Epigmenio Ibarra proudly shows off the impressive new facilities of his 27-year-old production house, Argos Comunicación, located in an industrial zone outside Mexico City. He walks through one of six brand-new sound stages, a state-of-the-art suite where colorists are working on a series, a set-construction warehouse and more. A production has wrapped the day before, another will start the following week, and still another in two weeks.
Construction of the facilities was completed less than two years ago, just in time for the extraordinary explosion of the Mexican entertainment industry that followed the arrival of global companies like Netflix and Amazon. Not that Ibarra had an inkling of what was coming. As recently as five years ago, he says, the local television landscape was still dominated by Televisa and TV Azteca, and perhaps only five series were being produced in all of Mexico.
Today, Ibarra puts that number at 50. Many of the shows being developed depart from the tried-and-true formats, like telenovelas, and push the creative envelope. “When there’s competition, you’re forced to do your best,” he says.
But the sudden production boom has come with some unexpected growing pains. Skilled crew members and creatives are in high demand in Mexico, sought after by more companies for the country’s ever-expanding slate of projects. That means it’s hard to find experienced hands to fill all the necessary positions.
“It’s become a real problem,” says Kyzza Terrazas, a director and the head of development for La Corriente del Golfo, the production company founded by actors Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. “The industry doesn’t have enough people — at least, if you’re trying to get an A-list team of talent: actors, writers, directors, etc.”
Adds Pablo Iacoviello, Amazon’s head of content for Latin America, “Most of our wish list is the same wish list that everybody has.”
Amazon recently announced it would produce five new series in Mexico and bring back two of its successful shows for another season. Netflix has proven even more ambitious, startling industry watchers in February by announcing 50 productions and co-productions — including series, documentaries and films -— over the next two years. The company confirmed it would launch a Mexico City office this year.
For the global streaming platforms, signing actors and directors who are internationally known is important, as they aim to attract audiences far beyond the Mexican market. Familiar names such as Luna, Salma Hayek, Alfonso Cuarón and Demián Bichir (“The Hateful Eight”) are on the common wish list, as are other stars who are beginning to find audiences outside Mexico, including actor Eugenio Derbez (Amazon’s “LOL”) and director Manolo Caro (Netflix’s “La Casa de Las Flores”).
To stay competitive, companies are being pushed to cultivate the next generation of talent. For Amazon, with its trove of consumer data, that means using customer reviews to help it come up with new shows viewers might like to see, even if they involve actors and directors those audiences have not yet heard of. “You have a bunch of people everyone knows because they already have experience,” Iacoviello says. “And then we have people we should bet on, to build talent.” Amazon has also brought in mentors from Hollywood to help establish writers’ rooms and train editors in Latin America.
Netflix has turned its shows into a kind of farm system, grooming talented actors and writers and then giving them a chance to take the lead on future projects. For instance, “Club de Cuervos,” a comedy about a professional soccer
team in northern Mexico, stars popular Mexican comedic actor Luis Gerardo Méndez, along with actress Stephanie Cayo, and was written in part by Marcos Bucay. Méndez has gone on to debut as the dramatic lead in Terrazas’ recent film about a struggling boxer, “Bayonet,” and is set to star in the Jennifer Aniston-Adam Sandler comedy “Murder Mystery.” Bucay is preparing to make his feature directorial debut with “Fondeados,” and Cayo will appear in the jukebox musical “Como Caído del Cielo.” All are Netflix projects.
The production boom has also created opportunities to return to Mexico for local talent who went abroad to further their careers. Guillermo del Toro recently announced a new animation hub in Guadalajara, while Hayek is producing a dramatic series in Mexico City for Netflix called “Monarca,” about Mexican billionaires. Bernal and Luna continue to work around the world, but their production house is based in Mexico City and focuses on Mexican projects, including a new documentary series, “Rio Grande, Rio Bravo,” about the U.S.-Mexico border.
Terrazas recalls how, at the beginning of his career 15 years ago, opportunities for writers were scarce and learning the craft often meant a move to Los Angeles. “Now it’s the complete opposite,” he says. “Hopefully it will last. I’m kind of in awe of the amount of series being done. I’m like, ‘Who watches them all?’”
He acknowledges that it’s been necessary to provide on-the-job training, sometimes to people with zero experience, as the competition for human resources intensifies. But apprenticeships have long been the norm in Hollywood, and are necessary in Mexico if the country hopes to sustain and even increase the rate of production.
At Argos, Ibarra isn’t fazed by the challenges. The production house has spent nearly three decades struggling to survive, hoping for competitors to come shake up the hold TV Azteca and Televisa have on the market.
On his walk through the new campus, Ibarra descends a set of stairs to a sleek row of offices. “This is the most expensive floor,” he says. “It’s the least-occupied floor, but it’s occupied by the talent.” To fill the gap, Argos has brought in actors and writers from other Spanish-speaking countries, such as Venezuela, Cuba and Spain.
“Mexico needs an industry,” he says. “There’s room for a lot of people here.”