Moctesuma Esparza aims to bring more movie screens to Latino audiences

On the walls of his office on the second floor of the Los Angeles Center Studios, veteran filmmaker and Latino activist Moctesuma Esparza displays posters from some of the dozens of movies and TV series he has produced in his career.

There are banners from the 1988 film "The Milagro Beanfield War"; "Selena," the story of the slain Tejano singer; and the HBO film "Walkout," about the 1968 Chicano student walkouts in East Los Angeles to protest school conditions and prejudice. The last one is a particular favorite.

2006's "Walkout," directed by Edward James Olmos, was based on the experiences of Esparza, who was an executive producer on the film that recalls his days as a leader in the Chicano student movement. "It's my life story," Esparza said.

The 61-year-old Angeleno is still shaking things up in L.A. and on the Hollywood stage. After years of working as a producer, Esparza decided in 2008 to launch his own film company, Maya Entertainment, to produce and finance Latino-themed films and multicultural movies overlooked by the major studios.

Esparza spoke with The Times this week about his film company and his plans to build a nationwide movie theater chain targeting underserved communities.

What inspired you to launch Maya Entertainment?

Hollywood has been a challenge for me. I've prospered. But I've had a lot of resistance in terms of being able to get Latino stories produced, whether it's for television or the big screen. I've hungered for the ability to be able to support other filmmakers and my own desire to show Latinos as part of the American fabric. Even today, where 1 out of 3 people in the major cities in the U.S. is Latino, we're still the most underrepresented population in mainstream TV and film.

So you formed Maya Entertainment to provide more opportunity for Latino filmmakers?

Absolutely. And I see that as a business opportunity. There is ample evidence that everyone wants to see themselves portrayed in entertainment no matter who you are and what your background is. But it's not happening, not yet.

Why is that?

People deal with what they're comfortable with, and with what they know. For whatever reason, this society, and this town, is still very segregated. There are very few people who are in the mainstream of Hollywood who have any real contact with folks east of La Cienega Boulevard.

Does that mean your films will mostly cater to Latinos?

Yes, they have a Latino theme. But we're also interested in what we call the 'new mainstream.' At this moment, a majority of everyone in the U.S. under 30 is a person of color. I'm reflecting my own career. Every movie I've touched one way or another reflects diversity, the world that I live in.

How many movies do you distribute a year?

This year we will acquire 30 movies and will finance four. Next year we'll acquire 50 movies and we'll probably finance six. We have our own marketing team, we have our own sales team. We're going to major wholesalers and distributors directly. We're in 10 million hotel rooms. We're in every single major retailer in the country, from Wal-Mart to Best Buy.

What made you decide to get into the movie theater business?

I grew up going to the movie theaters in downtown L.A. We'd go to the Million Dollar theater and we'd see Mexican movies, or I would go to the Orpheum and see Hollywood movies. When I was growing up there were 1,000 movie theaters in the U.S. that played Spanish movies and by 1990 they were all closed. I thought it was an opportunity to provide entertainment to a population that was deeply underserved.

We opened our first theater in Salinas in 2005. It's a mainstream cinema that supports the tastes of the local audience. We dedicate one of 14 screens to an art film or a documentary or a Spanish-language movie. We have the highest attendance of any theater in the county. A year ago, we opened a 16-plex theater in downtown Bakersfield in a redevelopment zone. We're beating everybody in the county on attendance.

What's your long-term growth plan?

500 screens in 40 locations is my goal. We want to be in every single location in the U.S. that has a significant Latino population.

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