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Industry Report: Television

Masterclass Série Series 2016: Anaïs Schaaff

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Masterclass Série Series 2016: Anaïs Schaaff

- (© Sylvain Bardin & Philippe Cabaret)

The series El Ministerio del Tiempo is a true cultural phenomenon. After only two seasons, it has become the best-known and most widely-discussed television programme in Spain. The series is even cited regularly by politicians. And yet, El Ministerio del Tiempo is a fantasy series, a genre that is almost completely absent from Spanish television programming schedules.

Produced by Cliffhanger TV Media, a company created by Anaïs Schaaff and Javier Olivares, the series tells the story of an autonomous governmental institution that holds the secret of time travel. The doors of time appeared during the reign of Isabella I of Castile, at the end of the 15th Century. They were handed over to the monarchy by a rabbi in exchange for protection. The Spanish government created a special unit – the ministry of time – charged with protecting and forbidding access to the doors. Its purpose is to prevent any intruders from disrupting the order of time and turning history to their advantage. To accomplish this task, patrols must travel through time and foil evil plans. The series has three main characters, all members of the patrols: a soldier from the 16th century, the first female student from the 19th century and a paramedic from the 21st century.

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But before entering into more detail about the plot of the series, Anaïs Schaaff first presents a panoramic view of Spanish television.

A Panorama of Spanish Television

Spanish television today is dominated by two private groups – Atresmedia and Mediaset – who share the majority of audience share. Public television (Televisión Española) is currently going through a major crisis and has seen a dramatic drop in its audience shares. Anaïs Schaaff partly attributes this drop to the Spanish government’s decision to remove all advertising on its public channels. Regrettably, this decision was not followed up by any kind of alternative funding plan. Unlike other European countries, Spain does not have cable channels like HBO or CANAL+. However, the future purchase of CANAL+ Spain by the operator Telefónica should, Anaïs Schaaff hopes, breathe new life into Spain’s audiovisual landscape.

The stronghold that private channels have over audiovisual creation is not without its consequences for the quality of series broadcast in Spain. In fact, most television products are created according to purely commercial considerations. It is very rare for them to take artistic risks, and most series, which are seen as rapid-consumption family products, resemble those that were on the air in the 1990s. Sadly, series are designed for the “Señora de Cuenca”, an algorithmic target viewer or “average Jane” of sorts, and are reduced to preconceived formulas created by the channels: a series must include elderly characters, children, a love story, etc.

According to Anaïs Schaaff, the situation for scriptwriters in Spain is far from enviable. Very few people are working on projects they are truly interested in, that truly shine, at least from a creative point of view. So-called art-house work has no place in Spanish television. Grouped into teams, screenwriters are seen almost as civil servants, paid to produce lines of dialogue in record time. Furthermore, channels, particularly commercial ones, intervene heavily in the creation of the series. Very little room for manoeuvre is accorded to the screenwriters who, in most cases, participate only from afar in the development or production of the series. This observation is what inspired Anaïs Schaaff and Javier Olivares to create Cliffhanger TV Media, with the aim of promoting a model similar to that of the American showrunner, which is practically unheard of in the Spanish audiovisual landscape.

The influence that channels have over creation explains in part why the number of international co-productions remains very small, practically non-existent, in Spain. The channels, both public and private, want to retain full mastery over the series they are broadcasting. They still take a very poor view of the fact that a foreign channel might interfere in their creative process. On this topic, the recent example of Carlos Rey Emperador is particularly noteworthy: the series was originally designed to be a coproduction between Spain and Germany, but the demands of the Spanish channel eventually led to the German partner deciding to withdraw from the project.

Opening the Doors of Time

And yet, despite this far from encouraging backdrop, a series as unusual as El Ministerio del Tiempo has come to light. Javier and Pablo Olivares had the idea for the series around fifteen years ago. The two brothers were passionate about history and science fiction, and imagined a story of doors of time guarded by a mysterious and secret government ministry. Their simple objective was to create a series they would want to watch.

The series was intended to be predominantly realist, as the plot essentially takes place within an office filled with civil servants who bear the crushing weight of bureaucracy (a phenomenon every Spaniard is familiar with). The time travel added an original fantasy dimension. Convinced that they would never manage to sell the project, the two brothers filed it away at the bottom of a drawer.

The years passed. Pablo Olivares learned that he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was able to convince his brother to revisit this project, which he held so close to his heart, and they launched into the writing of the first two episodes of the series. They did it for themselves alone, with no pressure from outside, and without knowing if they would be able to sell the series.

