EXCLUSIVE: There’s a famous line from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado that is familiar to most Spaniards: “Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar,” which translates as “Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”
If there’s one Spanish company that is determinedly paving the way for Spanish-language content in the global sphere, it’s Secuoya Content Group, a fully-fledged independent studio bidding to become a global destination for content, all while putting Spain on the map in an unprecedented way.
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The company counts Hollywood stalwarts Chris Albrecht and Ted Sarandos among its array of international friends and the Netflix content chief tells Deadline the streamer is committed to deepening its roots there. Former HBO, Starz and Legendary Television exec Albrecht, meanwhile has partnered with Secuoya’s film and TV content production arm, Secuoya Studios, through his new banner Rubicon Global Media and says they are “ahead of the curve.”
Many will be familiar with Secuoya Group, which was founded by Raul Berdonés in 2007, for housing Netflix’s European Production Hub in its extraordinary Madrid Content Studios, located in Tres Cantos, the dormitory suburb 17 miles north of Madrid. It’s a sprawling complex with 10 soundstages (and counting) across 140,000 square meters of space with restaurants, an audiovisual university, housing and offices, making it currently the second-largest production center in Europe after the UK’s Pinewood Studios…and it’s set to get even bigger. Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez tells Deadline that the facilities are playing a key role in consolidating Spain’s “prominent role in the global AV industry.”
Secuoya Studios is coming off the back of launching its most ambitious production to date: the anticipated modern take of Zorro, directed by Money Heist helmer Javier Qintas and starring Miguel Berardeau as the dashing vigilante created by Johnston McCulley. The 10-episode series launched on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. and Latin America on January 19, and it is debuting in Spain, Andorra and Portugal on the streamer on January 25. The series is touted as Spain’s biggest television production to date, sitting at $4 million per episode. Mediawan, which handled international distribution for the series, has sold it to 28 countries already.
Last summer, in a bid to spread its tentacles to the U.S., Secuoya Studios entered a strategic partnership with Rubicon Global Media, the company set up by Albrecht and Jane and the Virgin executive producer Jorge Granier with an eye to bridging Spanish and U.S. storytelling (more on that later).
When Deadline sits down with Berdonés and Secuoya Group CEO Pablo Jimeno along with Secuoya Studios president James Costos on a cold and sunny December day at their headquarters to unpick how the company has fast become one of the driving forces of the Spanish-language production surge in recent years, what becomes quickly apparent is the scale and pace at which this company is moving.
“We are not your traditional production company,” Berdonés says. “We are really a global studio and that’s what we are focusing on.”
Berdonés was born in Granada to a humble Andalucian family and got his first taste of the television industry at the age of 13, where he started working part time as a camera operator. Passionate about the world of TV, he quit school at 16 to work in Madrid where he soon became CEO of a servicing company before heading up VNews at leading broadcaster Antena 3.
Seeing a gap in the marketplace for an independent production services company, Berdonés founded Secuoya Group in 2007 at age 28. He struck deals with Antena 3 before diversifying into television content production in 2009. That same year he hired his former Antena 3 colleague Jimeno to join him on the new Secuoya journey.
“He’s a founder like me,” says Berdonés. “I always say that Secuoya wouldn’t be what it is without Pablo because I think he’s the one who provides the stability and trust. I like strategy but he’s someone who provides the structure and I think he’s a true leader. He makes up for my lack of training – I call it the ‘Coca-Cola’ formula.”
Indeed, the two complement each other very well, Berdonés being the enthusiastic and spirited entrepreneur while Jimeno is more reserved, giving careful responses. Since they started working together, the company has gone through several different phases. Starting as a services company, the business is now 70% content and 30% services. “The model has completely changed since we started,” says Jimeno.
The company has offices in Spain and Los Angeles as well as Miami, where former HBO and Sony Pictures exec Sergio Pizzolante runs its international sales operation Secuoya Studios Commercial and Distribution. It also now has tentacles in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and soon Panama.
