By GUY GARCIA
December 11, 1994
It’s five minutes after 1:00 in Beverly Hills and Nely Galán, president of the newly formed Galan Entertainment, is late for lunch. While she knows that the cadre of producers and directors she has invited to a chic trattoria are waiting for her inside, right now Galán is concerned about finding a parking space in the adjacent lot, which is packed.
Rolling down her window, Galán smiles at the attendants guarding the entrance. “Listen, guys,” she says in Spanish, “are you sure you can’t squeeze in one more little car? I’d really appreciate it.”
At first, the guards just gawk. Then, springing to their feet, they quickly lower the barrier and wave her through.
“You see?” Galán says as she glides into a space. “People can be very nice if you just know how to talk to them.”
Galán, 31, has made a career out of speaking to people in their own language. But what sets her apart from other Hollywood deal makers is her ability to translate the language and culture of the barrio into scripts and projects that have mainstream viability. Movie studios as well as network and cable television companies have become increasingly aware of the untapped potential of the 27 million Latinos living in the United States and the 200 million viewers in Latin America. “Everybody’s looking for TV and film product for the Latino market,” says David Evans, president and chief operating officer of Fox Television. “It’s a niche, but it’s a hell of a big niche, and it’s getting bigger all the time.” In September, Galán signed a landmark production deal with Fox Television to create Latino-themed programming for Fox’s film, television and international cable divisions and formed Galan Entertainment.
“As a Latina, you dress a certain way, you’re kind of flamboyant, you don’t fit in with corporate America, but you’re still ambitious,” says Galán.
Inside the restaurant, Galán joins Evans, Reynaldo Villalobos, a film director based in the United States, and Carlos Sotomayor, a producer for Televisa, the Mexican media giant. The group has gathered to discuss a joint venture of Fox Television and Televisa to produce a telenovela, or Latino-styled soap opera for an English-speaking audience. Galán’s first project for Fox is to oversee the creation of 120 episodes of the telenovela. The show, which will be ready for broadcast in 1995, is being filmed in Mexico.
Galán is in top form. She speaks both Spanish and English throughout the meeting, outlining her vision for a show that would marry the passionate emotionality of the popular Mexican novela with the language and glossy production values of mainstream American television. Evans says that Galán’s skill for putting the pieces of the Latino and American cultures together is what makes her such a hot commodity. “It became very obvious that unless we could find someone that could sit in the middle that understood both cultures and spoke both languages that it would be impossible to make this venture work,” he explains. “She was a godsend as far as the joint venture in Mexico was concerned. She made it happen.”
Galán is confident that she can develop successful crossover programming. “What an American executive would have done with a telenovela is say, ‘Let’s put in a soap director, let’s hire soap writers, because that’s what’s been done before,’” Galán explains. “So if you want to make it something different, you’ve got to mix the pot up.”
Galán’s confidence seems unshakable, but beneath her cheerful exterior lies a hardheaded realist who harbors no illusions about the importance of the bottom line. “Ultimately, I know that companies could care a hoot about the Latino market,” she says matter-of-factly. “They care about how much money you make.”
She also knows that the Latino experience remains a mystery to most network executives. “Every single time I go to a meeting I get a little depressed because I realize how little people know about our culture,” she says. “To most people in the industry it’s still something very foreign.”
After Galán’s 13 years in the entertainment business (she was the host of a teen news show at 18), the deal with Fox solidifies her status in Hollywood and gives her the trajectory she needs to finally get some deals off the ground. “It’s as if all the seeds that she planted – and there was no growth for years – all bloomed at once,” observes Concepción Lara, senior vice president and general manager at Fox Latin America. “Companies see that they need a guide to go through this uncharted territory. And Nely is the perfect guide.”
