Beyond Borders: How The Mediapro Studio CEO Laura Fernández Espeso has Helped Transform Spain’s TV and Film Industry

Beyond Borders: How The Mediapro Studio CEO Laura Fernández Espeso has Helped Transform Spain’s TV and Film Industry

Last year, actress Penélope Cruz set up a joint production venture, Moonlyon, with Madrid-based The Mediapro Studio at the urging of its CEO, Laura Fernández Espeso, a rising star in Spain’s fast-expanding media sector.

“It’s been an amazing connection from the first,” Cruz says, about her working relationship with Fernández Espeso, Variety’s International Media Woman of the Year.

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It was no surprise to anyone that Cruz chose Fernández Espeso as her partner: Lifting up female talent in Western Europe and beyond has been a huge part of Fernández Espeso’s mission since she took the reins of the busy production studio five years ago. At her direction, the company, which has 30 production houses, has capitalized on the growing demand for TV series that can travel across the world. Fernández Espeso has steered the effort for the company to make its productions more saleable by lensing in English. She has also sought to increase diversity in every aspect of The Mediapro Studio operations by recruiting from outside of Spain.

Variety Digital Cover International Media Women of the Year Laura Fernandez
Variety Digital Cover International Media Women of the Year Laura Fernandez

“One of the main motivations for my and Laura’s launching Moonlyon is to give opportunities for new writers, actors, directors,” Cruz says. “We’re also working with a lot of amazing, very, very talented women, some well-known, some newer. We’re very excited about that. Sometimes we’re like just eight women in a meeting and it just it makes sense.”

Cruz and Fernández Espeso met when they worked on the Woody Allen’s 2008 film, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which Grup Mediapro, The Mediapro Studio’s parent company, produced.

Like Cruz, Fernández Espeso is driven. At a dinner during Spain’s San Sebastian Film Festival in 2020, most of the executive attendees started out with small talk. Fernández Espeso, in contrast, had a message to deliver. She wanted to get the word out immediately about Mediapro Studio’s major recent achievement: that the company was selling their series “The Head” territory by territory and would retain 100% of the IP.

“She is an executive with vision and strength and, at the same time, a great human being,” says Pierluigi Gazzolo, CEO of TelevisaUnivision’s streamer ViX.

“Her humility, empathy and constant desire to learn makes her a unique executive with whom it’s an authentic pleasure to work with,” says Movistar Plus+ CEO Cristina Burzako.

Born in a village near Zamora in western Spain, Fernández Espeso, 52, has moved in her career from London to Brussels to Madrid to Los Angeles and back to Madrid. Now, she’s one of Southern Europe’s rare top-ranking female executives, running the global powerhouse behind movies like “The Good Boss,” starring Javier Bardem, and backing TV series like HBO’s “The Young Pope” with Jude Law.

If Fernández Espeso’s life were made into an origin story, however, it would center on Brussels, where she worked from her mid-twenties for nearly six years for a local advertising agency.

“It changed me a lot. My friends and work colleagues were from all over the world,” Fernandez Espeso recalls, sitting at the headquarters of The Mediapro Studio on the northern edge of Madrid with an expansive view of the Guadarrama mountains. “I had my son there. It changes you, giving birth abroad in another language. It’s hugely influential to bring up your son for his first years in another culture. You become more flexible and tolerant, your being the foreigner.”

That crash course in cultural diversity proved invaluable years later when she arrived at Mediapro. “When you’ve spent your early career in Brussels in international and return to Spain, everybody thinks you understand international. That opened lots of doors,” Fernández Espeso says.

Vis a Vis Hard Truth Official Competition
Mediapro Studio productions include (from top left) Iván Escobar’s “Vis a Vis”; Mike Leigh’s “Hard Truth” and Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s “Official Competition.”

Fernández Espeso has sketched out a roadmap for growth by helping spread Mediapro Studio’s activity into new territories including Uruguay, Canada and China. She struck a content production alliance with Turkey’s Medyapim, reflecting her vision that producers the size of The Mediapro Studio can grow through smart co-productions and partnership deals.

“Laura is uniquely good at understanding the business needs of media companies in lots of markets around the world,” says Erik Barmack, former head of international content for Netflix. The Mediapro Studio made an equity investment in Barmack’s Los Angeles-based Wild Sheep Content.

Before joining Mediapro, Fernández Espeso worked in production for Globomedia, Spain’s largest scripted series production company. When she joined Globomedia in 2009, Spain was doing a roaring trade in format deals on series. But the global financial crisis sank Spain’s TV advertising market. Demand for content shrank almost overnight.

