East L.A. cinemas to preem

Maya sites to serve Latino community, H'wood

HOLLYWOOD – As Huntington Park City Councilman Ric Loya sees it, the prospect of getting one of the first Maya Cinemas sites will not only help revitalize the community’s main boulevard but may even recapture bygone days of Hollywood glamour.

“We use to have Hollywood openings here back in the ’30s and ’40s,” he says. “Now we’re the Latino center of the state. I can see Latino-themed movies opening here.”

Huntington Park fits the profile targeted by Maya, a startup theater venture that’s working to fill the entertainment vacuum in Latino communities. With a population of 85,000 that is about 95% Latino, Huntington Park has a few old one- and two-screen movie houses. Within the next two years, it and as many as eight other locations in California, including three in Los Angeles County, are expected to get their first state-of-the-art multiplexes with 14 to 20 screens.

The brainchild of producer and cable TV entrepreneur Moctesuma Esparza, Maya intends to establish a chain of theaters in urban niche markets, much like the successful Magic Johnson Theatres. “We’re responding to the needs of communities tremendously underserved,” Esparza says.

Along with the theaters, Maya will have adjunct retail space for such amenities as coffee shops and bookstores. The films will be programmed to meet local demand, with 90% of the screens showing mainstream Hollywood fare and 10% with specialty offerings, including Latin films, retrospectives and film festivals.

In addition, each Maya Cinemas location will take an active part in the community, Esparza says. Lobbies will be ticketless, allowing for free cultural and art exhibits. The theaters themselves will be open to schools and community groups in the off-hours. And patrons will be invited to contribute a dime to a scholarship fund for local youth.

“The fund could amount to $100,000 to $200,000 per year,” Esparza says.

Architecturally, the locations will have a Mayan theme. “Each theater complex has to have an identity,” says Carlos Alonso, the project’s architect. “With Mayan motifs, colors and textures you have character built in. It’s something classic combined with the new technology of the movie theaters.”

In addition to Huntington Park, Esparza has three other confirmed sites, all in L.A. County: San Fernando, Taylor Yard and East Los Angeles. Most of the other sites under consideration are in California, but Esparza is already looking in the Southwest and Illinois. Future plans will encompass New York and Florida. The goal is to open 25 locations within the next five years.

The bulk of the financing for theater construction will be private, though in some cases there may be some city subsidies involved, such as in Huntington Park and San Fernando.

While Esparza is not taking part in the development of the retail component, he will be involved financially in the Maya theaters, typically by either leasing or buying built-to-suit sites.

To operate the locations, Ezparza will do what former National Basketball Assn. star Earvin “Magic” Johnson did with his theater company: form a joint venture. Johnson teamed with Loews Cineplex; Esparza has joined with Trans-Lux Corp., an owner-operator of theaters based mostly in the Rocky Mountain states. In exchange for supervising day-to-day operations, Trans-Lux will receive reimbursement for all costs plus a fee, the standard operator arrangement.

“We’ve examined the demographics of the areas he’s interested in and we think it will work out,” says Richard Brandt, Trans-Lux’s chairman. “We think it’s a very important project philosophically, socially and economically. We’re very happy to help them operate the theaters.”

Nationally and locally, the demographics seem to more than justify the investment. In 1998, Latinos contributed $741 million to a total box office of nearly $7 billion, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Moreover, the MPAA identifies Latinos as the fastest-growing segment of the moviegoing audience in the United States. In L.A., 45% of the prime moviegoing audience is Latino, according to a recent Nielsen study.

Esparza hopes that a national movie chain geared to Spanish-speaking audiences will widen the exposure of current Latino filmmakers and fuel increased production.

“After a certain threshold, it becomes possible for me to distribute films from Latin America and Spain that otherwise wouldn’t make it here, as well as Latino-English independent films that otherwise wouldn’t flow through the studios,” he says.

Latino activist groups are giving the project unqualified endorsement.

“It’s in keeping with what we’ve been saying,” says Alex Nogales, spokesman for the Hispanic Media Coalition. “We now have the numbers in terms of population concentration in large metropolitan areas. We’re an audience that spends, that goes to the movies, and he’s acting on it. In terms of percentages of certainty, he’s moving at the right time.”

Jerry Velasco, president of Nosotros, an organization that promotes Latinos in entertainment, says Maya Cinemas gives greater hope to Latino producers and directors who are frustrated by limited venues for their work.

“It’s going to open doors of opportunity,” he says. “Not only for producers, directors and actors but for people in the community to get employment. It’s a win-win situation.”