The Growth of Digital Media in Latin America

Colombia, Brazil, Peru and other countries are starting to bloom.

Having recently been invited to present a talk on cross-media practices in Bogotá, my research unveiled a Latin American media industry that’s changing at a fast pace. Driven by increased Internet penetration rates, greater smartphone take-up due to telco subsidies and government-led initiatives to reduce data costs in countries including Peru, Brazil and Colombia, Latin America holds far more interest for content creators and producers than just the beautiful locations and film industry tax breaks already familiar to some. With its inherent storytelling traditions and the opportunity to reach new audiences in the millions, this vast market offers potential that has not gone unnoticed.

Earlier this year, Netflix announced its first original Spanish-language commission, a 13-part Mexican series that will debut in 2015, reflecting an appetite for original content in local markets.

An unprecedented boom in smartphone ownership now sees Latin America taking five of the top ten spots for the amount of time spent on social media, with Brazilians spending over 13 hours per month and Colombians close to six hours. A region’s staggering 95% of Internet users have adopted social networks, with Facebook being their network of choice. It should then come as no surprise that the company announced its first Global Agency Lead in Latin America at the Cannes Lions 2014.

First-Mover Advantage – Local, not Global

Square Enix, the Japanese gaming company behind goliaths such as Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider, with offices in Europe, North America and the Far East, opened its Latin American subsidiary in Mexico in late 2012. Interestingly, the company is looking to develop and support talent and businesses to explore which games may present appeal at a local rather than global level. It’s a refreshingly different approach to simply tapping these territories for cheap development costs. In an interview with gamesindustry.biz, Igor Inocima, head of Square Enix LatAm, explains: “Most of the games that are popular here are also popular in the US and Europe, like shooter or action games. But maybe there’s a formula that works specifically well here. That’s one of the things we’re attempting to determine. For example, why are RPGs not that popular here? Is it because players don’t identify themselves with the story or the settings are too far away from them? So we’re experimenting with some combinations of things to see if we can find something that hasn’t been tried yet. But we first have to see how it works.”

Although it remains to be seen whether or not this long-term strategy will be given the chance it deserves (a new company management structure has led to the recent closure of the company’s Indian subsidiary which followed a similar remit), it could well prove itself an interesting model for other industry sectors.

“I’ve been going to Bogotá and Mexico for the past few years now, and what I see is a media industry that is very aware of the opportunity created by new platforms and techniques and is moving swiftly toward adopting new models,” says New-York based producer and transmedia strategist Caitlin Burns, who has worked on story worlds including Pirates of the Caribbean and Avatar.

Projects of particular interest include Susana y Elvira which has become one of the most widely-read blogs in Colombia. Narrated by the alter egos of the founders of Bogotá-based Siete y Ocho, it explores the friends’ loves, lives and everything in between. Appealing to a female demographic aged between 20 and 30 years old, the writers have steadily built a loyal following taking advantage of social media channels since the launch in 2008. Their award-winning blognow boasts an average 200,000 readers a month and was adapted into a hugely successful web series by Mimosa TV in 2012. Now in its third season, it’s the most widely viewed in the country.

Rethinking Development

Also from Colombia, the interactive web documentary El Charco Azul follows the lives and dreams of a family living along a railway track on Colombia’s Pacific coast that leads to nowhere. Director Irene Lema decided on an online format, highly unusual in Colombia, when she noticed how communities in this remote part of the country used Internet cafés as social spaces (very few have a connection at home) and met up to watch things together online. This communal experience turns our typical notions of online viewing on their head. The project is co-produced by Señal Colombia, the state TV and radio station, which is gradually moving into the cross-media space using apps and games to promote its programs and boarding international co-productions.

In many ways, referring to a Latin American market is a misnomer. There is no one such market but rather many individual ones. An innate understanding of these different media landscapes will be essential to successfully producing relevant content because one size definitely doesn’t fit all. Despite the challenges, it will be interesting to see which direction the seas of change will follow and whether the region will make the most of the opportunities cross-media and convergence can bring.

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