When Moctesuma Esparza opened his fifth movie theater in May, he wasn’t aiming for the same kind of giant multiplexes seen in many malls across the country. Instead, all five theaters — part of his Maya Cinemas company — aim to bring first-run movie theaters to underserved communities with large Latino populations.
In a View From The Top conversation, Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson talks with Esparza about operating movie theaters in an age of streaming services, and whether there are more opportunities for Hispanic filmmakers and actors than there used to be.
On where the idea for the company came from
“I had a career as a movie producer, a very successful and enriching career that allowed me to focus on my own cultural heritage. I made movies like ‘The Milagro Beanfield War,’ ‘The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,’ ‘Selena.’ As part of that career, I got to travel the United States organizing the premieres for my movies. And so for ‘Milagro Beanfield War,’ which Bob Redford directed, I went to 20 cities to arrange benefit premieres where we raise scholarship money. And I found that there were no first-run movie theaters in any Latino community in the United States. This is 1987. Ten years later, when I did the same for the movie ‘Selena,’ I found that even the second-run movie theaters had closed in Latino communities.
“And so I thought about what I had experienced, and said, ‘This is a opportunity. It’s a business opportunity.’ And it related back to my own childhood, where the most treasured moments that I have of memories with my dad was him taking me to the movies on his one day off on Monday, where I got to see Mexican movies, where of course Mexicans were the good guys, the bad guys, the guy that got girl, the girl who managed to achieve her dreams.”
On growing up going to the movies
“I grew up in Boyle Heights, the original suburb of Los Angeles, and there were three movie theaters within walking distance. Today, I live a few miles away from Boyle Heights, not far from where I grew up. And there are no movie theaters, and those movie theaters are now churches, or flea markets or they’ve been torn down. And all across the United States, the urban center core has pretty much been turned into an entertainment desert.
“I view entertainment as part of the needs of being human. Just as much as food and shelter are a need, we need to be able to get out of our head. We need to be able to dream. We need to be able to see something else as a possibility for our lives, and what we go through every day.”
On reaction to the theaters
“We have been resoundingly a success. And I knew it would be, because Latinos are reported by the Motion Picture Association [of America] as the highest frequency moviegoers of any ethnic group in the United States. We love movies, and we go as a group, we go as a family — and we go often. And so I knew that in these communities, actually, moviegoing — even though we are the most frequent moviegoer — was depressed, because people have to drive a long distance, and the further you are from a quality venue, the less often you go.
“We show first-run Hollywood films, and we take one or two screens and we specialty procure them with art films, documentaries, Spanish-language films, American Latino films — which is a completely different thing, not Spanish-language films. This is a separate category, and they don’t get supported, and the studios generally don’t make those movies and the independent filmmakers who manage to make one rarely get invited into the theatrical mainstream cinemas. So we’re committed to all of that, and we are a first-run mainstream cinema.”
On whether people will move away from theaters toward other means of entertainment, like Netflix
“Movie theaters compete with what you do out of the home, not what you do in the home. So I’ll remind you … there was a moment where television came in and color TV was this amazing thing. And then there was pay-TV, and then there was VHS, and then there was DVDs and then there was HBO, and then Netflix through the mail and then Netflix streaming. And then there was Hulu … and all the other forms of entertainment that are delivered in the home. None of them depressed moviegoing. In fact, there is hard studies that show that they promoted moviegoing. For the last 70 years, the average attendance for the average American has been between four and five and a half times do they go to the movies a year.
“So the whole notion that a big giant 75-inch television screen at home is going to convince people not to get out of their house and go see the new ‘Star Wars’ movie in the theater, where they can have a group experience, is just wrong-headed. You’ve got a kitchen, but you go out to eat. You’re can have the best home entertainment outfit at your home, and you still want to get out of your house, and for Latinos in working-class communities in particular, the best value out of the home is a movie.”