Last year, Berdonés and Jimeno bought back 55% of the company from investors, meaning the duo have 80% ownership of Secuoya Group and thus control. That move makes the company one of the only independent international content groups owned by Spanish shareholders.
“We have always said that we wanted to be the most important Spanish-speaking studio in the world and that’s what we’re working towards,” says Berdonés. “But, of course, we are always looking at English because in order to really be a studio, as we understand it, you need to have that important side of English language.”
In 2020, the company hired esteemed exec Costos, former HBO VP of global licensing and retail, as president of Secuoya Studios. Costos, based in L.A., had served as a U.S. ambassador to Spain from 2013-2017 under President Barack Obama’s administration. His knowledge and connections in Hollywood coupled with his ties to Spain made him a perfect conduit to bridge Spain to the U.S. Costos is a respected figure in Spain and has a wealth of knowledge and huge affection for the country. After he stepped down from his diplomatic work, the Spanish Film Commission named him an honorary ambassador for his efforts at connecting Spanish and U.S. companies.
While at HBO, Costos helped secure a Spanish shoot for Game of Thrones, a huge coup for the local market. He had close ties to Albrecht and worked with him while the latter was headed up HBO. This relationship ultimately ignited Secuoya’s recent agreement with Rubicon, which Albrecht and Jane and the Virgin exec producer Jorge Granier set up to aggregate leading IP from Latin America and Spain. Through the deal, Secuoya Studios will provide development funding and deficit financing for select Rubicon Global Media projects. The first project out of the gates is Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s Spanish and English-language drama Prey Before You Eat about an anti-hero on the run as life goes sideways in New York City.
“It’s really hard for a Spanish company to have access to Hollywood and to get the right talent or the right writer but with Chris and I in our L.A. office, we have that ability,” says Costos, who stresses that he is “not a creative.” “It’s very symbiotic and having Chris and Jorge within the family now brings the whole thing to another level. The fact that they are already sourcing material for us is even more exciting.”
For Berdonés, the Rubicon deal is key to Secuoya’s international strategy. “The agreement with Chris and Jorge is great because we will be able to develop big projects with them and I believe that’s going to provide visibility as well in the English-speaking world,” he says.
When first introduced to Secuoya, Albrecht says he “really thought these guys are head of the curve.”
“Spain is a very important market and it’s very important to our overall strategy – not that everything has to be through Secuoya – but it gives us so many advantages when we’re going into a project to have a big company in Spain who’s investing in us and developing programming that they can then produce in their facilities,” says Albrecht. “They’re experts at helping us access the soft money benefits that are available in Spain and have tremendous experience shooting everywhere.”
For Miami-based Granier, who has close ties to Pizzolante, he was drawn to the impressive scale at which Secuoya had been able to deliver big-ticket IP series Zorro.
“Zorro gave us a true picture of what Secuoya could do,” says Granier. “It’s this international co-production done in Spain for the U.S. in the 1800s and it’s really impressive. The way they sold it was interesting by selling it to Amazon in the U.S. and Latin America and then having a Spanish broadcaster involved as well. That’s the kind of model we’re doing but in a way that is language agnostic.”
Among its other international deals, Secuoya has an agreement with Turkish producer Ay Yapim to adapt Turkish IP for the Spanish-speaking world. This includes an adaptation of Turkish hit Brave and Beautiful, which aired in more than 60 countries and was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2018. Their Spanish version has already sold in Spain, all of Latin America and the U.S. and will now go through its distribution pipeline. “Just with Spain and North America, the figures were good enough to start production,” says Berdonés. “Turkish series are a phenomenon that have worked everywhere.”
