Latin American Melodramas That Are Made in the U.S.A.

Zully Montero, on the TV screen, records a scene for
Zully Montero, on the TV screen, records a scene for "La Viuda de Blanco." Unlike elsewhere, the crew in Miami hails from a variety of homelands. (By Joshua Prezant For The Washington Post)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 5, 2006

MIAMI -- Heaving bosoms. Breathless dialogue. Betrayal. Telenovelas , the passionate melodramas of Spanish-language television, may look complicated. But the secret to writing them is simple.

Take two people who want to kiss.

Prevent them from doing so for 120 episodes.

"A telenovela is the story of an impossible love," instructor Roberto Stopello, a chief writer at the Telemundo network, told students during a recent class here on escenas de amor (love scenes). "That is the formula."

This city at the crossroads of Latin America is in the midst of a telenovela production boom -- some see it emerging as a kind of Latin Hollywood -- and Telemundo created the class last year to round out its stable of writers.

While the overheated dramas have long appealed to Hispanic audiences in the United States, telenovelas were almost always written and produced somewhere else, most often in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia or Brazil.

But in a sign of the swelling number of Spanish speakers in the United States and their growing influence on Latin American culture, television executives have brought their productions here to create dramas with closer connections to the lives of Hispanics in this country.

Over the past three years, Telemundo, the second-place Spanish network after Univision in the United States, and Venevisi?n, a major Venezuelan production company, have aimed to hook more U.S. Hispanics by writing and producing more shows here, and by depicting the realities of U.S. life, where dating and class distinctions -- the staples of many a melodrama -- adhere to different rules than in other countries, executives say. American-bred telenovelas then appear not only on TVs in the United States but also in markets across Latin America.

So far this year, seven telenovelas have been taped in Miami, according to the Miami-Dade County film office, and the city now bustles with casting calls. Actors, writers, directors and cameramen from all over the Latin world arrive in a steady stream. Classes for telenovela acting and writing -- such as the one created by Telemundo President Don Browne and led by Stopello -- hone local and international talents.

"A lot of our audience came from Mexico, they're Mexican, but their life experiences are much different" than people who haven't emigrated, Browne said. "The humor is different. The pacing is different. It was critical for us to be more relevant."

One recent telenovela , " Anita No Te Rajes " (Anita Don't Give Up), revolved around the adventures of an illegal immigrant. Characters in another were depicted commenting on President Bush's recently televised speech on immigration.

"Everyone reduces their appeal down to language -- and it's not just language," Browne said. "It's cultural relevance."


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