How Indie Producer Argos (With a Lot of Help From Netflix) Transformed Mexican TV

Netflix
Argos chief Epigmenio Ibarra

Mexico used to be a duopoly of two big networks before the streamer arrived.

Welcome to Tlanewood, a state-of-the-art full service studio that stands at the forefront of Mexico's TV revolution. The sprawling facility, officially called Estudios Gabriel Garcia Marquez and owned by leading independent producer Argos, has benefited enormously from a Mexico production boom spearheaded by streaming giant Netflix.

Production has grown so fast for Tlanewood (a moniker referring to the studio's northern Mexico City location and its almost exclusively Hollywood clientele) that it expects to build two more soundstages next year, bringing the total number to eight. Its grand opening in 2016 came at a pivotal moment in the Mexican TV industry.

Netflix had just released its first Spanish-language original series, the hit soccer dramedy Club de Cuervos, and for the first time ever, the seemingly invincible broadcast TV duopoly of Televisa and TV Azteca found itself facing serious competition from streamers, video-sharing websites and cable networks. Televisa even launched a streaming service of its own but its dated telenovela-heavy library failed to attract young viewers.

Earlier this year, Netflix put even more pressure on the nation's struggling broadcast networks when it announced plans to produce 50 television and film projects in Mexico, its largest international production slate in terms of sheer volume. And now both Televisa and TV Azteca have turned to offering Netflix on their pay TV platforms. Argos has produced two Netflix series (Ingobernable and Yankee) and has an agreement to churn out seven more for the streaming service by the end of 2020.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Argos chief Epigmenio Ibarra to get his take on the Netflix boom, Mexico's troubled broadcast TV networks and the future of television in the Spanish-speaking world.

You've been in the production business for a long time, but now you have a brand-new studio and are working with high-profile companies like Netflix. Has this allowed you to take your productions to another level?

Yes, I believe so and the industry in general has gone to the next level. Before, Mexico had just two large networks and there was nearly no independent industry because the networks controlled both production and distribution. Everything revolved around those two networks and that inhibited the development of the industry. But with the arrival of companies like Netflix, Amazon and Telemundo, the industry in Mexico has become so much more than just two companies and producing high-quality content is very important.

Is that why Netflix is seemingly showing more interest in bilingual, cross-cultural series like Narcos: Mexico or the drug-trafficking drama Yankee?

We are exploring cross-cultural genres because today you no longer release a series in one country; it's released in 195 countries. So your competition is no longer necessarily with a Mexican producer; instead you're competing on a global scale. And that is what has dramatically changed the industry.

Many producers in Mexico like the idea that Netflix allows them more freedom to explore social and political issues, topics that might have been taboo back in the day. Has that been your experience as well?

Of course, once you stop working for Mexico's free-to-air TV networks and start working with other companies you realize that they don't have the same criteria of controlling and censoring content. Free TV in Mexico was anything but free. Nearly all of our clients now are foreign, companies such as Netflix, Viacom and Telemundo. Of course, it's a much bigger challenge to produce for them because you are trying to reach a broader global audience and that requires fundamental changes to the narrative.

So does that mean that the traditional Mexican soap opera no longer has a place in the future?

I would say it has less of a future. However, melodrama, which has been around for ages, will always have a future. The ideal situation is a hybrid genre, something like Desperate Housewives, which takes elements of a soap opera and applies it to a character-driven series.

Right now Mexico's broadcast networks are really struggling to find their way in the new age of streaming. They have resorted to mass layoffs to cut costs, they're losing millions of dollars in government ad revenue under new austerity measures, and they are having difficulty connecting with young audiences who often complain of telenovela fatigue. Did they perhaps underestimate companies like Netflix and Amazon, or do they simply not have the big budgets to compete with them?

They underestimated their audience; they are incapable of producing what their audience wants and deserves. They had so much power for so many years and now they don't know how to compete. They can still turn things around and I would never underestimate the networks, but they have to reinvent themselves.

Is that what Argos did?

Yes, we redefined our entire workflow: preproduction needs, story development, how we go about shooting and editing a series, basically everything we do.