Big IP & Creative Freedom
For Secuoya Studios, its primary objective is to be one of the most important Spanish-speaking studios in the world and to do that it needed two things: to hire top creative minds in the business and a move toward securing big-ticket IP series. Shortly after hiring Costos in 2020, the company brought in one of Spain’s most reputable TV execs, David Martinez, as Head of Fiction for its premium series division. Martinez is one of the figureheads responsible for the upsurge of high-end Spanish television drama after stints at public broadcaster RTVE, where he commissioned projects including Desaparecida and Gran Reserva from Ramón Campos, and Mediaset España.
“The most important thing at Secuoya, I believe, is that we have amazing creative people,” says Berdonés. “David is a fantastic example of this – he’s a crazy visionary and an outstanding creator.”
Martinez, who exec produces Zorro along with Zorro Productions founder John Gertz (who produced The Mask of Zorro and The Legend of Zorro films), says what makes Secuoya special is its independence, its ability to foster relationships with talent while maintaining creative freedom, something he believes sets them apart from bigger corporations.
“We have closer relationships with the creatives,” he says. “I’m a creator myself – I come from a writers’ room so I understand how it all works. This is impossible to do with a platform. We are a premium destination for talent because they can realize their own potential by not having the influence of an algorithm.”
Costos agrees: “We want to be the destination for talent. We know how difficult it is when you get a show commissioned and every executive at every studio platform is going to have 10 people giving notes, changing their idea, and not giving you the creative freedom to do your show your way. It’s not that we’re not critical about our own things – we do take notes and we do give notes but we’re not going to force someone based upon an algorithm.”
He draws parallels to Secuoya with HBO back when he used to work at that U.S. company with Albrecht. “HBO was known for being a destination for talent because they didn’t get in the way of things,” he said. “They treated talent and showrunners and their ideas with respect.”
Berdonés and Jimeno pride themselves on taking a back seat when it comes to creative decisions, entrusting the people they hire to do what they do best. “We do not decide how it’s going to be done,” says Berdonés. “The creative teams make those decisions, and they have ownership of those decisions. I believe that’s part of the success because that’s what allows us to do something great, which also means writers and creatives want to work with us.”
Secuoya Studios just hired former Sony Pictures Television exec Brendan Fitzgerald to the newly created position of CEO. The company has six different areas, each headed up by an exec: in addition to Martinez heading up premium series there’s Eduardo Galdo, Head of Long Format Series; Eduardo Campoy who runs the features division; Anna Cassina who runs international production services; its VFX services division XReality, run by Ignacio Lacosta; and unscripted, which is currently in the process of a change of leadership.
Last year, the company invested $200 million in content and it’s a number that grows annually says Berdonés, adding that “our objective is to grow to $400 million in the next three years.”
With this number in mind, the company will continue to have an appetite for big-ticket IP with projects like Zorro reflective of the scale at which the company wants to produce.
“This is a big production for us,” says Berdonés. “It’s high-quality and it’s how we want all of our productions to look because in the end, we are trying to find global productions that work in a very natural way on both sides of the Atlantic.”
The company produces close to 1,500 hours of television per year in premium doc series, entertainment, travel, regional news and more. It is currently in development on more than 20 projects across limited series, ongoing shows film and unscripted. Productions in the pipeline for next year include two new TV projects with William Levy’s production company (Secuoya previously co-produced Levy’s dramatic thriller Montecristo with Pantaya), Los 39, a historical series about Spaniards abandoned by explorer Christopher Columbus on the island of La Española, and Terra Alta, an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Javier Cercas.
In the film space, its looking to make five to eight films per year including upcoming El Director, an upcoming co-production with Beta Fiction Spain, Fremantle and Play Time, which is directed by Dani de la Orden and based on the book by David Jiménez. It’s also making Solos, based on the literary success of Paloma Bravo, directed by María Pulido.
Content City World
It wasn’t until 2017 that the first brick was put down for Madrid Content City in Tres Cantos and the idea, say Berdonés and Jimeno, was to build an ambitious production hub that could not only answer the demand for production facilities and studio space, but could also integrate the industry with a university. Having a university on the grounds meant that they could train the next generation of the industry and ensure that pipelines were ready to meet the demand for high-end Spanish language content.
