Latin America Makes Miami Major Entertainment Player

'Hollywood East' is now third-largest production hub

Many Americans' impression of Miami begins and ends with the town's portrayal in the popular 1980s television show "Miami Vice" - a glitzy metropolis oozing fashion-conscious cops, bikini-clad beauties, and plenty of sin.

But that program, a public-relations bonanza shot on location in the city, also represented one of the first waves of a serious business trend: Miami's emergence as a production hub of the entertainment industry - not only for the US but, notably, for Latin America as well.

Indeed, a five-year boom in Latin American entertainment media has propelled south Florida to its status as the third-largest production zone in the US behind Los Angeles and New York, drawing an estimated $2 billion in revenues in 1997 and employing nearly 10,000 people.

Such upbeat economic news has to cheer local leaders more than publicity about Miami's other recent happenings: election fraud, carjackings, riots, and hurricane Andrew.

The city can now boast of being not only a hot spot for television - ABC's new drama "Maximum Bob" is shot here - but also for music and movies.

"I tell producers, 'If you show up with your script, you can get everything else you need here,' " says Miami-Dade Film Commissioner Jeff Peel.

What Miami can't provide in much quantity, though, are the enormous sound stages and back lots that devour acreage in the Los Angeles area and make it possible for studios there to crank out set-dependent movies and TV shows, such as NBC's hit drama "ER."

For that reason, Miami's unlikely ever to be a film capital, says Henri Speigel, an entertainment lawyer at the Miami firm of Zack Kosnitzky. "There's not enough raw land," she says.

Nonetheless, south Florida's current status as an entertainment player is owed, at least in part, to a certain pastel-tinted police show, Mr. Peel says. "The 'Miami Vice' era in the mid-'80s marked a turning point for the growth and diversification of Miami," he says.

The area should also say "gracias" to its neighbors to the south. More than half of recent production revenues have streamed in from Spanish-language productions, undertakings made easier by south Florida's cultural ties with Latin America. "The availability of bilingual crews is one of our calling cards," Mr. Peel says.

Miami, too, is a comfortable place for Latin Americans working abroad, says Ivonne Labrada, a public-relations account executive for Miami-based Susan Brustman & Associates. It offers an atmosphere similar to home but with all-important American infrastructure.

Such factors set Miami apart from longtime entertainment meccas like L.A. or New York, Peel says. "I don't think our Latin American niche can be rivaled anywhere else," he says.

Entertainment businesses located in Miami and surrounding Dade County are well-positioned to take advantage of the enormous growth potential in both the domestic Spanish-language market and the burgeoning Latin American sector.

If they don't, they risk their livelihoods, says Peel. Local entertainment companies need to think of themselves as multinational in order to survive, he argues. "Our business is not going to be local or regional," Peel says.

"Our business is going to be from Europe and Latin America, as well as other regions of the United States."

As evidence, south Florida is now home to more than 30 Latin American cable networks and a 32-station Spanish-language radio network, Radio Unica.

Sony, which already had a strong presence in Miami's music industry, recently plunged deeper into south Florida's economy by purchasing an ailing Spanish-language cable network, Telemundo.

MTV Networks launched its Latin American division here in 1993 and chose the region because of its appeal for location shoots as well as the presence of bilingual workers, a company official says.

Music continues to thrive in this city, which is now home to. more than 50 record-, tape-, and CD-distribution firms. Estefan Enterprises, owned by pop diva and native daughter Gloria Estefan, recently purchased prime real estate in Miami's trendy South Beach in order to relocate Crescent Moon, its Latin music production company, from nearby Coral Gables.

"Miami is the place to come when you want to deal with the Latin music industry," says Ms. Speigel.

But, she notes: "We will put our own mark on the entertainment industry. People used to call us 'Hollywood East' and now it's 'Hollywood of Latin America.' I think what we are is very unique."

But Miami being Miami, even a music festival generates political controversy. Dade County almost lost a music fair because of a local prohibition on county vendors doing business with firms that deal with Cuba. That meant Cuban artists couldn't perform.

But a compromise emerged, and the four-day festival gets under way Aug. 24.

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