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The Spanish-language streaming wars escalate as Hollywood moves past lip service

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Is the next streaming war in Spanish?

Media executives often extol the importance of reaching Spanish-language audiences, drawing eyerolls from people who’ve heard all it before.

But if a flurry of recent investments and deals is any indication, Latino and Hispanic viewers in the U.S. and beyond have become a key part of audience expansion plans for streaming platforms.

Netflix spent $200 million in 2020 to produce content in Mexico, an amount expected to increase this year, and has also invested significantly in Spain. Disney, which launched Disney+ in Latin America in November, has said it plans to make 70 original programs for the region. WarnerMedia will invest heavily in Latin American markets with HBO Max.

Univision in March launched PrendeTV, a free, ad-supported streaming service for the U.S. Latino market. The following month Univision acquired Grupo Televisa’s content and media assets, which were valued at $4.8 billion, in a move to create a Spanish-language supergiant as competition ramps up.

NBCUniversal's Telemundo last month announced a new studio, called Telemundo Streaming Studios, dedicated to producing content for streaming platforms, including the sister service Peacock.

On a smaller scale, Hemisphere Media Group sees a growth opportunity in its Los Angeles-based streaming service Pantaya, which focuses on Spanish-speakers in the U.S. and has about 900,000 subscribers. Miami-based Hemisphere in April paid Lionsgate $124 million for the 75% of Pantaya it did not already own, with the aim of growing it by investing in content.

“There’s so much more we can do, and the opportunity is so much greater,” Hemisphere CEO Alan Sokol said in an interview after the deal. “We’ve set a stated goal of 2.5 to 3 million subscribers by 2025. But honestly we feel that’s a conservative goal and that the opportunity is two to three times that.”

It’s easy to see why streamers and studios see a gold mine. Latinos consistently accounted for a disproportionate amount of moviegoing before the pandemic, yet they are severely underrepresented onscreen and behind the camera, including at Netflix, as my colleague Fidel Martinez has written in his newsletter, the Latinx Files.

In the U.S., the Latino and Hispanic population continues to grow, surging past 60 million in 2019. Hispanics and Latinos were the top moviegoing group per capita in 2019, trekking to cinemas 4.7 times a year.

Moctesuma Esparza, producer of the 1997 film "Selena," built his Pasadena-based theater chain Maya Cinemas with a strategy to serve underscreened neighborhoods, including working-class areas dominated by Latinos. In a 2018 interview with the Times, he noted the lack of focus on Latinos in the industry’s push for diversity and inclusion.

“I am hopeful that Hollywood is waking up and that changes will come, and that [the] Hollywood-so-white [movement] will soon also mean thinking about Latinos,” Esparza said at the time.

Better late than never? There are signs that the streaming-obsessed entertainment industry is starting to catch on.

High-quality Spanish-language movies and shows have proved they can cross over with English-speaking audiences and other populations. Netflix in April said the Mexican series “Who Killed Sara?” had become its most-watched foreign language show, with 55 million accounts tuning in during its first weeks on the service.

The crime series “Money Heist” earned a modest audience when it originally ran on Spanish TV, said creator Álex Pina. But once it went global through Netflix its viewership exploded, with its themes and characters’ Dalí mask iconography resonating everywhere from Argentina to Saudi Arabia.

Pina still sees the show’s international success as a bit of a mystery, but theorizes that the idea of conveying a popular genre — the perfect heist — through a specific cultural lens gave the material a new spin.

“These days, viewers often feel that series repeat themselves,” he wrote in an email. “‘This crime scene rings a bell, I’ve seen it elsewhere. And that police officer looks familiar as well.’ It becomes complicated to create brand new characters, so our Latino gaze, as applied on our fiction, has also added some freshness for other cultures.”

The show’s fifth and final season hits Netflix this year. Pina’s success led to the March launch of Netflix’s “Sky Rojo,” a pulpy action series he co-created about three prostitutes who flee their pimp.

The interest of the big streaming companies in Spanish programming, including international markets, has been a boon for Latino and Hispanic audiences that for years have been left with what entertainment industry consultant Santiago Pozo calls “the scraps” of the film and TV business.

Consumers are no longer satisfied with high-drama telenovelas. They want the high production values seen on shows for English-language audiences.

“The streamers have provided freedom for Hispanic creators,” said Pozo, who sold his Hispanic film marketing business Arenas Group last year. “Now you don’t have to create something that fits the model of Televisa.”

Still, companies face challenges when creating streaming services and content for Latino and Hispanic markets. The U.S. Hispanic “market,” for example, is really a fragmented set of audiences, including Cuban Americans in Miami and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, that encompass a multitude of cultural touchstones and sensibilities.

Pantaya — a play on the Spanish word for “screen” — is an interesting case study. The service, which courts U.S. audiences for whom Spanish is their primary language, has content deals with the major studios in Mexico and has had some success with originals, such as the sexually provocative dramedy series “El Juego de las Llaves,” which gets its second season this fall.

Yet the streaming service, which had $46 million in revenue last year, hasn’t reached huge subscriber numbers. Its target market of “unacculturated/bi-cultural adults” is estimated at 39 million people, yet only 40% of them are even aware of the service, according to the firm’s slide show, a stat that represents both “a problem and an opportunity,” according to Sokol.

But is the big-budget Spanish-language content on Netflix and other streamers, plus all the dubbed and subtitled shows that are available, more appealing to the people Pantaya wants to reach?

Despite the challenges, Sokol sees the company’s experience with content specifically for U.S. Spanish speakers as an advantage.

“Netflix has a much bigger checkbook than we do, but we are very focused on what we do,” Sokol said. “We have a much deeper pool of films and series than anybody else by far. I think that’s where our advantage lies.”

This article was adapted from an edition of The Wide Shot, an entertainment business newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.