Galán was born in Cuba to Arsenio and Nelida Alvarez and emigrated to the United States with them in 1965, when she was 2 years old. She lived with her parents (her father was a Goya foods salesman) and brother, Arsenio Alvarez Jr. (now a 29-year-old sales rep for a building-supply company), on a quiet, tree-lined street in Teaneck, N.J. She recalls that as a student at the Catholic all-girls Academy of the Holy Angels in Demarest, about an hour away, she was a “wimpy, quiet kid” who always did her homework. Then, at the age of 15, her outlook underwent a dramatic change. “My mother still calls it my metamorphosis, Galán says with a laugh, “because I became a different person after that.”
The transformation began when Galán, who had always excelled at English, wrote a short story for a class assignment about a wealthy woman who left her heirs nothing but a long letter in which she revealed her philosophy of life. “The nun gave me the highest grade in the class and she read the story out loud,” Galán says. “I was ecstatic.”
But a week later, elation turned to indignation when the same nun told Galán that she’d decided a young girl couldn’t have written such a story and accused her of plagiarism. “I was totally humiliated,” she says. “But the worst part was that they asked my parents to come to school, and I remember thinking, ‘My parents barely speak English and it’s going to be so embarrassing for them.’ I thought it was a total injustice.”
So Galán decided to fight back with the language she had worked so hard to master. She wrote a tongue-in-cheek article “about why you should never send your kids to an all-girl Catholic school” and mailed it off to Seventeen magazine. The essay wasn’t published, but to her parents’ astonishment the editors were so impressed with the piece that she was invited to be a guest editor.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Galán recalls. “It was total revenge on the nuns. I accelerated my class schedule and got to graduate early. And that’s when I realized that being a wimp doesn’t pay off.”
“She changed overnight,” Nelida Alvarez confirms in the clipped, rapid-fire Spanish of her homeland. “She used to be afraid to cross the street, and then all of a sudden she wasn’t afraid of anything.”
Galán’s guest editor stint at Seventeen turned into a full-time job hiring models for fashion spreads. A year later, this led to a job offer from the Elite modeling agency. While with Elite, the 17-year-old Galán was to be sent to Paris to help coordinate talent for some fashion shows. Her parents, who thought that a girl her age should be in college or preparing for marriage, forbade her to go. She went anyway. ‘There was a period when my parents and I had trouble understanding each other,” Galán says. Her mother concurs: “I used to call her E.T., because I figured she must be from outer space.”
But Galán was just precocious. At 18, she married Hector Galán, a documentary filmmaker. They divorced after four years. Galán found out early on that her career ambitions clashed with the traditional role of Latinas. “In the circle of my family, I’m not accomplished because I’m not married and I don’t have a kid,” says Galán, who has been dating the Latino entertainer Paul Rodriguez. “I feel like Latinas in this country live in a tug of war. A part of me thinks: ‘I’m every American woman’s dream come true. I’m a catch. Any man would want me.’ And another part of me says: ‘I’m divorced, I’m 31. I’m over the hill. I’m damaged goods.”’
Galán began her broadcast career as a “baby Diane Sawyer,” as the host of “Checking It Out,” a PBS teen-oriented news show. She went on to work as a documentary producer at the CBS affiliate in Boston. By the age of 22, Galán was running WNJU, New Jersey’s top Spanish-language television station. Three years later, Galán created an Oprah-style talk show called “Bravo,” on which she interviewed prominent Latinos. (More recently, she has been a guest host on the local morning talk show “Live in L.A.” and was formerly an anchor of “The Gossip Show,” on E! Entertainment Television.)
While at CBS, Galán heard from an old acquaintance, Concepción Lara, a Mexican immigrant from Norwalk, Calif., who was developing a Spanish-language version of HBO. Besides their immigrant backgrounds, Galán and Lara shared a fervent conviction that it was just a matter of time before Hollywood realized the value of the Latino market. “We agreed it was like the man who kept chipping at the wall and nothing ever happened,” Lara says. “And then one day he gave it one more chip and the wall came down, and behind the wall was Paradise. We decided to form a mutual support group. We said, ‘We’ll help each other and when we get powerful we’ll help other people too.’”
