Starzplay, Pantaya, The Mediapro Studio Break Down Ivan Escobar’s ‘Express,’ Company Priorities and Passions

Mario Almeida, Superna Kalle and Laura
Courtesy of Pantaya, Starzplay, Mediapro Studio

As many studio-streamers morph ever more into global general entertainment services, some SVOD players still stand out very much from the pack.

Two of the most expansive, both with a premium vocation, are Starzplay, Starz’s upscale international streaming platform which has quickly expanded into 56 countries, and Pantaya, the premium U.S. Spanish-language streaming service acquired last month from Lionsgate by the Hemisphere Media Group.

Starzplay and Pantaya and The Mediapro Studio are close to wrapping production in Madrid on “Express,” from “Locked Up” creator Iván Escobar, their first co-production and one of the most anticipated Spanish-language productions of the year. Pantaya launched in August 2017, Starzplay in May 2018, The Mediapro Studio in March 2019: These are three companies now helping to shape the new face of international and U.S. production.

Superna Kalle, Starzplay executive VP of International Digital Networks, Mario Almeida, Pantaya head of content, and TMS CEO Laura Fernandez Espeso, sat down with Variety this week to outline company priorities and passions and what marks “Express” – and often Spanish series in general – apart.

“Express” looks like a win-win situation with the partners sharing IP and distribution. Could you comment?

Superna Kalle: Starzplay prides itself on its flexibility when co-producing. We can take full worldwide rights and then the parts that we need for Starzplay. Mario [Almeida] can take the U.S. parts he needs for Pantaya. We can share a U.S. window if we want to on Starz. We can also take rights and sub-distribute out of Lionsgate in places where we’re not present, like China or Australia. Or we can let the production company distribute. We can take second window territories, like we did [in France] on “All The Things We Never Said.” We’re really, really, really flexible. That’s very appealing. Producers find that there are very few platforms like ours that want edgy shows and are willing to be flexible.

For The Mediapro Studio, the “Express” financial model echoes that of “The Head”….

Fernández Espeso: Yes, exactly. As with “The Head,” we have two anchor partners. Our partners guarantee distribution in great territories, We wanted to partner with Starzplay as soon as we knew it was coming, and make its first Original in Spain.  As on “The Head,” The Mediapro Studio Distribution handles sales outside the partners’ territories. “Express” will feature in a hybrid virtual presentation for buyers of our lineup. We’ve a lot of objectives at Mipcom. One is to sell “Express.”

The two Starzplay-Pantaya co-productions Variety has described in detail are Lucia Puenzo’s “Señorita 89,” who oversaw “La Jauría” and now “Express,” from Iván Escobar, who partnered “Money Heist’s” Alex Pina on “The Boat” and “Locked Up.” It seems to me that this very flexibility has a huge upside, which is access to world-class storytelling talent. Could you comment?

Mario Almeida: I think this touches on several different points. Talking about Pantaya specifically, we consider ourselves the only premium SVOD dedicated to the U.S. Hispanic audience. “Premium” is about a level of production value, storytelling, and execution. The only thing that really differentiates platforms is their level of quality, right? Typically our model for original productions is a co-production model because we’re only available in the U.S. So we work with stars where, creatively, the alignment is there, and yes, we’re looking for world-class storytellers, such as Lucía Puenzo with “Señorita ’89” and Iván Escobar with “Express.” There’s a commercial viability that needs to be there. Series need to work. But we want series that push the envelope.

This talent aligns very well with Starzplay’s premium focus too….

Kalle: We are very, very adamant about sticking to this premium genre. We have no children’s content, no family shows, don’t have anything that isn’t aimed squarely at adults 18 and above, women and men. Sex, drugs, violence, vice, whatever, we’re in. We don’t want something on air that you can find somewhere else. These brand guidelines are pretty adamant because everybody is going so broad. we’re priced at €4.99 [$6.0] or 4.99 pounds sterling, similarly in Latin America. So we’re relatively inexpensive because we want to be that add on. If you’ve got two-or-three services – Amazon, Netflix, HBO Max – then we’re that premium layer, right on top. And we’re venturing into local language content in a very noisy way. We certainly want the launch of “Nacho Vidal, an Industry XXXL” to be very, very noisy.

Both Pantaya and Starzplay are very young companies. Where would you put “Express” in your burgeoning production output?

Almeida: “Express” will be our first wrapped Spanish co-production with Starzplay. We’ve worked extensively in Latin America with great partners including Amazon, Viacom and Sony with the series being Pantaya Originals in the U.S.

Kalle: “Express” is our first kind of homegrown from scratch, developed with producers and scripts and everything else.

Mario, you said that you wanted series that push the envelope. How does “Express” push the envelope?

Almeida: The way Iván fuses genres together in just the most compelling, watchable thing. it’s a drama, a thriller, and Iván is known for his wit. So there’s comedy in his series. This too is the story of a woman who’s balancing motherhood, a marriage, and being a world-class hostage negotiator? It’s not free-to-air procedural, it’s just so character driven.

Kalle: What I liked about this particular show was the female lead component. Women are the best hostage negotiators, but they also have to balance family. I personally can relate to running a business and being a mom.

Fernández Espeso: We’ve  talked a lot at The Mediapro Studoio about how to represent female figures. I think “Express” stands out for its characters, and especially Barbara, who escapes classic, conventional female portraits.

I once asked Erik Barmack, when he launching “Elite,” what distinguished Spanish series. One answer, he said, was direction. Even in interiors, the directors would throw the camera around, avoid conventional set-ups….

Kalle: The production quality is unbelievable. Not to give too much away, but there’s an aerial shot on top of a bridge. When you’re watching it, it’s like a phenomenally $200 million budgeted film.
Almeida: The visuals are never static, which also goes with the genre. They’re never formulaic. The series feels polished, kinetic, stylish, premium.

The genre blending could be traced back to a generation of writers – Ivan, Alex Pina and Ramón Campos – who for getting on two decades had to pen four-quadrant primetime episodes which could run for 7o-80 minutes.To maintain engagement they juggled multiple stories with different dramatic tones…..

Fernández Espeso:  It’s totally true. “Express” is a family thriller, a mix of genres and authenticity grounding the characters by showing their daily lives, despite what’s going on around them. It’s a hallmark of writers at The Mediapro Studio’s Globomedia. Iván achieves this, as does Daniel Ecija in “Estoy vivo,” for example. “Express” is highly contemporary but it also retains the craft that Ivan and Antonio Sánchez have honed over many years. What’s changed is that, with the arrival of the platforms, series are able to open simultaneously in multiple territories. This creates a knowledge and noise, which even helps series’ positioning in Spain, and takes series to a different place.

Yes, international series production really took off at Brazil’s Globo mid-last decade, for instance, even later in Chile. 

Fernández Espeso: The accumulated creative muscle of Spanish series is highly impressive. And we started many years before.