Erik Barmack, formerly head of international originals at Netflix and now founder and CEO of Wild Sheep Content, discussed trends in scripted and the state of Spanish-language drama in a keynote conversation with World Screen’s Anna Carugati at MIP Cancun.
During his time at Netflix, Barmack worked on foreign-language hits like La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) and Elite from Spain, Dark from Germany and Club de Cuervos from Mexico. Today at Wild Sheep, he has projects in the works with producers in Spain, Brazil, India and Holland. Wild Sheep has sold six projects into development at various platforms across scripted and non-scripted.
“This is the golden era of international TV, especially Spanish-language content,” Barmack said. “I think it’s only going to get better. You’ve never had more buyers, you’ve never had more at stake. La Casa de Papel had 40 million people watch it over the first month, according to Netflix. That’s the [size] of the entire American television-watching population on any given night!”
Barmack predicted that the new wave of global streamers will, as Netflix and Amazon have already done, see the potential in Spanish-language content. “There’s only so much you can do to grow a global service without Spanish content, local content. The market is going to get more dynamic. And all of that is going to drive up costs. There is a world we should get comfortable with where Spanish-language content is going to be $3 million, $4 million, $5 million an hour. That time is not that far away.”
Netflix’s big “a-ha moment” with non-English-language content was the realization that the “bigger, high-quality shows would travel as well as the American shows,” Barmack said. “That was the big pivot from, just do shows for a particular market.”
On what he looks for in storytellers, Barmack noted, “Initially we were trying to find filmmakers—especially in Latin America. We were looking to do something that was differentiated from the TV that was on free to air. We said, we’re looking to do seven- or eight-hour movies and not telenovelas. I think that position was overly stubborn in hindsight. A lot of the shows that are doing well aren’t just these premium eight-episode shows, but [also] shows like Luis Miguel: The Series and La Reina del Flow, [which are] in a more traditional format.”
Carugati then asked Barmack about how he works with filmmakers to hone their skills in making episodic television. “When I was at Netflix we tried to set up these writers’ rooms and we’d bring in writers from the States. That was for a limited 18- to 24-month period. The reality is there are quite good showrunners throughout Latin America. And it’s not necessarily the case that the best TV is coming from the U.S. anyway. If you were to look at the most important 20 shows last year, five, six, seven came from the U.K., a lot of the high-impact shows came from Spain and other markets. So I don’t know if the goal anymore should be to replicate the U.S. model. It’s more like good ideas should come from anywhere and there will be lots of different ways to exploit those ideas. There are lots of different ways to make good TV.”
Barmack went on to say that a writers’ room is not always the best model. “It doesn’t necessarily lead to better output. It’s a more predictable way of getting something out on time,” especially for multi-season shows. “There might not be anything wrong with one writer going all the way through.”
The conversation then moved to broader trends in scripted across the globe. Colombia, Spain, Scandinavia and Turkey are among the markets where, because there’s a need for shows to be salable into other territories, “there’s a notion to have cliffhangers and lots of melodrama and lots of love, even in darker stories. American TV has become relentlessly bleak. It’s probably a pendulum. There’s probably going to be a need for lighter fare. But we’re living in such dark times. Something like La Casa de Papel matters a lot because it’s fun and escapist. Maybe that’s why people are so interested in dystopian stories as well.”
Barmack went on to say that with more and more platforms launching and looking for breakout shows, “IP is going to matter a lot. I’m conflicted about this. You’ve seen examples of big shows like La Casa de Papel, La Reina del Flow, that were pretty much original ideas. I think the global platforms will be looking for big books, big formats, that will provide some structure to the storytelling.”
For Barmack at Wild Sheep, a key opportunity he’s pursuing is connecting Hollywood to creatives in the international market. “There are going to be opportunities for businesses to be very successful [if they can] marry those different cultures and business environments and buying possibilities, without having massive overhead.”
Packaging IP is another critical area. “We’ve optioned a number of books and have sold projects against those books, where the literary agent is in New York or London but the actual end package in some other country. And the talent is going both ways. We’re working with a big horror writer who has a love for European television. The projects he’s worked on to-date have all been in the English language, but he wants to do non-English-language. That will require a bunch of different people being quite nimble.”
Barmack expects competition for talent to intensify, and a continued rise in production values across the globe. That will mean “building more sound stages, more shooting days per episode, more time spent on development.” He continued, “I hope it’s more about letting the existing talent in the markets shine and get global audiences to watch than it is about making TV in a way that is dramatically different.”
Carugati asked Barmack for his thoughts on what it takes for a streaming service to succeed today, beyond financial resources. “They [each] have very different business objectives, so there’s not going to be one answer. Netflix has a single business model with different price points, but they are obsessively focused on that. Apple and Amazon may have different goals because their businesses are much more mixed with other objectives. All of these things get back to direct-to-consumer relationships. Understanding the technology and the platform and just the product itself is incredibly important in getting feedback from your audience. It’s really different from broadcast television. Being able to iterate quickly also matters a lot.”
Shows that have the ability to travel need to be rooted in being “entertaining first and foremost, over ‘serious’ TV with a capital S,” he quipped. “Crime travels, sci-fi travels, young adult stories. But it’s more alchemy than science.”