Jun 10, 2007

Original Stories or Remakes?

This week I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Luis Clemens, a freelance reporter who covers Hispanic marketing and media for trade publications such as Multichannel News.

In his blog, Clemenseando, Clemens wrote a post titled Too Many Telenovela Remakes? in which he describes the current telenovela landscape in U.S. Spanish speaking networks:

All three of Univision's primetime telenovelas are remakes. "La Fea Más Bella" is a Televisa remake of Fernando Gaitán's "Yo soy Betty, la fea." "Destilando Amor" is the Mexicanization of another Gaitán novela "Café, con aroma de mujer". In the new Televisa-produced version, Colombian coffee has been replaced with Mexican tequila. (The original setting of a coffee plantation has been replaced with an agave plantation and agave is the basic ingredient of tequila). "Duelo de Pasiones" is yet another Televisa remake. This novela is a remake of "Flor de las Nieves", which first aired in Cuba in the late 1950s.

To be sure, remakes aren't exclusive to the U.S. telenovela landscape. Remakes ("refritos", as they are commonly called in Venezuela) are present in many television stations across the world which, like Univisión, purchase their telenovelas from Mexican giant Televisa.

In Venezuela, remakes also have a place in television production. In the last few years, RCTV re-made as single shows some of its most successful telenovelas like La Señora de Cárdenas, Natalia de 8 a 9 and Silvia Rivas, Divorciada, all originally written by José Ignacio Cabrujas. In 2006, RCTV broadcast to low ratings a remake of Julio César Mármol's El Desprecio. And before being taken off the air by the government's cancellation of its license, RCTV was airing Mi Prima Ciela, written by Pilar Romero as a remake of her two successful telenovelas Elizabeth and Maite. Venevisión has also produced remakes of variable quality and degrees of success. (By the way, the question why remakes aren't always successful in Venezuela merits a separate post).

As I told Clemens, when he interviewed me, I'm not against remakes. But, I am against producing an excessive number of them. I also disagree with those who see the remake as the only production option, or as their preferred production choice. I firmly believe that it isn't healthy for the telenovela industry that one of its crucial players--Televisa--produces almost exclusively remakes. This focus on remake production will gradually asphyxiate creativity, diminish the generation of new plots and the possibilities of Latin Americans telling the stories of who we are and how we love. In the long term, remakes may produce fatigue in the audience as the genre will lose its freshness.

Last summer Produ.com published on its website a collection of videotaped interviews with key producers and writers discussing the issue of remakes. In his interview, Colombian writer Fernando Gaitán, whose marvellous Yo soy Betty, la Fea has been successfully remade in many countries, and is the inspiration for ABC's Ugly Betty, states that "television can't continue repeating itself, they're going to kill the genre", and adds "the remake is eating up the telenovela".

Award-winning Venezuelan author Alberto Barrera Tyszka hits the nail on the head when he states that the current emphasis on remakes "is related to one of the telenovela industry's strongest anxieties: how to guarantee success".
Certainly, the percepction among many networks executives is that remakes are sure successes. This is particularly true in Mexico.

And, even though Mexican producers like Salvador Mejías argue that they are the ones taking risks "because the issue is that people don't feel it's a remake", it seems obvious to me that the preference for remakes is a telltale sign that the "business" aspect of the telenovela is paramount and more important than any of the other facets of this media/cultural product that so defines Latin Americans.

I alway say that telenovelas have a little (or a lot) of Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, The Count of Montecristo, The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask and Ugly Duckling, among other classic plots. Notwithstanding this common ground, Latin American creativity has produced wonderfully diverse love stories with characters we know and recognize. These are stories about ourselves, and as such they must evolve with the social formation and not get stuck in a vicious cycle of repetition.

(Note: Here you can find several video interviews with Fernando Gaitán in Spanish, including the one in which he discusses remakes. Also, through the link Ver más opiniones del Remake, you can access other interviews on this same topic).

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