“We’re training people in the real world, and we can find talent,” says Jimeno. “It’s not a theoretical model – it actually works. The moment students start studying at the university, they start working on their own productions.”
On a trip to L.A. in 2018, Berdonés met with Netflix’s VP of Latin American Content Francisco Ramos (or Paco Ramos as he is known in the industry) and told him he was “building something big in Spain.” Initially, the first phase of Madrid Content City, a $200 million project built through Secuoya’s sister firm Roots Group, was to build stages for Secuoya’s own productions and Berdonés admits he wasn’t considering long-term tenants on the site.
Ramos called Berdonés soon after to come and take a look at the site. “We had a bus full of people and we hadn’t built anything – none of this existed,” Berdonés says, gesturing to the outside lots. “We were only building three stages here initially. So, we gave them a vest and a hat, and we met in a hut, and it was raining but we told them what we were doing here. In 24 hours, we got a letter from them saying they wanted to keep the whole complex in exclusivity for many years and decided that this had to be their production hub in Europe.”
While Netflix was already looking at Spain as a potential base for its European production hub, Berdonés likes to think that Secuoya contributed a bit to that decision. Initially Netflix took five soundstages but doubled that studio capacity as Secuoya grew and the U.S. streaming giant now operates 10 soundstages at Secuoya.
“Everything you’re seeing today is going to be with them for many years,” says Berdonés. The company hopes to complete the build on a further 12 stages before the end of 2024, and Berdonés says in the contract they made sure “we kept some of these stages for us.”
“For the last four years we have called Tres Cantos at Madrid Content City our home,” Sarandos tells Deadline. “As President of Secuoya Studios, James [Costos] and his team run a world-class production facility that hosts some of the biggest Netflix productions including Élite, KAOS and the upcoming Berlin and Society of the Snow. We are also committed to telling great Spanish stories and look forward to deepening our roots there.”
Jimeno says that Netflix has undoubtedly helped Secuoya Studios grow – “they provide the stability but the business we have with them is not our main client. In real estate they are our main client, but not in production.”
Berdonés adds, “Netflix is only a tenant here. They are a very important tentant but still a tenant.”
Since its inception, Madrid Content City has been integral in making Spain into a world-class destination for international productions and talent. In 2021, after months of industry talks on how to bolster the industry, Prime Minister Sanchez announced he wanted to turn Spain into the “Hollywood of Europe” and introduced a plan to invest €1.6 billion to ramp up the audiovisual sector between 2021 and 2025.
Sanchez saw the opportunity in the sector and knew that it could play an important role in Spain’s post-pandemic recovery. Companies around the world were looking for most cost-effective ways to produce content and Spain could offer that.
“Our goal is to consolidate Spain’s prominent role in the global AV industry as a platform for innovation and training to attract global talent, thus creating jobs and promoting economic prosperity,” Sanchez tells Deadline. “Madrid Content City stands as a good example of this transformation.”
At a national level, there’s a tax rebate of up to 30% on a €1 million minimum spend but that rebate increases in different areas: In the Navarre region, it’s up to 35%; in the Canary Islands up to 54%; and in the Biscay region up to 60% (which is monetized with private investors).
And plans to expand beyond Madrid are already in play with Content Cities set to be built in Biscay, Guadalajara in Mexico, Bogotá in Columbia, and Lisbon in Portugal. While all at different stages, Berdonés and Jimeno expect the build for Guadalajara to start at the end of this year while Lisbon and Bogatá will begin in 2025. Each will have a university, soundstages and facilities and they are already in discussion for one “major” tenant at each destination.
Berdonés says, “We want to take the success of Content City to other territories and consolidate ourselves as one of the largest audiovisual studios in the world.”
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