Netflix, drawn to talent, boosts production in Mexico with 50 films and series
Manolo Caro yelled “Cut,” rose from the director’s chair and pushed through the swinging doors of the kitchen. There, he gave actors Dario Yazbek Bernal and Arturo Ríos his notes on a scene from Season 2 of “La Casa de las Flores”: where they ought to stand, which line should be delivered deadpan, where to avoid a word echo.
Caro’s artistic imprint could be felt everywhere on set, in the lines of clever dialogue, in the jungle-green-, wine- and mauve-colored rooms, in the graphic prints of birds and flowers that verged on the psychedelic.
“La Casa de las Flores” is one of 50 films and series that Netflix is producing or co-producing in Mexico, making the country one of the busiest international territories for the Los Gatos, Calif.-based streaming giant.
“The richness of talent in front of and behind the camera in Mexico was key in our decision to begin our local production strategy … four years ago,” Netflix Chief Executive Ted Sarandos said at a publicity event in Mexico City last month.
While streaming services in Spanish have been available in the past, like FilminLatino and HBO Latino, the decision to radically expand original content in Mexico ushers in an exciting new era for Mexican filmmakers and actors, as well as the audiences who will soon see their work. Televisa Studios, also a major player in original Spanish-language content, announced a partnership with Amazon Prime last year to create original content after launching its own streaming service called Blim in 2016, though it also works with Netflix.
The Netflix projects include four new films, including a musical comedy inspired by the songs of Pedro Infante, a series of documentaries about the border executive produced by Gael García Bernal, and a series about Tejano legend Selena. The increase is substantial — as of 2017, only seven Netflix productions were made in the country. All of the original series will be available to Netflix subscribers around the world.
Erik Barmack, who left Netflix earlier this month to start his own production company after serving as the vice president for international originals, said that more than volume, he was focused on the quality of content being created in Mexico.
“We can go so deep with our development because there’s so much talent,” Barmack said, citing Alfonso Cuarón, Salma Hayek and Diego Luna as examples of recent collaborators. Luna himself recently joked at the Netflix publicity event in Mexico a few days before the Oscars that “there’s never been so many Mexican names badly pronounced on that show.”
(The new leader for original non-English international series will be Bela Bajaria, previously the vice president of content.)
Cuarón’s “Roma,” which won three Oscars last month, attests to the company’s success in bringing a Mexican story with Mexican actors, directors and crew to an international audience that far surpassed the reach of a traditional release (the film was streamed to the company’s 139 million subscribers and 1,400 movie screens around the world). But also notable are shows that feature Mexican talent that might be wholly unfamiliar to international viewers.
Netflix subscribers learned about actor Luis Gerardo Méndez from “Club de Cuervos,” a comedy about a professional soccer team in northern Mexico. Beloved soap-opera actress and singer Verónica Castro was brought into their homes on Caro’s “La Casa de las Flores,” a genre-bending dark comedy about a dysfunctional high-society family in Mexico City.
“Club de Cuervos” was the first Netflix original production in Mexico, beginning in 2014. Barmack recalled his amazement when he came here a year after its release and saw locally manufactured “Club de Cuervos” jerseys in the streets. Last year, he saw them in Hollywood too.
Over half of Netflix’s audience is now international, and international subscriptions are far outpacing domestic. In the last quarter of 2018, the company added 1.5 million U.S. subscribers and 7.3 million international subscribers — a record increase. Netflix executives declined to disclose the number of subscribers in Mexico.
“How do I have to pitch something to Netflix?” Luna asked Sarandos at the publicity event in Mexico City last month. The question was surely on the minds of many filmmakers all over the world.
“Things that are very relevant in the home territory, and the likeliest to travel, are a big plus,” Sarandos responded. A new office will be opened in Mexico City this year, with its own content executives, and marketing and public relations teams. The company already has offices in Singapore, São Paolo and Tokyo. “Now we’ll add Mexico City to that list.”
Barmack, who focused on developing series abroad, said he focused on finding filmmakers like Caro, who tell hyper-local stories in original ways, but may, up to now, not have had the resources to create a series with artistic freedom. While universal themes are important, the more particular the story is to a place, the more likely it is to find an audience, often one that transcends country and language.
“We are all fans of international cinema,” Barmack said, “so when we think about series, our starting point is, Who would make an interesting seven-, eight-, nine-hour movie?” When Caro was approached by Netflix in 2015 after making several feature length films, the company offered him that opportunity.
“It was an incredible proposal that no creative person could reject,” Caro recalled. Quickly, he suggested a series about a wealthy family bent on keeping up appearances to the wider world.
Barmack’s decision to approach Caro was life-changing for the filmmaker. In Mexico, a series like “La Casa de las Flores,” which deals with themes like homosexuality and suicide in a straightforward way, likely would never have been made for local television.
“They are risky themes, themes that maybe on open television would seem too strong,” he said. “I think that ‘La Casa de las Flores’ as it’s been made couldn’t be broadcast on open television because we have risked and pushed on boundaries, and we haven’t made something appropriate for children.”
“La Casa de las Flores” has a strong following in Mexico and the U.S., but it has also been warmly received by millions in Portugal, Romania, the Netherlands and Israel. The show has been renewed for two more seasons.
Caro said his best advice for other aspiring filmmakers in Mexico would be to work from a place of honesty and artistic integrity if they want to capture the attention of Netflix, rather than trying to pitch a concept based on trends. “What’s important is that the content is authentic,” Caro said.
While Mexico has long exported a huge amount of talent in the film industry — five out of six of the last director Oscars have gone to Mexican filmmakers Cuarón, Alejando Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro — many of these creatives have historically worked abroad. Now that more productions are being made in Mexico, productions like Caro’s are confronting a shortage of availability of experienced crew members.
“We have to care for our crews and keep them close,” he said. In the short term, that presents a problem, but long-term, it’s an opportunity: “We know that we are going to generate a lot of work and new possibilities to have more show runners, technicians and cinematographers than before.” Currently, the crew of “La Casa de las Flores” is all Mexican.
Working in Mexico isn’t without its challenges. In 2017, a location scout for “Narcos: Mexico” was found shot to death. Netflix did a security analysis in the aftermath but determined that they were comfortable continuing to work in the country.
Inside a mansion being used as a “La Casa de las Flores” set, activity had gone quiet, but outside on a neighboring street, a cart blasted a recorded bid for residents to come and get their Oaxacan-style tamales. Dogs barked and a drill on a construction site droned in the middle distance. Executive producer Mariana Arredondo shrugged — the auditory smorgasbord of Mexico City was impossible to escape, even here in a gated compound. But that specificity of place was what made people over the border or across the ocean tune in.
“People from around the world are used to watching things subtitled and dubbed — they’re just looking for stories,” Barmack said. “They’re not thinking, what’s coming from the U.S. They’re just asking, ‘How do I find the most interesting things from around the world?’”
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