Isabel's plans have gone horribly awry. The buxom brunet, her frosty highlighted hair in gravity-defying layers, had one mission: Seduce and marry the sweetly naive Alejandro, heir to his grandfather's highly profitable ranch. Now she listens, horrified, as the earnest young man, brown eyes shining with sincere concern, reveals what has been so difficult to admit.
He does not love her. The engagement is off.
Isabel hurls a Spanish insult at her astonished lover's face, along with the remnants of her cocktail before smashing the glass against the floor and fleeing in tears.
A short while later, in a bland hotel room, Isabel weeps with anxiety.
"I have to make Alejandro marry me," she cries en español. She picks up the phone, fingers shaking, and dials her friend Patricio, who is privy to her gold-digging.
"Patricio, help me," she sobs, nearly hyperventilating.
"Where are you?" he demands.
"Estoy en el Marriott en Fort Lauderdale."
"Dónde?" he asks again.
She repeats, "El Marriott. En Fort Lauderdale."
Fort Lauderdale? Not Caracas? Not Mexico City? People look and talk like that in Fort Lauderdale?
It is only a matter of moments before Patricio bursts through the door, breathless and wild-eyed. He has a head of frosty highlights that competes with Isabel's. His spray-tan is a shade darker, but the two make a lovely couple. Their boldly colored wardrobe is a sign that their motives are less than pure. (Heroes and heroines prefer pastels.)
"I don't know what to do," Isabel wails.
"I do," says Patricio, reining her in for a kiss.
It's just another day for the characters of Olvidarte Jamás (Never Forget You), a popular daytime telenovela that airs on Univision at 1:00 p.m. weekdays. In it and others on the Spanish-language network you can get a good dose of romance and revenge, and you're likely to find shots of Miami's neon-lit skyline interspersed with horses and swarthy cowboys wearing chaps. You might learn, if you did not previously suspect it, that just outside the city limits, extended families and their loyal servants traverse sprawling oligarchic ranches while engaged in tangled alliances of doomed love or wicked vengeance. Sometimes they leave their estates and find themselves at, say, an Outback Steakhouse.
Last year, eight 120- to 250-episode telenovelas were filmed in Miami-Dade County. The business brought an estimated $28 million to the local economy, according to Jeff Peel at the Miami-Dade Mayor's Office of Film and Entertainment. The city has long been a production center for talk shows and the home base for number-two Spanish network Telemundo, but the telenovela the backbone of Spanish-language television has flourished here only in the past three years.
In 2003 Telemundo opened a 55,000-square-foot production studio in Hialeah. A year later Venevision, a Caracas-based firm that produces daytime soap operas for the U.S. market, opened a full-scale novela production studio in Doral.
The reasons for Miami's prominence are numerous: Venezuela, a hotbed of telenovela production just a few hundred miles away, is embroiled in political instability; the Magic City has lots of Spanish-speaking workers with experience in television; and compared to some major U.S. cities, like Los Angeles, producing here is cheap.
It may also be that American television executives have finally noticed something much of the world already knows: Telenovelas might be sappy, but they generate die-hard audience loyalty. And they are comparatively inexpensive: A 120-episode telenovela can be produced for about eight million dollars, less than what the cast of Friends used to earn for two half-hour episodes. Additionally their universal story lines make them prime candidates for dubbing and syndication, which means more opportunity for profit. Latin soap operas are among the fastest-growing and most profitable segments of the U.S. television market, now worth two billion dollars. And Miami is poised to profit.
It's Tuesday, January 10, and Arquímedes Rivero, executive telenovela director and creative don of Venevision Productions, is promoting his company's latest product, which premiered on Univision the previous day. "We have a lot of hope for Olvidarte Jamás, because this novela has such a special setting this mix between Mexican ranch and Florida hacienda, no?"
Dressed in a dark green suit and an Italian button-down shirt, Rivero speaks a rapid, cutting Spanish. The small, liver-spotted 75-year-old is a legend in the business, the unlikely progenitor of dozens of love triangles (actually more like love dodecahedrons) that have been syndicated around the world. On dusty television screens in locales as far-flung as China and Poland, protagonistas are shedding jewellike, soft-focus tears manufactured wholesale according to this pleasant elderly gentleman's calculated and shrewd touch.
