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Inside Prime Video’s Narco Sub Series ‘Operation Black Tide’

Operation Black Tide
Prime Video

Airing on Prime Video from Feb. 25, “Operation Black Tide” puts faces and character backstories to one of the most epic of feats in the annals of narco-trafficking.

The four-part Spanish-Portuguese drama-thriller also says much about the ambitions of the U.S. streamer: Its energetic targeting of local markets, and pursuit of tried and tested talent to explore new genres with notable production ambitions. Following, four key pointers to the latest Amazon series from Spain:

Capturing an Epic Narco Feat

Drug sub actioner “Operation Black Tide” is certainly one example. It hews closely to a dramatic real-life event: the detection on Nov. 24, 2019, off the fjord-indented coast of Galicia, North-West Spain, of a flimsy 70-foot fiberglass semi-submersible, fabricated in a clandestine shipyard deep in the Amazon rainforest.

On board were three tons of cocaine, worth an estimated street value of €123 million ($138 million), and three crew members who had piloted the drug sub from Brazil’s Macapá across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain.

Daniel Calparsoro, Spain’s king of kinetic action thrillers (“Combustion,” “Hasta el Cielo”), compares the 3,500-mile odyssey to Magellan’s or the Kon-Tiki. Conditions on the sub were in many ways worse, the three men living for nearly a month in a cramped cabin, darkness, the stench of 20,000 litres of fuel and the only toilet facility, a plastic bag.

“We tell it as it happened, and the case has been heavily researched. The semi-submersible set sail from Manaus, in the Amazon, aiming to reach the Azores, but a large problem surfaced and the crew decided to continue to Galicia: The boat’s captain is from there, knows the coastal waters,” said producer Mamen Quintas, at A Coruña’s Ficción Producciones, which originated the project. “It’s such a singular story, so difficult to believe, that we just had to tell it,” she added.

The Human Drama

Why the captain, Agustín Álvarez, a former Spanish amateur boxing champion, took on the mission is another question. It occupies the early stretches of the series as Nando, the show’s protagonist, is captured winning his light heavyweight boxing crown. His trainer tells him he needs big money and fast if he wants to turn professional. Many days, Nando helps on his grandfather’s trawler. It’s merciless work, the catch merger. Nando wants something better, and the opportunity presents itself when his cousin, the daughter of a part-time drug trafficker based out of Portugal, turns up to celebrate his boxing title.

“’Operation Black Tide’ is the story of someone who tries to better his lot in life. He wants to live with a sense of dignity,” said Ricardo Cabornero, head of Prime Video Content for Spain and Portugal. “He goes down the wrong path to achieve that, but it’s a situation which we identify with and which gives the series its sense of closeness.”

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Operation Black Tide Prime Video

Prime Video Calling Cards

The series is also very much Prime Video. The streamer, however, has a “distinctive” commissioning vision, Georgia Brown, head of Amazon Studios Europe, said at a Berlinale Series market panel. “And that really is local-local, and we’ve never shifted from that. It’s super important for us to commission local shows that will have impact in the local markets,” she added.

Sub thrillers form an international genre, easily relatable for audiences around the world: Think Crimson Tide,” “U-571,” “Das Boot.” Prime Video will release “Operation Black Tide” in exclusivity only in Spain, Portugal and Brazil on Feb. 25. In a deal announced last September, Entertainment One (eOne) has picked up international distribution rights outside these territories.

“What we want is to offer the greatest flexibility when working, which allows us to design a larger number of projects, adapt the design of projects, share risks and potential upside. In the case of this series, Ficción retains part of the IP,” Cabornero said.

Prime Video also sets out to be a “home for talent,” Brown said at Berlin.

For “Operation Black Tide,” this takes in not only Calparsoro but González, who plays Nando as a man who nearly loses his soul but retains some principles, an ethical legacy from his grandfather.

“We’re very much focused on local audiences. The values of Prime Video are the same in each country [in Europe]. What changes are the teams which identify the needs and demands of each local audience.”

Galicia-Portugal: A Burgeoning Production Axis

The local focus has not prevented Amazon from taking some large swings in the Spanish-speaking world, such as “El Cid,” an Amazon Original, or “Hernán,” which it released in Spain and Latin America.

Involving the construction of not one but three narco subs, one in a studio where it could be turned to simulate the battering of waves and currents, “Operation Black Tide” is “very ambitious indeed,” Cabornero recognized.

OTT players must pay ever more attention to not only key overseas markets but their regions. “Black Tide” rolls off a burgeoning production axes: Galicia and Portugal, and pan-regional alliances. Lead produced by Ficción Producciones, out of Spain, “Black Tide” is co-produced by Galicia’s TVG, and seven regional pubcasters from around Spain. Ukbar Filmes, one of Portugal’s most ambitious production houses, co-produces, backed by Portuguese public broadcaster RTP.

“TVG was one of the first state-owned TV networks in Spain to drive with force and personality into higher-end scripted production,” said Quintas, citing “Mareas Vivas,” set in a Galician fishing village, which ran from 1998 to 2002.

Netflix’s first original series  in Spain was produced by Galicians: Ramón Campos and Teresa Fernández-Valdés. Also based out of A Coruña, Portocabo spearheaded Movistar Plus’ first international co-production, “Hierro,” with Arte France. It has gone on to produce “Dry Water” with TVG and Portugal’s SPi and RTP. “We’re not a large production sector,” said Quintas. “But we have created a breeding ground for writers, producers and technicians, who produce content of sizable budgets and large ambition,” she added. “We might not have the economic means on our own but we know how to tell stories.”