The School for SuccessHow a Cuban laborer became a star telenovela writer 3/03/2006 07:00:00 PM Eastern
Whether good writers are born or made, none go far without learning some lessons about how to nurture the craft. This principle is particularly true in the telenovela industry, where many believe that, more than a likable and talented cast, the most important part of the show is its script.
“Great writers are mentored and made, as much as they are born naturally,” says Telemundo President Don Browne, who last year created Taller Telemundo: Escritores, a writing workshop that intends to help nurture and develop the skills of the next generation of telenovela writers.
It sort of had to. Univision, still the giant of the industry, gets all of its programming—including popular novelas—from Mexico's Grupo Televisa. After GE-NBC purchased Telemundo four years ago, the network had to figure out a way to grow its own.
In 2½ years, Telemundo went from being the company that acquired outside material to one that produced all of its own original content—1,040 hours a year of scripted programming, to be exact.
“I kept hearing, 'We don't have enough writers.' So I said, 'Why don't we create a school and grow our own?” recalls Browne. “We had almost 4,400 applications from all over the world.”
The network has already started accepting applications for a second installment of the class, which will begin in May and will once again be held in Miami. A third class may be added in Los Angeles.
After the unanticipated success of the first workshop, the dynamic and goal of the classes have been modified a bit.
“The second time around, we will be less theory and more practice, focusing a bit more on the actual hands-on writing experience,” explains Telemundo VP of Artistic Development Mimi Belt, who has been described as the godmother of this writing program. “This course will also be different in the sense that, instead of focusing so much on the telenovela-writing projects, we are going to be directed to the new needs of the network.”
That includes writing fiction for the network's upcoming weekend TV series and sitcoms, and creating original content for digital media.
The initial 10-month course—a partnership between Miami Dade College and Telemundo—was very much oriented toward training people to work in the industry.
Of the 14 graduates, 11 are employed one way or another in the company; eight of them have been hired full-time. Two are employed in Telemundo's telenovela department.
“I'm a little emotional about this, because this, in a microcosm, is the essence of what we are doing,” Browne says. “We are creating an industry for Hispanics in this country. In the old model, we bought stuff from somebody else. Now we actually created an industry and are opening up doors for talented Hispanics to participate in it.”
The writing program's most successful graduate justifies Browne's emotional response. Erick Hernández has little formal education and, until the class, had never even seen a TV script. A Cuban rafter who washed up on South Florida shores 11 years ago, Hernández, 32, arrived in Miami and started to work as a janitor. He moved up to become a truck dispatcher.
Always curious—and bored with his job—he started reading, then writing, then sending his short stories to Internet-based writing contests, a couple of which he won. In 2004, Hernández saw an ad for the Telemundo workshop.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
“We couldn't make this stuff up,” says Browne.
Hernández, now employed full-time at Telemundo, has turned out to be one of the network's most prolific writers.
He is working with the writing team for the prime time show Decisiones (Decisions), developing an average of 1½ scripts per week. Four of his stories have already aired, and four more are currently in production.
“The first time I went to a script reading and heard my words coming out of the mouths of the actors, I was so overwhelmed, I burst out laughing—you know, a nervous laughter,” recalls Hernández. “It was truly magical.”
As the top scribe in the telenovela-writing course, Hernández also won a book deal with Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books. The work will be based on a Telemundo script, some sort of “'after-the-wedding” sequel to a telenovela.
Hernández describes his writing style as a bit on the dark side.
“[In telenovela writing,] you always have to have the basic ingredients: the love story, the conflicts, the emotions,” he says. “But I like stories where people show their darkest emotions, too. Stories that take unexpected turns and twists.”
Hernández was still a student at the workshop when his first story made it on-air. It was an episode of Decisiones, and it gave the network its highest ratings in that time slot. In January, he wrote another episode and broke his own record.
Hernández believes everybody has an interesting story to tell. “In the end,” he says, “I am where I am not because of anything extraordinary but because I made the decision to take a risk and follow my dream.”