Se habla telenovelas

Telemundo takes the lead in making Miami-based soaps

MIAMI — Flash back to 1999, when Miami was heady with its prospects as the self-appointed capital of Latin American entertainment. Then came the collapse of the Internet bubble and the full-body check of the global recession.

The city remains an important distribution hub — but area production of film and TV never matched the hype.

Today all that is changing. Miami is quietly finding a niche as a production hub for telenovelas and other TV shows aimed at Spanish speakers in the U.S. and abroad.

A staple of broadcast TV in the Spanish-speaking Americas and Brazil — and highly popular in Asia, Eastern Europe and Israel — telenovelas have long been produced within Latin America. For a number of reasons — relevance to U.S. auds, production quality and security for employees and high-priced talent — Latin companies increasingly view Miami as an attractive alternative for certain shows.

“It’s a cosmopolitan city, it’s bicultural, Latin Americans feel at home here, and it’s very safe,” says Luis Villanueva, president of Miami-based Venevision Intl.

Among the scripted shows being produced or in development in Miami thus far:

  • Novelas “Amor descarado” and “La prisionera” by Telemundo RTI

  • Novela “Inocente de ti, ” in the works from Miami-based Fonovideo, with Televisa

  • Legal drama “Al filo de la ley” by Plural Entertainment

  • Novela “Angel rebelde” by Venevision Intl.

When it comes to marketing these shows in Latin America, higher production costs are offset somewhat by added value attributable to the U.S. city’s perceived glamour.

“Miami has an iconographic image, which is very attractive from a distributor’s perspective,” says Marcos Santana, president of Tepuy Intl., which disseminates Telemundo’s output.

In contrast to American sudsers — daytime shows that run for years, or even decades — Spanish-language novelas are nightly strips that run four to six months in primetime, or 100-120 one-hour episodes, on average.

Beyond the novelas and other scripted shows, thousands of hours of other Spanish-language programming, including talkers, news and variety shows are originating in Miami. Univision, the dominant player in U.S. Spanish-language media, produced 3,600 hours in Miami in 2003 for its flagship network alone.

As for the competition — “we’re now producing about three-quarters of our primetime in Miami,” says Ramon Escobar, exec VP of programming and production for Telemundo. The No. 2-ranked Spanish-language web spent some $30 million on original programming last year, in Miami and elsewhere.

“At some point down the road, we will produce 100% of primetime here,” he says.

For now, Telemundo continues to rely on soaps produced with its partners, Argos in Mexico and Caracol in Colombia, and dubbed sudsers from Brazil’s Globo.

That translates to an attractive employment base for the city’s production community, with the shows generating hundreds of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Talent from Latin America is migrating to Miami to take advantage of these emerging opportunities — and economic and social stability.

The William Morris Agency established an office in Miami Beach a year ago, and has been developing talent and shows, though the activity is still in early stages.

“For the first time in years, we’ve been able to open the doors so that these two major networks (Telemundo and Univision) are open to outside producers,” says Raul Mateu, the agency’s Florida topper.

Some of that activity involves outreach to L.A. “We’re marrying Hollywood producers with local producers, working to pair up writers in the mainstream with people in Miami,” he says. “There are no rules right now.”

The agency has brought reps from Buena Vista and Universal to Miami for meetings. Mateu says one project close to fruition is an English-language U.S. remake of “Betty la fea” that would air on ABC. Based on the hit telenovela from Colombia, it would be exec produced by Salma Hayek and Ben Silverman (“The Office,” “Coupling”) for Reveille Prods. Storyline follows a brainy but homely young career gal who finally lands a job at a fashion firm, where she’s ignored until the business tanks and she bails it out.

Univision’s primetime comprises mostly Mexican-made novelas from Televisa, to high ratings. The conglom did take a stab at original soaps in 2003, when “Te amare en silencio” was produced in L.A. by Paloma Prods., network topper Jerry Perenchio’s shingle. Univision’s suppliers are among the most active producers in Miami. Televisa, the world’s largest producer of Spanish-language programming, is relocating its three top execs to Miami to target the U.S. Hispanic market, led by Emilio Azcarraga Jean, the company’s chairman and top shareholder.

Miami-based Venevision Intl. (VVI), distribution arm of the Venezuelan broadcaster, has emerged as a production entity with the lion’s share of its activity based in Miami.

Even so, second-ranked Telemundo has taken the lead in Miami-based production. With the backing of owners NBC/GE, Telemundo is investing heavily in original, U.S.-based scripted shows.

In March it wrapped the run of its first Miami soap, “Amor descarado,” pitting a two-part finale against the Univision launch on March 8 of Televisa’s “Mariana de la noche.” Telemundo followed with a midweek bow of “La prisionera,” its newest Miami soap, for which it spent some $10 million just to get leading man Mauricio Islas out of his contract with Televisa.

Says Escobar, “It was the highest launch of a novela in the last five years for Telemundo.”

The money has followed. The $30 million Telemundo invested in original programming last year is expected to rise commensurate to $60 million in 2004, according to president and CEO Jim McNamara.

Fonovideo, with its roots in Venezuela, deserves credit for pioneering novela production in Miami, having set up shop in 1996. “We’ve produced 10 novelas over the past eight years,” says president Alfredo Schwarz. “They have always been co-productions.”

Over the past few years Schwarz was teamed with VVI; their Miami-based collaborations have included the hit “Gata salvaje,” “Rebeca,” and the current production “Angel Rebelde,” all aired on Univision.

Fonovideo has now signed on to work with Televisa on the Mexican giant’s first U.S.-based novela, “Inocente de ti.” The novela, about immigration, will be filmed in Mexico, with Televisa bringing in technical and other support for the Miami shoot, Schwarz says.

“We are in pre-production — scouting locations, working on the script.” He hopes production will begin as soon as this month.

VVI, a division of the Cisneros Group, moved decidedly into production in Miami in 2000. Today, it is producing nearly 1,200 hours annually out of Miami, up from only 240 hours in 2000.

Per Luis Villanueva, VVI president, a soap produced in Miami can draw on idiosyncrasies of the various nationalities represented here, resulting in what he terms “a neutral novela” — not Mexican, not Colombian, not Venezuelan, but a category apart.

Besides novelas, VVI produces two daily talkshow strips — “Casos de familia” and “Quien tiene la razon,” a weekly political talker hosted by journalist Andres Oppenheimer — plus 26 hours of “Camera candida.”

“We are in pre-production on another 104 hours for Univision,” says Villanueva, who is tight-lipped on details.

VVI is weighing a major investment in infrastructure. “We are evaluating the possibility of acquiring our own studios,” Villanueva says.

Plural Entertainment is betting U.S. Hispanic auds will watch more than just novelas. Univision has commissioned 13 episodes of its legal drama, “Al filo de la ley,” in exchange for exclusivity in the U.S. market. The series is set in a Los Angeles law firm, though filmed in Florida. Plural director general Luis Fernandez acknowledges “it’s closer to a ‘gringo’ series, but created with the U.S. Hispanic audience in mind.”

Plural is also in development on two Miami-based projects for Latin American pay TV channels and has co-produced movies.

Novelas are not expected to go away, and producers foresee an increasingly bright future for Miami on that front. Eventually, the Miami-based industry will need to create schools to groom talent, similar to those operated by broadcasters in Latin America, maintains VVI’s Villanueva.

“We will still bring people in from Latin America, but for the long term, we need to train and develop internally.”

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