Three years ago, Spain’s independent TV production sector was heading toward a crisis with ever lower profit margins. Cut to 2019, and Spain is enjoying a golden age of drama series production, while consolidating as a global production center.

One major factor in the turnaround has been Movistar Plus, the pay TV unit of Telefonica. It has made the biggest push into high-end original production of any telecom in Europe — just as U.S. and European telcos scramble to compete for content with media companies.

The first results, at home and abroad, of Telefonica’s content drive are now in.

One is a turnaround. In the fourth quarter of 2016, Movistar Plus lost 54,000 pay-TV subscribers. After its first three original series had been released, Movistar Plus added 80,700 in Q4 2017. Since July 2017, releasing 22 original or returning series through September, Movistar Plus has posted eight consecutive quarters of steady pay TV household growth, up from 3.67 million clients in Q2, 2017, to 4.1 million two years later. From September 2017 to August, eight of the top 10 most-watched scripted shows on Movistar’s pay TV platform have been its original series.

“Movistar original series have had amazing success; according to Telefonica, titles like ‘The Plague’ have surpassed the number of viewings of ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ highlighting the relevance of local content for Movistar clients,” says analyst Maria Rua Aguete at IHS Markit.

There’s also a bigger picture. In France, Canal Plus bowed its first original series, “Spiral” in 2005; Sky’s original fiction dates to at least 1997’s “Dream Team.” Spain, in contrast, has lacked a consistent premium TV production player, with Canal Plus commissioning just two series.

Drawing on a talent pool created by 25 years of often highly successful free-to-air production, Movistar Plus has marked “a true revolution, opening up production which centered on free-to-air family shows made for all the public,” says José Manuel Lorenzo at DLO/Magnolia.

In contrast, Movistar Plus has “introduced new budget ranges and target-specific shows, internationalized our shows, using 50-minute formats, and brought a new ambition from scripts to production and directors,” adds Lorenzo, producer of upcoming Movistar Plus series “Tell Me Who I Am.”

Shot in Spanish, German, Greek and Italian with a European cast, it follows a before-her-time woman’s life from 1930s Madrid through the Spanish Civil War, WWII and the Cold War to 1989. “The complexity of the production has been brutal,” Lorenzo adds.

“Without Movistar Plus, some shows would never have been made in Spain,” says “The Plague” producer José Antonio Félez. The differences are in “assumed risk, and far larger ambition and production levels, which before were good but those of free-to-air TV. Movistar Plus allows for very different premises.”

One case in point is “The Plague,” Movi-star Plus’ biggest series to date, a crime mystery whose first season used 130 locations, a 200-technician crew, 2,000 extras, over 250 sequences and multiple visual effects to recreate a bustling 1597 Seville. Its budget of €1.5 million ($1.65 million) per episode is high-end even for Canal Plus in France.

Thanks to a massive statement purchase of soccer rights, both La Liga and the Champions League, Movistar Plus is Spain’s No. 1 content player, investing $925.2 million in programming this year, according to IHS Markit estimates.

“We’ve been able to create something that didn’t exist in the market before and that, moreover, works: highly innovative fiction, with mass audience appeal,” says Movistar Plus president Sergio Oslé.

“Also, we like to make Spanish fiction, not [just] fiction that is made in Spain, but connected with our culture, a way we look at life,” Oslé adds, citing the characters and setting of “Hierro,” a crime thriller set on the sub-tropical Canary Island of the series’ title.

That combination — artistic ambition, mass audience appeal, a sense of Spanish culture — can prove immensely attractive for talent.

Upscale, complex in character arcs, and increasingly featuring women protagonists, Movistar series can also offer actors career highlight roles.

“It’s not easy to find [female] characters who don’t revolve around a man’s storyline, even with young women, and when the woman’s over 40 it’s even more complicated. But you get both cases in ‘Hierro,’” says its lead, Candela Peña, who plays a single mother and incorruptible judge out of sync with the island’s deeply traditional community.

“Movistar is making series which risk at an auteurist level: ‘Spanish Shame,’ ‘Madrid on Fire,’ ‘On Death Row,’” says Leticia Dolera, creator of “Perfect Life,” the 2019 best series winner at Canneseries. “They’re trying to do things which are different, such as ‘Perfect Life,’ which is a comedy which isn’t just comedy but a drama as well, and has quite a singular tone.”

“Talent is the key to what we do,” says Domingo Corral, Movistar Plus director of original fiction, citing breakout hit “Madrid on Fire,” a femme-centric black-and-white drama set in Spain’s ’60s dolce vita. “We only shine if the creators with whom we work shine. We have been fortunate to work with passionate and unique creators who are willing to tell stories in a way that haven’t been told before.”

The battle for supremacy in Spain’s SVOD space will be a battle for talent. Movistar Plus has added Rodrigo Sorogoyen (“The Realm”) and Alejandro Amenábar (“The Others”) to its roster of series creators.

Two years after its first release, Movistar Plus has become a bastion of Spanish culture. That matters to many of the subscribers able to pay for high-end programming. Crucially, it matters to many Spanish creators as well.

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https://variety.com/2019/tv/features/movistar-plus-becomes-a-force-in-spanish-production-1203334488/