Movistar Plus Rides Tide of Spanish TV Renaissance

Few major TV players have launched into high-end drama production so quickly, or on such a scale, as Telefonica’s Spanish pay-TV unit Movistar Plus. Its first series, “Velvet Collection,” bowed on Movistar Plus on Sept. 22 to the largest average viewership of any series on the service, beating even “Game of Thrones.” Its flagship series “The Plague,” and “La Zona” now feature as Intl. Screenings at Mipcom where Domingo Corral, Movistar Plus director of original fiction, will deliver a keynote. Beta, which sells “The Zona” and “Velvet Collection” among four Spanish series, will celebrate with “The Art of Spain” dinner.

How Movistar Plus series can appeal in a highly competitive foreign-language TV market is another question. One simple answer is that, in terms of originality, and in more ways than one, Movistar Plus brings Spain to the big-budget series table.

Movistar Plus has set out to create series with full-on appeal to both domestic viewers and international audiences, says Ismael Calleja Baldominos, Movistar Plus head of business affairs.

The series display a “marked local character, which makes them different.”

That includes the settings, whether it’s the Pyrenees in “Felix,” Madrid’s Rastro market in “Giants,” the mountains of Asturias in the North (“La Zona”) or 16th century Seville (“The Plague”), adds Calleja.

“What we liked about ‘Giants’ is that it’s very Spanish — the old Madrid Andalusia. We’d be less interested in a Spanish series that tried to copy Nordic noir or a U.S. action show,” says Emmanuelle Guilbart at Paris-based About Premium Content, which is selling “Giants.”

While most Movistar Plus series have recognizable narrative formats, whether the detective dramas of “The Plague” and “La Zona,” the disappearing person suspense of “Felix” or aping the comic sensibilities of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in sitcom “Spanish Shame,” the singularity of setting gives them a bracing originality, says Jason Simms, director of drama/comedy at Sky Vision, which is selling “The Plague.”

“It’s great to see a detective show playing out in a world that hasn’t been treated in this way before. That is fantastically unique,” he says. “ ‘Narcos’ and ‘The Bridge’ also represented a world in a way that hadn’t necessarily been seen before. ‘The Plague’ fits in the same wheelhouse in terms of storytelling.”

Crucial in such a mix is a third element, however: Character.

Local detail would be a drawback, Calleja says, if it were not for the series’ “carefully written characters. When characters feel, live, generate emotions, that’s very human.”

And since humanity is much more similar than is often acknowledged, the result is series that are also “international,” Calleja adds.

One example: In “La Zona,” it is the portrait of the investigating police detective, the only on-the-scene survivor from the nuclear plant meltdown, his despair at the loss of his family and tentative attempts at rebuilding his life that really hits home in the early stretches of the drama.

The originality of setting would be restrained if it were not, however, for Movistar Plus’ financing muscle. “The Plague,” for example, is budgeted at €10 million ($12 million) for six episodes, three times Spanish series’ average cost.

Movistar Plus also brings Spain to the table in other ways. There’s the above-the-line talent.

“Movistar Plus has a real ambition to spend the necessary time and budget to develop ambitious fiction series and work with the best Spanish talent,” says Guilbart.

Three of the last five Goya-winning best picture directors, Alberto Rodríguez (“The Peste”), Cesc Gay (“Felix”) and Enrique Urbizu (“Gigantes”) are making Movistar Plus series. “Velvet Collection” is produced with Bambu Prods., part-owned by Studiocanal and the shingle behind Spain’s first Netflix original series, “Las chicas del cable.” Jorge and Alberto Sánchez-Cabezudo, makers of Spain’s “Crematorium,” a seminal pay TV series, are “La Zona’s” co-creators.

Movistar Plus is at the vanguard of what looks like a Spanish TV renaissance.

For Jan Mojto at Beta, one of Europe’s biggest independent TV companies, Spain now has the track record, ambitions and international sensibilities to become one of the most exciting national TV industries in Europe.

“We have seen a Swedish TV phenomenon, now there’s a Spanish one,” he says. Even before Movistar Plus’ slate launch, Spanish TV had already seen large successes, he says, citing Beta’s 100-territory plus sales on “Gran Hotel.”

“Another interesting thing about Movistar Plus series is their mix of genre,” Mojto continues, calling “La Zona” “a family drama and thriller with horror elements.” The more its taps genres, the broader a series’ appeal, he says.

And like other European drama series, Movistar Plus is tapping into the facts that these European hit series are still decidedly “about something, have a sense,” says Mojto, like so many of recent hit border-crossing skeins; think “Gomorrah,” “Borgen,” “The Young Pope,” “Midnight Sun” and “Babylon Berlin.”

As “The Plague’s” singular sleuth, a heretic employed by the Inquisition, traipses the back alleys, brothels, palaces, hovels, markets and marshes of 1580 Seville, he begins to compose a damning prognosis of a 16th century Seville and “social traits existing then which remain today,” Calleja says.

Movistar Plus series are meant to entertain. But audiences increasingly look to learn something about the world from top foreign-language fare.

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