Rivero works in Doral in a windowless office whose walls engage in a veritable battle of the sexes: The longer sides of the room's rectangle are plastered with dozens of cut-out magazine photos of telenovela stars whom the unassuming creative mogul discovered in castings or on the street. Women smile on one side and men smolder on the other. The graying, straight-faced executive basks in the crossfire of come-hither glances and scornful smirks. (And serious silicone it can't be mere coincidence that the man shares a name with the Greek mathematician who discovered the principle of buoyancy.)
Doraluz Vargas, a television critic for El Nuevo Herald, has called Rivero the "King Midas" of the genre. Nearly everyone he works with calls him a maestro, a genius of legendary talent. His headquarters may look like the bedroom of a starstruck teenage girl, but Arquímedes Rivero studies novelas with a formulaic vigor that borders on the scientific.
Born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, in 1930, he broke into the business as a deep-voiced Casanova on Cuban radio-novelas in the Fifties. In 1954, five years before the Fidel Castro-provoked exodus began, he immigrated to Venezuela. Though he possesses the honeyed baritone of a full-bodied Adonis, Rivero is neither tall nor meaty a disadvantage that effectively ended his acting career upon the advent of televised novelas. He became an executive with Venevision, a division of the Cisneros Group, one of the largest media corporations in South America.
That he now lives and works in Miami is a sign Spanish-language networks are investing some of their greatest talent in the local industry. Since 1998, Venevision has coproduced seven novelas here with local production company Fonovideo, and two more after building its own studio, Venevision Productions, a year and a half ago. Work on the tenth show began more than a month ago.
But Rivero's company, under contract to provide exclusive programming to Univision, has always played second fiddle to Mexico City-based Televisa. The Mexican firm supplies 36 percent of the network's programming; Venevision provides 17 percent. (The remainder of the schedule is dominated by Univision-produced news, talk shows, variety shows like Sábado Gigante, and sports.)
As Rivero well knows, programming of telenovelas on Univision is about demand: Most U.S. Hispanics are Mexican, and they want to watch shows from their homeland. So when Venevision started producing in Miami in 1998, he began developing a novela of a different sort: He hired his favorite actors from Venezuela, other Latin American countries, and even the U.S., but consciously cast more Mexicans than any other one nationality. He taught all of his actors to speak in the neutral accent of newscasters and to avoid regional slang.
The result is that Rivero's novelas, including Olvidarte Jamás, are set in the United States but have a Panamerican identity or one that might be called Miamian.
Rivero is famous for his casting, a skill he says he acquired through many years of imagining characters for radio. "He is a master," marvels director Yaky Ortega, who has worked on a number of projects with Rivero, including Olvidarte Jamás. "How he molds new actors, how he creates a family with such harmony between the characters."
It's a harmony that remains even when the actors hail from disparate countries. On the wall directly opposite his desk between the display of stars Rivero has pasted cut-out photos of the cast of Olvidarte Jamás, names typewritten beneath each. He looks at them happily. "And we have a beautiful couple," Rivero announces. "Sonya Smith, she's Venezuelan, and Gabriel Porras, he is Mexican, and they make a very attractive couple." He is not wrong. The couple stares out from the middle of the wall. Sonya Smith grew up in Caracas with her Venezuelan mother but was born in Pennsylvania, her father's home. She is tall and blond with sea green eyes and a refreshingly Roman nose (for a telenovela star, she looks surprisingly natural). In person and on television she is breathtakingly pretty and possessive of a sort of sparkling gravitas. Gabriel Porras is equally good-looking, dark to Smith's light, with charismatic brown eyes.
Rivero pauses, smiling fondly at their photos. "We have a lot of faith that this is going to be an international success. Un gran boom."
Olvidarte Jamás begins with the rape of a frightened and weeping teenage Luisa by Gonzalo Montero, the long-haired, earring-wearing alcoholic son of Gregorio Montero, patrón of a large and impossibly successful ranch on the outskirts of Miami where Luisa is employed as a domestic.