So when ESPN tried to hire Lara away from HBO to develop a Spanish version of the sports channel, she recommended Galán for the job. Even though Galán had no interest in sports, she took it as a learning experience. Soon afterward, Galán was approached by HBO Independent Productions to help develop a Latino sitcom. ABC wound up buying two scripts, both of which reflected Galán’s experiences as a foreign-born Latina in the United States. The pilot script for one of the shows, tentatively titled “Sabrina,” was originally based on Galán’s plagiarism incident at Holy Angels. On the strength of those scripts and her bankability as on-air talent, Galán began negotiations with HBO for what would eventually become Tropix, the production company that she was co-founder of and ran from 1992 until this September, when she signed with Fox.
A typical day for Galán tends to start early, with a breakfast at the Farmers Market to pitch a series or movie, followed by a planning session with her staff and endless hours on the phone. “I return all my calls,” she says, “because I can still remember when people didn’t return mine.”
Between appointments with writers and producers for various projects she has in development, Galán is always on the lookout for new talent. “A lot of Latinos don’t make it in Hollywood because nobody is willing to give them a break,” she says. “If someone like me won’t do it, who will?” Nights are reserved for reading scripts and brainstorming with a group of like-minded Latinos that includes the film directors Robert Rodriguez (“El Mariachi”) and Alfonso Arau (“Like Water for Chocolate”).
As president of Galan Entertainment, Galán plans to complete any projects initiated by Tropix while pursuing new ventures for Fox. In addition, she is constantly being offered opportunities to be the host of her own talk show or to become the Latina half of a Regis and Kathie Lee-style duo.
For Galán, the decision not to rule out a television career while running a production company is a purely pragmatic one. “The thing that people have criticized me for my whole life – they say, ‘You’re all over the place, you do too many things’ – is what saves me,” she says. “It’s good that I do too many things, because in a way it’s insurance. Investors know that if I screw up as an executive I can always become a talk show host and make them lots of money.”
Yet despite that – or perhaps because of it – Galán has been dogged by the image of being someone who is always in danger of spreading herself too thin and who lacks the necessary discipline to excel at any one thing. Even some of her closest friends and mentors have warned her that she can be a television star or a movie mogul, but not both.
There is also a lingering perception, held by some fellow Latinos, that Galán is an arriviste who has yet to pay her dues and who has used her East Coast broadcasting connections to leapfrog over older, wiser hands. Galán, for her part, understands that as a young Cuban woman in a largely Mexican-American community, a certain amount of resentment was inevitable. “Even though I know it’s an issue for some people, I don’t let it bother me,” she says. “I came to this place two years ago very secure about who I am and what I know. Ultimately, I’ve done the work and I have the skills and that will speak for itself.”
The Galán-Fox venture comes at a time when the entertainment industry in the United States is waking up to the potential of the Latin American market. Over the past few years, more than a dozen companies, including HBO, MTV and ESPN, have created Latin American editions of their programs. At the same time, broadcasters have become increasingly aware that of the 27 million Latinos in the United States, 60 percent, according to a recent Nielsen study, watch at least some English-language television.
Yet, when it comes down to approving a Latino-themed series or movie, most network executives remain wary. “They’re scared because they don’t want to be politically incorrect,” Galán says. “They don’t want to do it wrong and have people attacking them, so they’d rather not do it at all.”
Galán knows firsthand how easy it is to offend delicate ethnic sensibilities. While “Loco Slam,” a Tropix-produced showcase for Latino comics, captured a respectable 11 percent audience share when it premiered on HBO in June, it provoked complaints from Latinos who thought the show’s raunchy ethnic humor was demeaning. “The main critique was that it was a rip-off of a black comedy show,” says Gabriel Reyes, director of creative affairs for Galan Entertainment. “The lesson is that the formulas that work for black audiences do not necessarily translate to the Latino market.”
