By Michael E. Miller
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Artist Claudia La Bianca fits the description of a central-casting hippie. She wears a low-cut blouse, coy dark bangs, and a mess of jewelry and bangles. In a video backed by quiet, synth-laden new age and sappy piano, the excitable Miami Beach painter shows off her work — colorful, seductive nudes — and then sits across a small table from film producer Gino Cabanas.
He announces drolly: "OK, um, so you've been chosen."
La Bianca believes her life has just changed, that she's been handpicked to star in a Fox reality show about artists called Work of Genius."Really? You kidding? Now I need to use the bathroom. I shouldn't drink all this coffee. Thank you! Really?" Then she bursts into jubilant Italian.
Fifty-year-old Cabanas, who has deep-set light eyes and an unkempt beard, appears haggard even in a suit. He resembles an unlikely mix of Alec Baldwin and New York Gov. David Paterson. "Why have you been chosen? Because you're a genius," he posits as La Bianca continues to freak out.
Later that day, as cameras roll, Cabanas delivers the same news to 12 other artists. The resulting video is still viewable on YouTube. So is a show trailer in which Cabanas explains the artists will compete in challenges with materials ranging from "crayons to chalk, pencils to watercolors, from sketches to sandcastles, all while dressed in various costumes."
The show will be hosted by Paraguayan supermodel Cindy Taylor, the trailer promises, and will include cameos from South Florida-centric celebrities such as Tim Hardaway. The winner will take home $100,000 and a Toyota Prius.
But two years after La Bianca and friends received the good news — and 15 months after Work of Genius wrapped a six-week shoot — it turns out the show might never air. It's only legacy: litigation and mud-slinging galore.
Cabanas's Los Angeles-based production outfit, the Vine Studio, is the target of a lawsuit for failing to pay the show's 62-member crew. Since 1997, he has been sued three other times in Los Angeles County for allegedly stiffing crew and consultants.
Work of Genius's investors include Scarface alum Steven Bauer and Ana Margarita Martinez, the woman who recently made headlines when she won a $27 million judgment from Fidel Castro's regime. The investors claim to be out six figures. "Steven has disassociated himself from Cabanas," says Bauer's publicist, Julie Suronen. "Gino owes him money."
At the 148-member Facebook page "Work of Genius PAY YOUR CREW," Cabanas's ex-employees make their suspicions phonetically clear: "Can you spell P-O-N-Z-I?" writes the show's former script supervisor, Joan Puma.
Cabanas, who maintains that the show will one day be aired, admits he stopped paying his crew a couple of weeks into production. But he blames it on a "flashy" executive producer, Kenneth La Grave, who failed to finance the project as promised. "I believe people are who they say they are," Cabanas laments on the phone from Los Angeles. "By the time I realized Kenneth didn't have the money he claimed, we were deep into the shooting. There was no chance of paying back anybody, including myself."
"Gino Cabanas is a scam artist," responds La Grave, who claims his former partner owes "half a million dollars" to the show's investors and crew. "That's why he left Miami."
To hear Cabanas tell it, the lawsuits are all just speed bumps in a homegrown Florida success story. He was raised by Cuban and Italian parents in Tampa's Ybor City. "Entertainment was all we had," he intones in one promotional video for his film studio. "We would play Little League Baseball and bring pots and pans and imagine we were [Carlos] Santana."
He was a dancer — "hip-hop, flamenco, lip-synching, you name it" — at Orange County, Florida's Confetti's Nightclub before taking another dancing gig at the Strand Hotel in Miami Beach. In 1988, according to imdb.com, he got his first acting break playing bit parts on Miami Vice. Three years later, he was a gangster named Benny in the film Shades of Gold, starring John Travolta.
Cabanas was unfulfilled. "I realized because I have a Hispanic last name I was always going to play guajiros and thugs," he says. "That is not intellectually stimulating."
So he began producing and directing films. Since 1999, six of them have been released. One, The Cross, concerns a haunted personal-injury attorney. Then there's a failed sitcom pilot in which a family is trapped in a board game.
His legal trouble began in 1997, when a collection agency won a $6,282 judgment against him. In 2009, he was sued by a soundtrack musician and a storyboard artist in separate cases. The artist, Robert Roach, worked on Miracle Mile, a proposed series about Chicago's race turmoil in the '60s. He won $700 in unpaid wages but still hasn't seen any of it. The series, Roach says, "ran out of money and investors."
Cabanas shrugs off the litigation: "Every director in Hollywood has been sued."
The idea for the Miami show came to him just more than two years ago, after reading about a reality-TV production company that earned $200 million. "The last film I had made earned $3 million," he says, "and that had taken a long time."
On the facing page was a story about a Picasso painting selling for $114 million. Epiphany struck. "My concept was: Who's the next Picasso? Who's the next Andy Warhol? Who's the next Ed Hardy?"
Through a mutual friend, he met the veteran actor Bauer, whose career never took off after his star turn as Tony Montana's brother Manolo. Bauer joined as executive producer and then introduced Cabanas to La Grave — who's listed in state records as owner of lending and investment outfits as well as a Mercedes-Benz dealership. The Venezuelan businessman says he sunk $100,000 into the project.
Filming began in June 2009. The crew, artists, and Cabanas stayed at South Beach's Eden Roc Hotel. Artists would report to the shoot at 6 a.m. "ready for whatever challenge Gino had," says Miami-raised Cesar Santos, who adds he was paid $1,200 per week while the checks lasted. "It felt a bit like we were making a commercial. We might take an airboat to the Everglades and paint there with all the mosquitoes. Another day, we went to some little islands and were painting on boogie boards."
Cabanas's checks began bouncing within the first month of production, says unit production manager Julian Valdes. But most of the crew agreed to finish shooting before being paid, Cabanas claims. After six weeks, the show wrapped. Cabanas moved from the Eden Roc to a million-dollar manse on Hibiscus Island.
Now the sound files are being held hostage. "The sound guys are holding on to the sound until I pay them," Cabanas complains. "But without the sound, I can't sell the show, so I can't pay them."
La Grave hired a private investigator to delve into the show's finances. He says he learned it was never under production contract with Fox, as Cabanas had claimed. "It was definitely not a Fox Broadcasting show," says network spokesperson Elissa Johansmeier, adding that South Florida affiliates "have not heard of it."
This past January, Work of Genius grip Steve Irvine filed the breach of contract suit against the Vine Studio, Cabanas's company. It's still slogging through the courts, but Irvine hopes a judge will classify it a class action.
Cabanas says he's a victim. He has lost his $1.475 million, four-bedroom Bel Air house to foreclosure, and this past summer, Bravo aired Work of Art — a reality show about artists. Work of Genius will be better, Cabanas insists— although it might undergo a name change. He now says it will air on Venevisión, a Venezuelan TV network.
Meanwhile, he's casting what he describes as a "Sopranos-esque" drama, titled Magic City, set in 1975 Miami. He's looking for investors.
"The new show is another scam to raise money," says Julian Valdez, who claims Cabanas owes him more than $20,000. "He's like one of these — ay, coño — one of these evangelists you see on TV."