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Dopamine’s ‘Hernán’ Sets New Standards of Hispanic TV Ambition

Hernan
Dopamine

MADRID — A leading example of transatlantic Spanish-language co-production, historical drama “Hernán” – co-produced by Mexico’s Dopamine, part of Mexico’s Salinas Group in collaboration with Spain’s Onza Entertainment – stands out as the largest, most ambitious high-end series featured at this year’s Mip Cancun market, as noted by Netflix’s former head of international originals Erik Barmack, now growing his own company, Wild Sheep Content.

“I always ask: Are people thinking big enough? I think sometimes a [lack of] confidence is holding people back from taking huge swings,” Barmack said in his keynote, urging Spanish-language producers to have “ambition,” and citing “Hernán” as something exceptional.

Limited to not just its character-driven narrative nor its empire-spanning scale, the ambition of “Hernán” is immediately recognizable as a game-changer on the Latin American TV scene, backed by what Dopamine says is the largest budget for any non-studio series in the region under a multi-platform simultaneous release.

On the one hand, the series captures in painstakingly researched detail the astonishing expanse of Aztec capital Tenochtitlan via VFX, while its story structure solves the extraordinary divisiveness of the figure of Cortés by portraying him from eight characters’ points of view, one per episode, driving events over an eight-part first season.

Hernan” was shot on location and on sets built in both Spain and Mexico, with special effects by El Ranchito – whose credits include “Game of Thrones – and features a multi-national cast of established actors such as Óscar Jaenada (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”) and Jorge Antonio Guerrero (“Roma”), as well as newcomer Ishbel Bautista who commands the screen in her first major speaking three languages, often in the same scene.

Another of “Hernan’s” achievements is its four-company distribution split: Amazon Prime Video SVOD released “Hernán” in Spain and Latin America on Nov. 21; A & E’s History Channel Latin America released it on pay TV in the region on Nov. 22; taking Mexican free-to-air rights, Azteca 7, the Mexican broadcaster’s upscale second channel, transmits from Nov. 24 ; A+E Networks International has sales rights to the rest of the world.

The ambition doesn’t end at broadcast, however. One can hardly go outside in Madrid without seeing Cortes’ face plastered on buses, billboards and metro stations.

Dopamine’s “Hernán” producer Fidela Navarro talked with Variety in more detail than the MipCancun presentation allowed, about the series ambitions, promoting Spain-Latin America cooperation and the importance of holding onto major IP.

How have you seen the relationship between the AV industries of Spain and Latin America evolve over recent years?

Only over the last five years has there been a perceptible exchange of creative talent between the two territories. There’s been no shortage of good will, and good intent, but there were no real co-productions between both territories, and it very difficult to place Spanish product in Latin America, and vice-versa. But with OTTs and the global world we live in, plus the need to find new formulae, fortunately there is greater exchange now.

Can you talk about the production setup for “Hernán”?

In fact, this is not a co-production in a strict sense. It’s a collaboration with Onza Entertainment. Things are working our well; in fact we are absolutely delighted, so much so we are going to repeat the endeavor with a second undertaking. The model, though, will be one in which leadership, in terms of creativity, 100% financing, and production, come from Mexico, and Spain collaborates in a more secondary capacity.

Do you think there is a benefit to telling Hernán’s story from both sides of the Atlantic?

This story of Hernán Cortés, and the history of two worlds, is perceived differently, not just from a market perspective but also from a writing and creative slant. This allowed us to tackle the character from a multiplicity of perspectives. It’s not the same tackling the creation and development of indigenous characters such as Montezuma, or Doña Luisa, from a Spanish viewpoint or a Mexican viewpoint. The heroes of history have played out differently. Furthermore, the whole issue of conquest here in Mexico is felt with greater social pain, because it’s seen from the point of view of the conquered. That’s something that also extended to the writing table.

Can you go into that creation and development process?

The most important thing was to answer this question: Who was Cortés? How was he seen by those around him? What is he going to be for you after you see the series? From a narrative standpoint, the idea was for each episode to be told from the point of view of one of the characters in Hernán Cortés’ orbit. Then, to conclude, we finish with the episode featuring Hernán himself – how he saw himself. For us, he was extraordinary, and greatly misunderstood, with an unfortunate historical legacy. Hernán’s was a life devoted to the quest for discovery, the zeal to construct things wherever he went. His overriding ambition wasn’t wealth and fortune. His overriding goals were winning the favor of the King and the construction of Mexico as a modern state that would last long into the future.

What was it that drove you to adapt this history for TV today?

It’s a series everyone in Mexico and Latin America has been trying to do for ages. We’ve been trying to do a series on Hernán Cortés for 30 years, there was just no way. And even less to include an indigenous point of view. Our series isn’t done from an indigenous or a Spanish perspective, instead I consider it very mestizo, very neutral. But it’s a project which, despite the magnitude of the character, despite all that’s been said from Mexico and Spain, and despite its immense cultural appeal in Mexico, had never been attempted till now.

And the series rollout, it will be done day-and-date on each broadcaster yes?

A simultaneous release the same weekend between Spain and the three platforms is also something new, even more so for a series as big as this. Series this size are usually originals. This is entirely our property. We saw to that because we needed two things. First, editorial freedom, in order to be able to write a story so complex and painful for these countries; and, most of all, time to be able to do it quickly. We always had a writer’s room that had total freedom in writing of the scripts. That enabled us to do it the way we have, in such a short time, coinciding with the quincentenary of Cortés and Montezuma on Nov. 8.

You chose to make the series multilingual rather than entirely in Spanish, and the indigenous characters speak their historical languages. Can you talk about that decision?

The other languages are appealing to audiences, and that’s what we want – hearing another way of speaking, of thinking. If we can enjoy a film or a series in English, French, Italian or Spanish, why not accept and cater for languages such as those – so different, so exotic, so appealing?

In today’s industry you often hear IP is king. Just to be clear, is “Hernán” entirely yours or did the platforms pick up some of the IP in the deals you’ve made?

Dopamine owns the full intellectual property of the series, 100%. Azteca, Amazon and History have bought a broadcast license. In the case of Amazon, it’s for Spain and Latin America; in the case of History, they have the rights for all Latin America; Azteca for free-to-air TV in Mexico. We’ve made “Hernán” as a production company that knows a thing or two about international distribution dynamics. So what I do is: Construct a series of this size and finance it completely, assuring a percentage on re-sales, in order to cover the costs of the series.