The Netherlands’ KPN has produced Dutch romantic drama Babs; Belgium’s Telenet has set three series co-productions for 2017. But this month Spain’s Telefonica is becoming Europe’s first incumbent telecom to launch a massive premium scripted drama slate, catapulting it into the premiere league of Europe’s high-end series producers. That revolution, moreover, has begun at or during the San Sebastían Festival. “Velvet Collection”, a modern mix of melodrama, fashion and passion, bowed Sept. 22 on Movistar +.
Cringe-inducing “Spanish Shame”, Louie meets Rafael Azcona, screened in its entirety at the Festival.
The first TV series to score a San Sebastián Official Selection earth, Movistar + flagship “The Plague”, a political crime thriller set in a dazzling corruption-sodden 16th century Seville, has its world premiere tonight in Donostia.
Telefonica-Movistar +’s commitment to high-end drama is clear. Last September, Luis Miguel Gilpérez, president of Telefonica España, announced that Movistar + was plowing €70 million ($84 million) into the development and production of 12-15 scripted series.
Why Movistar + is driving into high-end TV series is another matter. “We need to be different from telecom competitors, which is hard to achieve in the rest of the telecom market where mobile and fiber connections are highly regulated,” Gilpérez argues.
“Where there’s growth potential and a large capacity to achieve that differentiation, that´s TV,” he adds. Anti-trust regulation obliges Movistar + to share acquired premium content – think soccer – with its telecom rivals in Spain. Original productions avoid that stricture.
Certainly, Spain has paid TV growth potential. Only about 35% of Spanish households have paid TV. But the market could double or more pay TV penetration to 70% or 80% by 2020, Gilpérez sustains.
Telefonica is convinced, moreover, that growth can be achieved by what Gilpérez terms a “democratizing” of TV: Offering TV at highly attractive rates bundled with fiber-optic broadband and mobile telephony – commodities Spaniards are certainly prepared to pay for. First and economical rates for Movistar Fusion#0, for weekly series, and Movistar Fusion Series, which allows full-season binging, both bundled with broadband and advanced mobile telephony, were announced on July 7. Movistar +’s Original Series mark a revolution for Spain in their business model. They also represent a sea-change – anticipated in part by series made for free-to-air TV as their quality has spiked – in Spain’s scripted drama.
The “most radical change,” says “Velvet Collection” producer Teresa Fernández-Valdés, is that the Original Series are made at international. standard lengths of 50 minutes, not 70.
Telefonica Original Series also target distinct audience segments, rather than traditional made-for-all audiences fare of yore, which “opens up the possibility of offering content not only to traditional audiences but maybe younger viewers who no longer watch free-to-air or linear TV.” “The quality of some series in Spain is already very high. So it’s not a question of being better or worse but different,” says Domingo Corral, Movistar + original fiction director. That comes from a combination of traits. “The dramas have a cinema look and high production values,” according to Corral. “The Plague” begins,for example, with a traveling shot down a muddy passageway as a doctor and merchant slop through its puddles, a kinetic virtuosity which is a hallmark of director Alberto Rodríguez. Constantly on the move, the series’ singular sleuth, a heretic in 1580 Spain, explores Seville’s shanty town, kinky brothels, rumbustious markets, bustling streets, sumptuous palaces, riversides, cave-like homes, torch-lit passageways, and a (female) artist’s studio. That’s just the first two episodes.
A six-hour series, “The Plague” used 130 locations, a 200-technician crew, 2,000 extras over 250 sequences and multiple VHF effects to recreate Seville. Its budget of €1.5 million ($1.8 million) per episode ranks alongside high-end Canal Plus France series such as the Luc Besson- produced “Séction Zero”. “The key cost with series is time,” Corral maintains.
Telefonica series are also “very character, not plot-driven,” says Corral. Every character is thought through thoroughly, he says. Jesús in “Spanish Shame” is a monument to latent racism, sexism and self-delusion as he descends from farce towards tragedy. Movistar + will make Spanish series at a volume which no other operator, including Netflix, is likely to match.
“People have to sense that they’re missing out on something if they don’t subscribe to Movistar +. Four series a year are just drops in the ocean, Corral sustains. The rub: Will Movistar + series click? In that, San Sebastián may serve a preliminary verdict by this weekend.