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6 Things We Learned About Telefonica’s Movistar Plus Series

Telco’s writer-directors talk about its first, groundbreaking premium series

Movistar Plus Panel
Photo by Gorka Estadra / San Sebastian Film Festival

SAN SEBASTIAN — Movistar Plus, the pay-TV arm of Spain’s Telefonica, one of Europe’s biggest telcos, held a round table Saturday at the San Sebastian festival to present its first six original TV series.

Six things we learned about the series, which confirm Movistar Plus as one of the key drivers, with Sky and France’s Canal Plus, of higher-end premium drama production in Europe:

1. NETFLIX, HBO ET AL…BEWARE

Netflix, HBO or any other digital platform which launches in Spain looks set to face formidable opposition. At the round table, Domingo Corral, Movistar Plus’ original production director, confirmed that the company has 20 series in development. They will begin to be made available on Movistar Plus’ linear Series channel and Yomvi catch-up/pay-per-view service from September 2017, kicking off with “La Zona,” by brothers Jorge and Alberto Sanchez-Cabezudo.

Luis Miguel Gilperez, president of Telefonica España, recently announced that Telefonica will plow about €70 million ($79 million) a year into original productions. That figure takes in original TV series, though Movistar Plus is studying the possibility of financing original movie production as well, Corral said. Last March, Netflix announced its first original series commission for Spain, “Las chicas del cable,” (literally, “Cable girls”) from top Spanish TV production Bambu Producciones, co-owned by Studiocanal. But its Spanish-series production looks set, in immediate terms at least, to pale beside Telefonica’s.

2. THE TALENT CUP RUNNETH OVER

Telefonica’s premium TV drama drive is not just about volume, which is increasing to at least 60% of the 79 hours of original series productions by Sky in 2015. It’s also about the caliber of its talent. The eight panelists at the round table Saturday, all Movistar Plus series writer or directors, were Cesc Gay, whose feature “Truman” swept the 2016 Goya Awards; Rafael Cobos, co-screenwriter of  “Marshland,” the 2015 Goya winner; Fernando Gonzalez-Molina, director of “Palm Trees in the Snow,” the highest-grossing Spanish movie in Spain this year; Jorge and Alberto Sanchez-Cabezudo, creators of  “Crematorium,” a rare – and hit – premium TV series made by Spanish premium pay-TV operator Canal Plus before its purchase by Telefonica; and Juan Cavestany and Alvaro Fernandez-Armero, highly regarded directors of offbeat, often edgier Spanish comedies such as Cavestany’s 2013 cult movie “People in Places.”

3. THE TV SLATE IS STILL GROWING

Movistar Plus revealed that it has placed an order for “Carta al padre,” a four-part Barcelona-set miniseries from Mar Coll, a Goya-winning best first feature director in 2009 for “Three Days With the Family.” It is co-written with Valentina Viso and Peru’s Diego Vega, co-director of Cannes Un Certain Regard and Locarno winners “October,” and “El Mudo.”

4. FOR SPAIN, THE PREMIUM FICTION PUSH MARKS A MILESTONE

One talking point at Saturday’s panel was what set Movistar Plus series apart, compared to many free-TV productions in Spain. One factor looks like the length of the creative process: the Sanchez-Cabezudo brothers revealed, for example, that writing “La Zona” will take them 16 months.

Another difference: All the Movistar series will go into production will their screenplays locked, a practice much more common in film than TV to date in Spain. “I’m not saying our series are better. It was created thinking about audiences who had seen a lot of [international] quality series, however,” said Fernandez Armero of “Shame.” For Fernandez Molina, if there is a premium TV touch to his series, it will be in its cinematographic look, the way he shoots it, more than anything else.

5. NETFLIX – RAISING THE BAR OF WORLD FICTION

“It would cost an arm and a tooth for any digital platform to compete with Telefonica on its volume of Spanish production,” said one analyst. But Netflix does looks set to raise the bar of original production in Spain. Writing drama for free-to-air TV, Spaniards are competing in part with each other. Writing for Movistar Plus, they are competing with the best in the world, of which they are very conscious. That requires bigger budgets, lengthier development, and larger ambition.

6. INTERNATIONAL MARKETS

Movistar Plus series will also adopt the international 50-minutes-per-episode format of international series, Jorge Sanchez-Cabezudo pointed out. Shot in Spanish, many look set to drink deep at the well of Spanish culture.

“Shame” will be framed like the traditional Spanish comedies of the 1950s onwards, said Fernandez Armero. “Having your own voice is crucial,” said Jorge Sanchez-Cabezudo, suggesting he can best do that, for the moment at least, working out of Spain. The series will be “personal. We want to narrate our obsessions, fears, phobias and stories,” said Coll.

International audiences will be looking for precisely that — series that, though dealing in universal psychology, have a Spanish or Catalan specificity to them when they do. That local touch is part of the fascination of Nordic Noir. Positioning as the new home of premium Spanish fiction, Movistar Plus series are likely to appeal more, not less, to international markets.

AND NOW THEY ARE SIX:

MOVISTAR PLUS’ FIRST SIX ORIGINAL TV SERIES PRODUCTIONS

CARTA AL PADRE (Mar Coll). Confirmed Saturday at San Sebastian, “Carta al padre” turns on “a completely dysfunctional obsessive father, who loves his children so much that he makes their lives impossible. It’s a story of control, and the impossibility of carrying that out,” Coll commented.

DIME QUIEN SOY (Fernando Gonzalez Molina). Produced by Banijay’s DLO in Spain, adapting journalist-turned-author Julia Navarro’s tale of the tumultuous life of a Spanish woman from its 1930s Republic to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

FELIX (Cesc Gay). A “human humor-laced thriller,” said Gay, set in Andorra’s Pyrenees mountains with a Hitchcock-style setup: an innocent man embroiled in a tax-evasion scam. “I’ve always loved Hitchcock, never had the chance to make a film in that style, thought I’d try with this series,” said Gay.

LA PESTE (Alberto Rodriguez). Produced by José Antonio’s Atipica, a procedural thriller set in bustling 16th-century Seville – part imperial splendor, part mud-grimed peasantry – from Rodriguez, whose “Smoke & Mirrors” plays in the San Sebastian competition and “Marshland,” a film noir, sold worldwide.

‘SHAME’ (Alvaro Fernandez Armero, Juan Cavestany). Created, written and directed by Fernandez Armero (“Sidetracked”) and Cavestany (“Dispongo de barcos”), Movistar Plus’ first sitcom, described by them as an irreverent, romantic dramedy. Production wraps next week.

LA ZONA (Jorge and Alberto Sanchez-Cabezudo). The Sanchez-Cabezudo brothers have already proved they can create premium TV fiction, writing and directing “Crematorium,” a property development thriller which delivered a searing indictment of influence peddling and graft on the Mediterranean coast. “La Zona” is a procedural thriller unspooling on the margins of a nuclear accident no-go area.