Because unlike in cinema, in which Spanish fantasy films have experienced unprecedented growth in recent years, the fantasy genre does not interest Spanish channels, which consider it far too risky. Charline de Lépine points out that Teresa Fernández-Valdés and Ramón Campos attended Série Series the previous year to present The Refugees, a highly anticipated series co-produced with the BBC. It is clear to Anaïs Schaaff that this series would never have seen the light of day without the support (particularly financial) of the British channel.

Anaïs Schaaff and Javier Olivares then met with Fernando López Puig, the head of the fiction department of Televisión Española. They had requested this meeting to present a project for the re-make of the French series Les Revenants. They were unable to acquire the rights and the project never came about. Once the meeting was over, Javier Olivares had the presence of mind to leave a dossier including several other projects, including a complete version of the first episode of El Ministerio del Tiempo. It turns out that Fernando López Puig is a big fan of science fiction, and very knowledgeable about British and American series. The project piqued his interest and, against all odds, he was able to convince the TVE directors to undertake the adventure.

Anaïs Schaaff and Javier Olivares set about finding a production company to help them fund the series. But when they explained to their interlocutors that they also intended to play the role of executive producer (Javier Olivares would be the showrunner for the series), every door was closed in their faces, and in the end they couldn’t find a single production company in all of Madrid that was willing to support them in this project, despite having the blessing of Televisión Española.

The showrunner model is still taking its first shaky steps in Spain, and although we are currently witnessing the emergence of a new class of creator-producers, broadcasters are still displaying distrust and struggling to understand what they will get out of collaborating with them. But for Anaïs Schaaff, the showrunner model is a quality gauge. Not only does it inject an extra dose of creativity into television fiction, but it also creates more acute awareness of the economic aspects at play in creation. Because the showrunner, as Anaïs Schaaff points out, can lose money. “That makes their role more dangerous, but also more exciting.”

Six hands contributed to writing each scene from the eight episodes of El Ministerio del Tiempo’s first season, the task being shared between the Olivares brothers and Anaïs Schaaff. Pablo Olivares, she remembers sadly, dedicated his heart and soul to the writing despite his illness. Towards the end, he was unable to move a muscle, instead writing with the aid of innovative ocular writing technology. El Ministerio del Tiempo is in a way his last will and testament. He died in November 2014 without having the chance to see the series.

The Past is Unchangeable, the Future is Uncertain

Broadcast during prime time, the first episode of the series recorded an audience share of 13%, 4 points higher than TVE1’s average share. But this result, which is disappointing at first glance, does not allow us to measure the actual success of the series, because most viewers watched El Ministerio del Tiempo on catch-up television and online.

Overnight, the series became a veritable societal phenomenon. It received unanimous praise from critics and the support of a community of die-hard fans nicknamed the “Ministericos”. It is in part thanks to this community that the series managed to obtain a second 13-episode season. Its success was such that the series was able to call upon internationally-renowned producers like Paco Plaza (producer of, among other things, the horror trilogy REC), who was a big fan of the first season.

From a purely cultural standpoint, El Ministerio del Tiempo awoke in its viewers a true passion for Spanish history. Of course, over the course of the episodes, we cross paths with great historical figures such as Napoleon or Isabela I of Castile. But the series is also committed to retracing the steps of history’s forgotten heroes: the populace. It’s important to note that Javier and Pablo Olivares both studied History at university. As for Anaïs Schaaff, she studied ‘Humanidades’ or Humanities: a combination of history and literature.

A series like El Ministerio del Tiempo is very difficult to export. In fact, the plot is closely linked to Spanish history and, for this reason alone, could be off-putting for viewers from other countries. Anaïs Schaaff indicates that the format for the series has nonetheless been purchased by several channels, notably in the United States and China.

In spite of this success and the anticipation of its many fans, the future of the series remains uncertain and, as of now, there is nothing to confirm the shooting of a third season. Up to now, each episode in the series has enjoyed a budget of around €580,000. Anaïs Schaaff takes the opportunity to salute the impressive work of the special effects teams, who, despite the budget allocated to them, have succeeded in recreating magnificent scenes from pivotal points in Spanish history. The third season, if it does take place, would need a higher budget, and Cliffhanger TV Media is currently seeking additional funding. Discussions are underway with Netflix and Telefónica, but nothing has been signed yet. We can only hope that the doors to the past have not been closed for good…

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