Galán and Reyes expect a more positive response to a project they are developing for HBO, a three-hour English-language anthology about three Latino families – Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican. To highlight the distinctions among various nationalities, they are taking pains to make sure that the Puerto Rican segment, for example, is written by a Puerto Rican, Rueben Gonzalez. “We’re not going to hire a Cuban to write the Mexican story, because it would defeat the whole purpose of the show,” Reyes says. ‘There are nuances and realities about the Mexican immigrant experience that a Mexican will naturally know best.”
Because of her understanding of the differences among various Latin American and Latino viewing audiences, Galán was asked to produce the on-air and promotional graphics for the Fox Latin American Channel, which is offered in English, Portuguese and Spanish and is broadcast in 18 countries in Latin America. She drew on data from a focus group survey that asked respondents in the United States and Latin America to rank love, family and career in order of importance.
“The No. 1 thing that the focus groups told us was that Latins place a high value on love and passion,” Galán says. “So we knew that we wanted the channel to look rich, expensive and passionate.” Black-and-white films, for example, are considered aesthetically inferior by most Latin Americans. “It’s a status-oriented society, and to Latin Americans black-and-white equals flea market,” Galán says. “In the U.S., you can launch a whole channel of black-and-white movies and call it American Movie Classics. Down there it would be worthless.”
Together with Concepción Lara, Galán oversaw the creation of the design and graphic scheme, which features crimson roses, billowing banners and a Fox logo that evokes a futuristic Aztec pyramid. The video spots have won many awards, including the 1994 Gold Award from the Broadcast Designers Association, which judged entries from more than 40 countries. “We wanted to hit those emotional hot buttons,” Galán says. “We wanted people to feel that the channel was hot and sexy and sensual.”
As Galán sees it, the traditional Spanish-language networks, like Univision in the United States, are directed mainly at older viewers who relate to soap operas and variety shows produced in Mexico and other Latin countries. “I think those channels are like nostalgia TV, and they really do the job,” she says. “If I were programming Univision I don’t know if I would do anything different, because they’re doing well in the ratings and getting lots of advertising dollars.”
The downside, Galán says, is that such outlets fail to address younger Latinos, who are put off by programs like “Sabado Gigante,” a popular variety show that features buxom dancers and slapstick comedy skits. “Younger Latinos watch that stuff and they can’t relate to it,” she says.
To reach them, Galán is developing several new projects in the United States. One is a dance show set in Miami’s vibrant club scene. Tentatively titled “Salsa ‘Til Sunup,” the show would feature a mix of traditional Latin dance music and hip Hispanic hybrids of disco, house, rap and rock. “Norte Americanos love Latin music,” she says. “The market is already there. The dance show has a real prospect of crossing demographics, of appealing to both younger Latinos and Americanos.”
Galán is also overseeing the creation of two sitcoms. The first, “Sabrina,” for ABC, is about a 13-year-old Latina growing up in the United States. Galán describes the program as a kind of Latino “Blossom” or “The Wonder Years.” “It shows from a girl’s point of view what it’s like to grow up with immigrant parents,” she explains, “going through puberty and all that.” The other show, not yet sold, will chronicle the adventures of a professional Latina á la Mary Tyler Moore. “It would deal with issues that Latinas face in the work place,” Galán says. “As a Latina, you dress a certain way, you’re kind of flamboyant, you don’t fit in with corporate America, but you’re still ambitious, and meanwhile your parents are telling you, ‘Why don’t you just get married?”’ On the motion picture front, Galán has just bought the rights to Cristina Garcia’s acclaimed novel, “Dreaming in Cuban.”
Much of Hollywood will be watching closely as Galán’s projects go into production and eventually on the air. The audience is there for Latino programming, but will Galán’s programs capture its interest and support?
“The trick for me is to reach masses of people with a message that’s universal but at the same time really sounds like a true Latino voice,” she says. “The other thing is that you have to have patience. You can’t give up. Getting a hit sitcom on the air is like hitting the lottery. Why should it be easy?”