouth soon made it popular on HBO-on-demand.

The paybox took a chance and aired it subtitled in December on Anglo channel HBO Signature, an unprecedented move.

“We wanted to create local quality programming with the same weight as ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘Six Feet Under’ for our primetime slots in the region,” says Luis Peraza, HBO Latin America’s senior VP of programming acquisitions and original production.

And it has succeeded, thanks to a combination of quality co-producers and budgets higher than the local norm.

It’s been more than two years since the paybox ramped up production in the region where it first started with interstitials, docus and reality programming.

HBO skeins are made in Argentina and Brazil for $2 million-$3 million, a fraction of the cost of the paybox’s domestic shows. These Latino skeins air across the entire region.

HBO hit paydirt with the 13-episode “Epitafios.”

The critically acclaimed skein revolves around a detective who reluctantly re-teams with his ex-lover, a psychiatrist, to track down a serial killer. It stars Cecilia Roth, best known for her lead perf in Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar-winning “All About My Mother.”

” ‘Epitafios’  was more expensive to make than an average weekly series in Argentina, but high positive feedback made it worthwhile,” says producer Diego Andrasnik of Argentine production company Pol-ka, which co-produced the skein.

In Brazil, the paybox had the added advantage of tax incentives to prompt more homegrown production. These stipulate that programmers must allot 3% of revenues to local productions or pay an 11% tax.

HBO teamed up with Conspiracao Filmes on $2 million, eight-episode skein “Mandrake,” about a lawyer who specializes in blackmail cases. Skein, which began airing Oct. 31, was nine months in production and involved hundreds of cast and crew.

Conspiracao’s credits include Brazil’s all-time theatrical blockbuster “Dos filhos de Francisco” and Sony Pictures Classics’ recent pickup “House of Sand.”

“We have not made a deal with HBO to license the series (in the U.S.) yet, but we are hopeful and confident that it will be as good as ‘Epitafios’ for HBO Latino and HBO Signature,” Peraza says.

A second season of “Mandrake” is under consideration.

“We do not have final ratings yet, but … the country’s biggest papers, Folha de Sao Paulo, O Globo and Veja magazine, all published excellent reviews,” says Conspiracao’s Leonardo Monteiro de Barros.

HBO’s second Brazilian skein, “Filhos de carnaval” (Sons of Carnival), co-produced with “City of God” producer O2, also enlisted hundreds and cost $2 million for six 52-minute episodes.

Set against the backdrop of Rio de Janeiro’s carnival, story follows three brothers trying to find their way after a fourth brother’s suicide. “Carnaval” will air in Brazil early next year.

“We chose O2 and Conspiracao as producing partners because both companies are top-notch in the audiovisual arena, with great capabilities for delivering not only great creative concepts but also for executing production plans that meet HBO’s high standards,” Peraza says.

Paybox also has a youth-skewed skein in development in Brazil.

Mexico has no local tax incentive similar to Brazil’s. Nevertheless, HBO has several projects in development there, where cable and satellite penetration is more than 50% among high- and upper-middle-income households.

The project that is the furthest along is women’s prison drama “Capadocia.” It has commissioned leading local producer Argos to develop the skein on a work-for-hire basis. Other details are under wraps.

The international market also is interested.

HBO sold “Mandrake” to France’s Canal Jimmy, a sibling net of Canal Plus. Paybox’s sister company Warner Bros. Intl. TV is taking “Epitafios” to NATPE in Las Vegas later this month.

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