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How to Build a Better Telenovela

Tight budgets and tighter deadlines drive frenetic pace of production

Producing six telenovelas a year requires the coordination of a not-so-small army of actors, writers, producers, directors and crew members to turn out episodes at a pace that even English-lingo soap opera vets would find dizzying.

Telemundo’s field marshal in this battle is Joshua Mintz, exec veep of scripted programming and g.m. of Telemundo Studios.

“It’s a big train that’s hard to stop once it gets going,” Mintz says. “It is a never-ending story for us.”

With its ramp-up of production, Telemundo now has 300 full-time employees dedicated to novela production at its studios in Hialeah, Fla., and Mexico City. And that doesn’t include other talent and crew members hired as freelancers.

Actors are often brought in under long-term contracts because of the heated competition between Univision/Televisa and Telemundo. A thesp who stars in a novela for one isn’t usually welcome at the other for a long time to come.

Telemundo Studios generates 750-780 hours of programming per year, at an average pace of three complete episodes a day, with three or four shows in production at any given time.

Novelas run about 120-160 episodes, at an average cost of about $70,000 per hour, up to about $150,000. That compares with $150,000 to $300,000 per hour for an English-lingo network sudser. One big difference is that the Telemundo serials are nonunion productions, unlike English-language network soaps. The WGA East, for one, is keeping a close eye on the growth of scripted production at the Florida studio, and is considering its options for mounting an organizing push.

Mintz joined Telemundo in 2007 after lengthy stints at Univision and Televisa and a brief run at Azteca America. He and his team are constantly scouting for material from existing novela formats from around the world, movies, novels and original ideas pitched by staff scribes. The early brainstorming process, spearheaded by Roberto Stopello, VP of development and a veteran producer, is extensive, because the underlying story has to be sturdy enough to run five nights a week for 24-plus weeks.

Once a project is given the OK by the network’s greenlight committee, an exec producer/showrunner takes the lead, with about four other writers to pound out at least 20-30 scripts before production begins. After that, the team generates four to five scripts a week.

The frenetic pace of production is no different at Televisa’s expansive facilities in Mexico. To keep up, thesps use “apuntadores” who read them their lines and relay camera instructions on their earpieces. “It’s a 45-year tradition,” says producer Salvador Mejia, who’s worked for Televisa for 33 years.

At Telemundo, production generally runs close to the airdate in order to allow for flexibility in adjusting storylines, enhancing characters based on feedback from viewers. Thanks to social media, the response is nearly instantaneous, and execs pay close attention. Telemundo’s novelas are also lensed entirely in a digital format, which saves time in post-production.

“Sometimes we’ll watch the reaction and say, ‘Oh my God, how did we miss this?’ and we’ll go back and rewrite pretty quickly,” Mintz says.

They’re also quick to add episodes when a title hits big or a particular storyline takes off with fans. The team is skilled at crafting episodes out of outtakes and leftover bits even after lensing has wrapped — employing a by-any-means-necessary spirit that TV execs undoubtedly would love to duplicate on Hollywood lots.

At the same time, production values have improved dramatically during the past decade. The novelas that Telemundo used to import had virtually no scenes shot on location; now location work makes up about 35%-40% of each production.

“It has really changed the quality of our novelas,” Mintz says.

Anna Marie de la Fuente contributed to this report.

(Pictured: From left, director Claudio Callao, Telemundo exec VP Aurelio Valcarcel and other staffers talk shop at the Miami facility.)

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