So in 2011, Globomedia president Daniel Ecija dispatched Fernández Espeso to Los Angeles to explore TV format sales and originals production. She spent the next three and a half years there.

The timing was fortuitous. When Grup Mediapro bought Globomedia in 2015, the high-end drama series revolution was lifting off, with Mediapro co-producing “The Young Pope,” its first big international series. Ranking as one of a handful of executives in Spain with real TV work experience abroad, Fernández Espeso was named Grup Mediapro’s director of international content in 2015. As international TV became Mediapro’s biggest source of growth, she was named corporate and TV director at The Mediapro Studio at its launch in 2019. She was promoted to CEO a year later. On January 1, 2025, she’ll become the Grup Mediapro’s general manager.

Now, Fernández Espeso is preparing to conquer the U.S. market in a major way and will soon be unveiling a first slate of titles produced in English out of North America.

What are your priorities at The Mediapro Studio?

The most important is growth in English-speaking markets such as the U.S. We should be able to announce news about that in May. And we’d like to strengthen our operations in Latin America. We’re already positioned and producing a lot, but it’s still one of our principal growth areas. There are more opportunities than ever. Our focus is where we have operations: Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and the U.S. Spanish-language film/ TV market handled out of Miami.

Your biggest growth has been in international TV production. What about film?

We’ve been making about two films a year. Now we’re going to make many more. There’s a large demand from streaming services. Some movies we produce, others are platform originals, some will open in cinema theaters. We’re preparing films in Latin America and more in Spain.

The Good boss the Head Endless Night Perfect Day MediaPro
The Mediapro Studio is responsible for Fernando León de Aranoa’s “ The Good Boss” (left); León de Aranoa’s “A Perfect Day” (top); Isabel Coixet’s “Endless Night (bottom left)” and Ran Tellem’s “The Head” (bottom right).

You yourself cut your teeth working on films by Francis Ford Coppola, Ken Loach and Juan José Campanella.

Yes, as director of marketing. When I came back from Brussels I was given the big foreign names. People thought that I could do foreign directors. These were the first years of my career, including the launch of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro,” which he shot in Buenos Aires and then Alicante in 2008. I remember him commenting that this was the first time he opened a shoot to the press.

People associate Spanish TV’s lift-off with “Money Heist” becoming Netflix’s first international block- buster in 2018. But really the revolution started much before. A study from The Wit noted that, in 2014, Spain had more format adaptations than any other country in the world. And you were there at the start.

Yes. In 2009, Globomedia was Spain’s biggest scripted series producer, though initially I headed up cinema. In TV, Globomedia was the export pioneer and was extraordinarily successful before the arrival of Netflix and other streamers. It sold almost all its series in more than 150 countries.

Currently, eight of Netflix’s Top 10 non-English series and movies ever are from Spain. Why do you think Spain has been this successful?

Spain has spectacular creative talent. When I was at Globomedia, you couldn’t help being in contact with all of the creators — Daniel Ecija, Laura Belloso, Alex Pina, Fernando González Molina, Pilar Nadal — a generation of fabulous writers who made series which traveled the world over. We couldn’t compete in primetime with the huge budgets and VFX of U.S. series, so we had to develop characters more, build a local connection via humor.

Do you feel you’re raising the glass ceiling?

There are a lot of other top women executives whom I respect a lot. But in truth there’s still an awful lot to do in terms of equality, which is a huge concern for me. At Mediapro, I’m working with all the [tools] I have to improve this. I belong to the Group Mediapro’s diversity committee, a watch- dog to see that protocols are implemented. And it’s really urgent and highly important for the studio to reflect a lot on what stories we tell, because we have the responsibility — we reach millions of viewers and spectators. So the questions are: What stories do we chose? Who writes them, directs and acts in them? What types of characters, and what roles do they fulfill?

Mediapro launched a screenwriting Master’s program in 2019, teaming with Madrid’s Complutense University, Barcelona’s ESCAC and then El Labs to collaborate with a new generation of talent working in Twitch, TikTok, podcasts, etc.

All the Master’s participants have internships on our productions and more than 50% are now working at the studio. Training relates to diversity; it’s so important to have more writers, both women and men, and women leading writers’ rooms. If you’re responsible for a company as big as The Mediapro Studio, which has 30 production houses, you have an obligation to contribute to the industry, train and improve its professionals.

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