When Luisa refuses to terminate the resulting pregnancy, Don Gregorio burns down the humble dwelling where she lives, killing Luisa's grandmother (her only living relative) and causing the girl to miscarry. Luisa leaves the ranch, but not alone: One of Don Gregorio's daughters (which of the three is one of many mysteries for the viewer to uncover) suffered through an illegitimate pregnancy of her own and secretly entrusts Luisa with the care of the baby girl, Carolina. To protect another from the tyrannical wrath of Don Gregorio, Luisa agrees to take the infant and find her a home.
Eighteen years later, Luisa has raised Carolina, now a young woman. She has also somehow made a fortune, but decides to exact revenge. She returns to work for the Monteros as a domestic, disguising her true identity by trading her trendy officewear for the dirndls and peasant skirts that apparently are all the rage among domestics working on ranches near Miami. Her hair is dyed blond, her eyes masked in colored contact lenses, and she calls herself Victoria. Not even her adopted daughter knows her past or her agenda.
Gonzalo Montero is still drunk and lecherous, but with shorter hair. Gregorio Montero remains rich and evil. Victoria/Luisa, though calculating and prone to sarcasm, continues to be our heroine. In addition to revenge, she must maintain a vigilant watch over Carolina, who has no idea that making out with certain members of the Montero family may actually be incestuous. Fortunately the object of Carolina's affection, the popular Alejandro Montero, was not fathered by the man everyone thinks he was. (It's all fairly complicated.)
Of course, the owner of a neighboring ranch the often-shirtless and sweat-sprayed Diego, good with both horses and women, and conveniently an enemy of the Monteros notices the new domestic and immediately falls in love with her. As you'd expect, the Victoria-Diego coupling is thwarted for more than 100 episodes. The Isabel-Alejandro-Patricio-Carolina drama is only a subplot.
The script makes no suggestion that they are immigrants, or even that some Miamians might speak English. The American flag makes nary an appearance, nor do green cards, immigration offices, or Gloria Estefan. Miami is only a scenic backdrop. (Telemundo, the Miami-based network, is more explicit in its immigrant appeal. It has published a guide with tips about work permits and citizenship, and in El Alma Herida (The Injured Soul), clips of a speech George W. Bush gave on immigration made their way into a story.)
Rivero is not worried that the lack of nationality or reality in his novelas may be disorienting. He says viewers tune in to telenovelas to escape the daily grind. He contends there are but 32 dramatic plots that cover everything from Shakespeare to the Brothers Grimm: the scheming bastard son of Much Ado About Nothing; the love that blossoms between rival families of Romeo and Juliet; the Cinderella-stepmother paradigm; the unjustly murdered protagonist who returns from the dead of Hamlet; the vain King Lear-ish father; the wasted, crazy Ophelia.... "It's the same as chess," he posits. "You have 32 pieces, and with the 32 pieces and one board, you can make millions of games. The novela works the same way."
What modernizes the story is mere details, Rivero points out. "It's like the technology of television itself," he points out. "Years ago, the chapters of a telenovela had 20 or 30 scenes an hour. Now they have 50 or 60."
But the plots, he insists, remain the same. "Life doesn't change either," he muses. "People throughout history resemble one another: Simón Bolívar is a repetition of Napoleon. Manuelita Sáenz, who was the libertador Bolívar's lover, is comparable to Napoleon's Josephine she wasn't his wife either."
The Latin American telenovela is arguably the most popular form of entertainment on the planet. Worldwide audiences are estimated in the hundreds of millions at any given moment. Dubbed or subtitled, the soaps are exported from Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, and the United States to more than 100 countries, where they often command whopping shares of the viewing audience's attention.
In Brazil, soccer games air at night on Globo, the country's largest network, but only after the 9:00 p.m. novela. For a particularly popular series, like last year's Senhora do Destino (Her Own Destiny), average audience shares climb as high as 76 percent of viewers in a country of 170 million people.
In 1997 the U.S. State Department had to intervene when a Bosnian Serb faction commandeered a television station that had been airing a Venezuelan soap called Kassandra. The takeover left the station with no network feed, and no novela. Diplomats asked that Miami distributor Coral Pictures donate all 150 episodes, believing that cancellation would cause civil unrest.
