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Playing to Latino audiences

Times Staff Writer

Mathew Garcia of Boyle Heights goes to the movies about once a week, ignoring theaters in his Eastside Latino neighborhood and heading straight for the suburbs.

His favorite destination: nearby Alhambra, where he says he prefers the more up-to-date and comfortable multiplexes, often featuring big screens, surround sound and stadium seating. The theaters in his neighborhood are “smaller and louder,” he said.

Garcia and moviegoers like him are the target of a new joint venture by well-known film producer Moctesuma Esparza and a Chicago real estate developer that aims to deliver first-class theaters along with restaurants and stores to inner-city Latino neighborhoods.

“As a producer, I know what a quality movie experience is,” said Esparza, whose credits include “Selena,” “Gettysburg” and “The Milagro Beanfield War.”

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Esparza’s Maya Cinemas in a joint venture with developer Urban Retail Properties plans to build 500 screens in 40 locations over the next five years. Their first complex is operating in Salinas, Calif., and others are under construction or close to starting in Fresno, Bakersfield and Santa Fe, N.M.

Separately, Esparza plans to open a Maya Cinemas in Inglewood on his own with modern facilities and featuring first-run films in English and Spanish.

Theater operators in recent years have begun to recognize that ethnic neighborhoods are often underserved, said Patrick Corcoran of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. African American and Indian enclaves also have been identified as rich with opportunity for theater builders.

The association estimates that the nation’s 175 million moviegoers generally reflect the U.S. population mix with whites in the majority followed by Latinos and blacks. But, Corcoran said, “the most consistent movie viewers are Latinos.”

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One of them is James Rojas, who went to theaters every Saturday as a boy. Now a planner for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Rojas lives downtown and takes the subway to new high-tech theaters in Hollywood.

“I like the collective movie-going experience,” Rojas said.

Esparza, who grew up attending Spanish-language movies in downtown Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, traces the strong Latino interest in movies to the Mexican movie industry’s rich past when its films competed with Hollywood fare.

Another factor, he said, is that the Latino population skews young, and young people in general are more likely to attend movies.

The average American is about 40 years old, Esparza said, “but the average Latino is 26.”

Esparza and Urban Retail Properties plan to tailor their complexes to neighborhood needs and tastes. Theaters will have soundproof “crying rooms,” for example, where parents can retreat with babies and still see the movie. People will be able to enter the lobby even if they don’t have tickets so that they can meet up and parents can find their children with greater ease.

“The lobby should be open and friendly and ticket control should be in the theaters,” Esparza said.

Movie selection will include family fare plus action and adventure flicks, Esparza said. “We’re going to stay away from hard-core ugly violence.”

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The builders will also shell out for such upscale finishes as marble and stone along with plush seating because cutting corners could backfire, he said.

“We believe these communities have suffered substandard developments which become self-fulfilling failures,” he said. “The development community in the past has not respected dollars spent” by consumers from inner-city neighborhoods.

Each complex will also include restaurants and stores, said Ross Glickman, chairman of Urban Retail Properties. The centers will cost a minimum of $75 million each and some could cost “well above” $100 million, he said.

One of the largest centers -- expected to occupy more than 600,000 square feet -- is being planned in Chicago, where Urban Retail Properties is based, Glickman said.

He predicts that such projects will attract other builders and retailers that want to be near the center. “These kinds of developments can shift the center of gravity” in inner-city neighborhoods, Glickman said. “I think there is a tremendous amount of upside for everybody.”

There are challenges, however, said real estate investment fund manager Bobby Turner, who works with former basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson on mixed-use developments, including theaters in urban African American neighborhoods.

With the economy stuttering, many national retailers are reducing their number of stores and may not be available, said Turner, managing partner of Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds.

“Consumer spending is shrinking,” Turner said. And with the nation’s credit market in disarray, “the biggest challenge is just financing.”

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But there are still many development opportunities in the inner-city neighborhoods that developers have mostly ignored for years, Turner said. “The urban consumer wants the same product the suburban consumer does,” he said.

Urban Retail has ample backing from pension funds and Maya Cinemas is self-financed, Esparza said.

Urban Retail’s developments include well-known shopping venues such as Water Tower Place in Chicago, Copley Place in Boston and Valencia Town Center in north Los Angeles County.

While the developers plan, Garcia of Boyle Heights will keep making his weekly journey to the big multiplexes.

“I like drama and some horror,” said Garcia, an accountant at a paint store. “But no dumb-funny comedies.”

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roger.vincent@latimes.com


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