In the first shot of “OffWorld” (“Apagon”), the camera focuses on Ernesto – balding, serious, tired, lost in thought. It then pulls back to reveal the whole of his office, a computer-screen packed rom at an emergency intervention unit.
The shot says much about the latest series from Movistar+, “Off world,” which world premieres in Official Selection at Spain’s San Sebastian Film Festival and in turn speaks volumes of the ambitions and priorities of Telefonica-owned Movistar+, Southern Europe’s biggest national pay-TV/SVOD service.
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Produced with Buendía Estudios, “OffWorld” presents five stories which place very different individuals in the same context, a world where there’s no electricity thanks to a massive power outage; things taken for granted like phones and the internet don’t work.
Opening close-ups in each episode underscore the protagonists’ initial identities. In Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “Denial,” workaholic Ernesto is defined by his job as deputy director of Madrid’s Civil Protection and Emergencies Unit who faces off with his superiors to impose a controlled lockdown before general grid failure. “Emergency,” directed by Raul Arévalo, turns on Eva, a hospital administrator running out of basic medicine. In Episode 3, Isa Campo’s “Confrontation.” a daughter of a couple living in a makeshift housing estate community befriends a band of kids who are pilfering food.
“Survival,” from Alberto Rodríguez, has a goatherd fleeing ever higher into snowbound mountains, hunted by city types who want to kill him for his goats. “Balance,” by Isaki Lacuesta, revisits Ernesto’s estranged wife Alice from Episode 1 as she returns to her family estate to work its land hand-in-hand with its immigrant labourers. She’s never been happier.
Some platforms don’t even note the names of creators on their grid presentations of titles, notes Lacuesta. Movistar+, in contrast, is pushing its talent to the fore, world premiering “Offworld” at San Sebastián, the biggest festival in the Spanish-speaking world, which is the biggest international market for Spanish series.
“There’s a new studio star system…but instead of focusing on acting talent (as it did in the 1930s), it prioritizes those with the skills to create new stories, produce new shows,” Ampere Analysis’ Guy Bisson said at April’s MipTV.
Star creators usually make a series or movie every two-to-three years, however. In an entirely conscious move, says Domingo Corral, Movistar+ director of original programming, “Offworld” allows Movistar Plus+ to show off its associated talent in the same show.
These are not any old creators, either. Lacuesta and Campo have won together two San Sebastian Gold Shell, for 2012’s “The Double Steps” and 2018’s “Between Two Waters.” Fran Araujo, “Offworld’s” creative coordinator, co-wrote the latter film and executive produced Sorogoyen’s hit series “Riot Police.”
Sorogoyen scored an Oscar nomination for “Mother” and has just opened Cannes Premiere title “The Beasts” in France to an around €1.7 million ($1.7 million) box office through late August. Rodríguez swept the 2015 Spanish Academy Goyas with “Marshland.” Arévalo scooped a new director Goya for 2016’s “The Fury of a Patient Man.”
In a highly competitive platform world, the battle for success is the battle for top class talent. Just how platforms source and retain talent is another question. For Movistar+, this cuts several ways.
The episodes allowed Movistar Plus+’s star directors to play to their auteurist strengths.
“Denial” is a “political thriller,” says Araújo, shot with hallmark kinetic energy by Sorogoyen, with Ernesto as the leading character tat attempts unsuccessfully to lessen the effects of the blackout.
“Isabel and I work well the tension between people, here in an office, which is I think why we were chosen,” Sorogoyen tells Variety.
Shot in a cold snap between snow and hails storms in Madrid’s high sierra, “Survival” is Cobos and Rodriguez’s first Western, says Rodriguez who played up the genre. Camera set-ups place large emphasis on the bleak snow-bound landscape, and a brutal intractable conflict. “The aim was to show nature in all its violence and beauty,” he says.
“Modestly speaking, we’ve tried to create a culture at Movistar+ which attracts talent. We have a lot of respect for what a lot what creators want to tell and believe in them,” says Corral.
“We will challenge creators, and sometimes convince them to make changes and sometime not. When we don’t convince them we don’t try to impose anything, you have to assume their arguments, right or wrong,” he adds.
The professional and personal relations between a writer-director and broadcast execs weigh hugely in creators’ selection of projects. “My relation with Movistar+ is very good, it’s always been so. I worked with Domingo and Fran a lot on ‘Riot Police,’ and a year and a half on a Civil War project,” says Sorogoyen.
“Fran is our co-writer. we adore him,” Campo says of Araújo. “There are strong personal affinities, says Lacuesta, noting that when at TCM, Corral commissioned him to direct “La noche que no acaba,” about Ava Gardner’s years in Spain.
Also, the project was highly attractive in itself, Sorogoyen says.
“Offworld’s” key for Araújo is that it’s not an anthology but a “collective series,” with “content, concepts and a realistic tone that bonds its episodes,” developed over months at a writers room that encompasses all the episodes’ writers – the first time some of Spain’s most successful film-TV scribes in Spain have worked together. “It was a highly collaborative , highly stimulating experience,” says Campo.
Knitting together the series, each human drama turns on how individuals confronts mass catastrophe: “In a crisis, either you understand that things have changed and you see that as an opportunity for transformation, or you are doomed,” says Araújo.
“Survival,” for example, becomes the “story of a man on his own pitted against those who come to take away his key to survival.” Neither party backs down. “Lamentably, there’s no solution to the conflict,” says Rodríguez.
Episode 4 contrasts dramatically with Episode 5. “The writer’s table was set up before the pandemia, continued during it and was influenced by it, our questioning the life we led and what life was worth living,” says Campo.
“One aim of the series was to have a positive side, that it had propositions, such as if we work together, things will turn out better, Lacuesta notes.
“That M+ begins to make series and chooses ones with Alberto, Paco Leon, now Isa, Isaki and Raul…. That’s what makes me fall in love with M+, and applaud them, and makes me happy, satisfied and delighted to work with them,” says Sorogoyen.
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