Last year, some authorities attributed an enormous increase in Brazilians illegally crossing into the U.S. via Mexico to the commercial success of the Globo-produced América. "Soap Opera Lures Brazilians to United States," was the headline of one syndicated Reuters article and this in spite of a scene in the show that depicted Texas border patrol agents shooting across the Rio Grande at immigrants. In fiscal year 2004, when Mexico first waived visa requirements for Brazilians, the U.S. border patrol apprehended 886 Brazilians. In 2005, when América aired, that number reached almost 30,000. (The novela's heroine ends up in Miami, by the way.)
In fact, says Peel of the Miami-Dade film office, though the U.S. is the largest television market in the world, it is one of the very few that has never embraced telenovelas in its official language. When Peel's office made plans to host a group of Chinese television executives, he says, "One of the things they were interested in was trying to produce telenovelas." A Brazilian novela from 1976 called Escrava Isaura (Isaura the Slave), the story of a white slave girl set in the Nineteenth Century, is said to be one of the most popular television programs ever shown in China.
Latin telenovelas differ greatly from U.S. soaps. They generally last between only 120 and 250 episodes and air every weekday for about six months. There's almost always a satisfying resolution. In the U.S., they are the one bright spot in the increasingly dismal world of network broadcasting. In summer 2005, ratings fell for all of the six major English-language U.S. broadcasters. But Univision experienced a ratings increase of 23 percent among 18- to 49-year-olds. The network had an average of 3.5 million viewers more than TNT, UPN, or the WB.
Univision is the fifth most-watched network overall, and it airs at least four telenovelas each weekday, including slots at 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. the most lucrative hours. What was its prime-time programming five nights a week last summer? La Madrastra (The Stepmother), a Televisa novela about a Mexican woman wrongly convicted of a murder and exiled to Aruba. Many years later, she returns to Mexico, where she vows to find the real killer. But she must also reconnect with the children she barely knows and, of course, fall in love.
It should come as no surprise that at a recent convention of television programmers in Las Vegas, Bob Cook, president of Twentieth Television, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, unveiled plans to produce an English-language telenovela called Desire that will air five days a week on UPN this summer.
Spanish-language networks' attempts to seduce more Hispanic viewers with U.S.-style sitcoms and dramas have been massive failures. In 1998, executives at Telemundo, then owned by Sony, eliminated novelas from the prime-time lineup. They replaced them with Reyes y Reys, inspired by Starsky and Hutch, and Angeles, inspired by Charlie's Angels. The Miami-based network's audience declined by a third in nine months, to less than eight percent of Spanish-speaking viewers.
When NBC Universal acquired Telemundo in 2002, the company immediately demanded a full prime-time lineup of syndicated novelas. After airing Brazilian shows dubbed into Spanish without a great change in ratings, the network teamed with Colombian production company RTI to make the shows in Miami. Telemundo/RTI now produces the bulk of its own telenovela programming, much of it from studios in Hialeah.
Dulce Terán, the Venezuelan producer of Olvidarte Jamás, is not surprised at the Hispanic market's loyalty to the genre. "There's a captive audience in the United States that will always be very, very, very Latino. For now, at least, you'll always have the mamás, the abuelitas, and young people whose family has instilled them with a love for their roots. In the U.S., telenovelas are the way to keep yourself welded to your traditions. It's the way you remember your country, and your language."
Venevision Productions' studios, located just east of the Palmetto Expressway on NW 72nd Street, are unremarkable from the outside, another windowless concrete box in a pedestrian-unfriendly, treeless sea of sunbleached buildings. The only defining features are the six or seven enormous satellite dishes in front that blossom like mutant mushrooms.
The interior, saturated with Venevision's Fred Perry-ish logo of a golden V hovering over laurel branches, seems very new. There is a sense of unused space, of empty desks and editing studios waiting quietly to be filled.
Administrative offices and business-casual attire dominate upstairs; enormous sound stages and technical facilities occupy the lower level. If employees at Venevision speak English, they rarely use it. The wisps of conversations overheard in the hall are all in Spanish. The kitchenettes feature both standard office coffee urns and espresso makers. Meals are catered on-site.
