Televisa tackles el teatro

Emilio Azcarraga, CEO of media conglom Televisa, has reigned over Mexican TV for two decades and lately become the country’s top film producer. Now he’s poised to add the mantle of chief theater impresario to his wardrobe.

Earlier this month Televisa raised the curtain on a new-look Teatro Insurgentes, in the heart of the Mexican capital. Following a 15-month renovation, Mexico’s best-known theater will host “Women of the Year,” which also will mark a return to the stage by telenovela star Veronica Castro.

The 42-year-old Insurgentes is by no means the oldest of the 80 or so theaters in town. Nor, with 954 seats, is it the biggest; four or five locals exceed 1,000. But home and abroad it is probably the best known, boasting a famous facade – a giant, showbiz-themed mural by Diego Rivera – and a production history that’s included “Me and My Girl” and “42nd Street” in recent years.

So when developer Fondo Option, who spent a reported $2.5 million on renovation, put the playhouse on the market earlier this year, it was no surprise that Azcarraga, one of Mexico’s most flamboyant businessmen, should step up as buyer.

The purchase, for an undisclosed sum, was no whim. Azcarraga has long used theater as a second arena for his telenovela stars, encouraging them to hone their acting skills while keeping them busy in between soaps, says Tina Galindo, general director of Televiteatro, Televisa’s legit production arm.

But lately, Televisa’s interest in theater has intensified. When pubcaster TV Azteca was privatized in mid-1993, Televisa braced itself for new competition by introducing exclusive contracts for several hundred TV stars, directors and technicians, so the need grew for alternate modes of employment.

Azcarraga then overhauled Televiteatro, boosting its budget and inviting Galindo, a producer with 25 years’ experience, to head up the subsidiary. Before, Televiteatro was only sporadically active; now it has six shows running, including the hit drama “Entre Mujeres” (Between Women), which has passed 1,200 perfs – 100 constitutes a hit in Mexico – and been seen by more than 260,000 theatergoers.

“Televisa is capitalizing on the actors it has invested in, and of course can do a lot of promotion on TV,” says Susana Alexander, who is co-producing and starring in a Televiteatro comedy, “Como ser una Buena Madre Judia” (How to be a Good Jewish Mother).

“In numbers of productions, Televiteatro is now the most active theater company,” says Galindo. (However, most other legit companies are run by established actors, such as Silvia Pinal or Manolo Fabregas, not by an entertainment conglom.)

The exec adds that Televisa is completing two more venues downtown at the double-auditorium Teatro Alameda, which also will host concerts.

The middle of a harsh recession is an odd time to be raising curtains. Galindo says the better houses, playing to 80% capacity last year, are now down to 30% on many nights. Auds at the Insurgentes can expect to pay $16 for a seat, twice an average theater’s prices – and much higher than the $2 or $3 at cinemas, where attendance this year has shrunk a little.

Yet Televisa can afford the risk. The company has invested more than $200,000 in “Women of the Year,” whereas the typical legit budget in Mexico is about $40,000. This is a drop in the ocean for the conglom, whose 1994 earnings (at that year’s exchange rate) topped $1.9 billion.

Even if Televisa’s legit pursuits spill red ink throughout the recession, the company likely will emerge on top. With a majority of Mexico’s popular actors and actresses on its roster, deeper pockets than its competitors, and a growing number of guaranteed venues, Televisa’s growing dominance of the legit scene seems inexorable.

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