Each telenovela has a crew of about 100 people and a cast of about 20. An entire 120-episode telenovela is produced, on average, for around eight million dollars. By comparison, Forbes estimates the median half-hour U.S. sitcom costs $1.3 million per episode.
Because of the low production costs and fast pace, the atmosphere on a set buzzes with a sort of do-it-yourself, low-budget informality. Crews are accustomed to creative improvisation: a patch of rooftop becomes a makeshift prison yard; an ill-fitting shirt is cinched with a safety pin. Dulce Terán, producer of Olvidarte Jamás, says the cast and crew working on the show became extremely close to each other and to the material they produced. She saw grown men shed tears during the filming of particularly moving scenes.
The cast and crew produced roughly one episode every weekday for six months, many working ten-hour days. It's an astonishing pace, but routine for the industry. When Olvidarte Jamás ends, work will begin immediately on the next, as yet unnamed, project.
Although a few employees and actors in Olvidarte Jamás are bilingual, most are not, and most left their native countries to work in Miami many for the first time. Terán explains that Venevision provides newcomers with housing and transportation. Production administrator Zulma Vargas teaches them about taxes, and lawyer Maite Miranda organizes their immigration paperwork. The fact that many are new to South Florida brings the cast and crew together. "I think that people are very happy to be here, because almost everyone's country is in crisis," says Terán. "It's the case in Venezuela, it's the case in Colombia with the narcotrafficking and insecurity and in Peru too. All of our countries are in crisis."
The sound stage is cavernous. Only the sets being used on any given day are lit; the rest gather dust in an eerie, dim light. Production assistants, conscious of making noise, cautiously navigate extension cords on tiptoe. A walk through passages between sets is a tour of everyday life on Olvidarte Jamás: There's Don Gregorio Montero's office with a heavy wooden desk. There is his opulent bedroom. There lit for later filming is a padded cell. (Who ends up in that?) There is the majestic, Gone with the Wind-inspired staircase.
On January 10 in the early afternoon, at least three scenes are being shot in or around the production facility. The director responsible for interior scenes (those shot in the studio) is a cheery Spaniard named Tito Rojas. He watches the action and provides direction from the vantage point of a command center with small monitors inset into carpeted walls. Here he can view various scenes at once without having to be physically present on each set.
For even greater efficiency, actors rely on a small microphone in their ear through which an apuntador, or prompter in this case a tired-looking man in a foam-walled sound booth reads them their lines. The director gives actors instructions through the system as well.
In the apuntador's closet in the command center is a small monitor that allows him to hear both Rojas's comments and the actors' performances. The screen presently features a scene between the telenovela's two villains: The nefarious Gonzalo Montero is paying a visit to rival villain Renato, who wears the orange jumpsuit of a prisoner.
Mexican actor Héctor Soberón, a meaty, thuggish-looking Bruce Willis type, plays Renato. Equally deep-voiced and imposing is Sebastian Ligarde as Gonzalo. Ligarde is a Mexican-American from Texas. Both stars are veterans of the genre (particularly in the role of villain) and both had their start in Televisa soaps; their appearance in a Venevision novela is a defection of sorts.
Through a microphone, Rojas counts down to filming. The actors assume dark expressions.
"Action," says Rojas.
The apuntador waits for the two characters to glare at one another. He checks the script and then leans into his microphone.
"It's not fair," he says, blandly, in Spanish.
Renato's face contorts with rage. ("Good," says Rojas.) "It's not fair," he hisses.
"Who told you that life was fair?" says the apuntador, in quick monotone.
Gonzalo chuckles wickedly. "Who told you that life was fair?" he pronounces amid evil guffaws.
In the bowels of the sound stage, on a set designed to replicate a hospital room, Sonya Smith, the Venezuelan actress who plays Luisa/Victoria, is freshening up between takes. She pulls a can of hair spray from beneath the covers of an electronic bed, where Gabriel Porras, as Diego, is reclined in a hospital gown, a badly made-up bruise over his left eye.
Arquímedes Rivero first cast Smith at age thirteen in 1986's Cristal. She was something of a Venezuelan Elizabeth Taylor, growing up in front of the cameras and acting in more than a dozen novelas. She speaks English fluently because of her American father.
This is Smith's first project in Miami. Pay for a protagonista varies, but averages about $20,000 per month. Before being cast as a lead in Olvidarte Jamás, Smith, now in her early thirties, was living in Los Angeles, auditioning for English-language roles in film and theater. She starred in one movie last year, called Cyxork 7. Her role was Angela LaSalle, a film director attempting to shoot the latest installment of a sci-fi movie franchise before a cataclysmic earthquake hits LA.
Now wearing a peasant shirt under a brown vest with jeans and cowboy boots, Smith sprays her hair and dabs at her makeup. Porras, age 37, sips coffee and tugs at his covers, complaining to no one in particular that he's hot. Olvidarte Jamás is Porras's second Miami novela. His first was in 2004. Telemundo cast him in La Prisionera midrun when its original hero, Mauricio Islas, was fired. Islas, age 31 at the time and married, was indicted for sexual activity with a sixteen-year-old. Porras saved the day.
Just as filming is about to begin, a black Labrador retriever, an informal resident of Venevision Productions, weaves his way around the actors, cameramen, and the grip, who affectionately shoos at it with his foot. The unit director counts down to action. Smith hides the can of hair spray under the covers and assumes character, gazing longingly into Porras's eyes.
"Soon, my love," she croons. "Stay strong just a little longer. Soon we will finally be together."
The three cameras roll for a moment on dewy-eyed reactions from Smith and Porras.
The director yells, "Cut!"
On January 19, the day after shooting of Olvidarte Jamás ends, the cast and crew gather for a wrap party on the patio of Diego's, a Spanish restaurant in Coral Gables. The actresses are parrotlike in a brightly colored assortment of asymmetrical dresses and jeweled stilettos. The men favor half-buttoned linen shirts or graphically ambitious pectoral-defining tees. Sipping champagne, they mill around two enormous vats of paella, laughing and air-kissing. Telenovela stars are beautiful in a carved and tan way, and it's difficult not to stare in their presence.
In 1998 only one company, Fonovideo, produced telenovelas in Miami. Nine years later, Fonovideo, which today coproduces with Televisa, is the smallest game in town. Its studios are almost rustic compared to the massive and sleek sound stages of Venevision Productions and Telemundo, which are both less than five years old. Today, says Jeff Peel of the Miami-Dade Mayor's Office, Brazil's Globo is the only major Latin broadcaster that does not have ongoing telenovela productions in Miami.
Gustavo Cisneros, the billionaire CEO of the Venezuelan-based Cisneros Group, has told the Miami Herald he hopes to start a production facility for Chinese novelas in Miami sometime in the near future. With a pool of talent now gathered here, the idea is not as radical as it may seem.
Shortly after 9:00 p.m., Arquímedes Rivero, flanked at each elbow by two of his grown children, ascends to a podium for a brief speech. Peter Tinoco, president of Venevision Productions, has just announced that Olvidarte Jamás broke a Univision ratings record for its time slot in its first week on the air, hitting a one-day high of 1.2 million viewers. But Rivero seems unfazed. He could well be in his office, half-reclined at his desk, looking toward the cut-out photos of the cast taped to the wall.
"As everyone knows," he begins, "this is the second telenovela of Venevision Productions. We start on the third one very soon." The room breaks into applause. He waits, expressionless. "I know that a lot of you feel a little sad because you weren't invited back for the next novela, but unfortunately our clients wouldn't accept it if everyone who starred in one novela came back for the next one."
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The audience's enthusiasm dampens slightly. Rivero seems to have touched a sore point. "But there will be many more novelas," he continues, "and you can be sure that we are all thinking about those who aren't staying, because you'll be included again. So thanks very much to everyone. We broke a very big record. The only record left to break is our own."
He nods tersely and descends from the podium.
Now in its second month, Olvidarte Jamás has averaged around 900,000 viewers, 62 percent of the market share and a number higher than the previous year's average for the same time slot. Venevision's next telenovela does not yet have a name, although it has tentatively been referred to as Cecilia. The company has not yet released information about the cast, characters, or time. The story, however, is predictable: a tale of impossible love, set in Miami.