Hispanic film seeks niche in Hollywood

After a long decline, Spanish-language movies get a boost, as the industry looks to tap the Latino market.

They dot the Hispanic neighborhoods of every large American city - aging movie houses that show second-rate, Spanish-dubbed or subtitled films.

Over the years, some have been transformed into churches or clothing stores. Others have simply been boarded up, relics of a golden age long past. Lured away by slick Hollywood films and state-of-the-art suburban theaters, Latinos have slowly abandoned Spanish-language film and the theaters that show it.

But now, bolstered by the 32-million-and-growing Latino population, several attempts are afoot to revive the tradition of Spanish-language film in America.

Following in the footsteps of basketball star Magic Johnson, who established a cineplex to serve a primarily black area of Los Angeles, key Hispanics in the film industry are trying to find a way to tap into the burgeoning Latino market. And they're taking on Hollywood to do it.

"If you look at Latino communities all over the country, you find the cinema they once knew no longer exists," says Moctesuma Esparza, owner of Buenavision Telecommunications, based in East Los Angeles. "The films are there, the audience is there, but the missing link is distribution and quality theaters."

In the 1950s, when the Hispanic population in America hovered near 6 million, there were 700 screens nationwide showing Spanish-language films, says Mr. Esparza. He and others are now taking steps to bring Spanish film back.

*Esparza last month revealed plans for a nationwide theater chain aimed at Latinos.

*Ted Perkins, a former Universal Pictures executive, has formed a distribution company called Latino Universe for Spanish-language films.

*In Miami, Jaime Angullo, director of the Miami Hispanic Film Festival, is in negotiations with several national theater chains to bring Spanish-language films to designated multiplexes across the US.

Mr. Angullo says crowds at his yearly festival have doubled every year for the past four years, drawing the attention of big cineplexes. "When we first talked to them, [theater owners] around here thought there would never be a demand for Latino films," says Angullo. "Then they found out our theaters were packed while theirs went empty."

Demographics support such changes. From 1990 to 2010, the US Latino population is projected to grow 75 percent. The non-Latino population will grow by 5 percent. Latinos also go to more movies than other groups and are spending more and more money on entertainment - $6 billion in 1993 compared with $9 billion in 1997.

"A vast market remains largely untapped by Hollywood: Latinos - who ... represent a fast-growing audience with immense buying power," concludes a study commissioned by the Screen Actor's Guild and released in May by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.

According to the study, Latinos born in the US have shown that they prefer English-language movies. But part of the reason for the decline of Spanish-language cinema, says one pollster, is related to the state of the old movie houses. "They're dilapidated structures with broken seats in the scariest part of downtown, where people don't feel safe leaving after dark," says Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Institute.

Outside the Paramount Theater - a Spanish-language cinema here that recently became a church - interviews with neighborhood residents bear that out.

"I've been coming to Spanish-language films here since I was a kid, and I love them," says Louis Resendez, a senior at Monroe High School. "But the building turned into a dive, so now I watch Hollywood films at the multiplex."

Besides decaying theaters, another reason for the falloff in Spanish-language film has been Mexico's economic free fall. As a result, production dropped from about 200 films a year to perhaps 30.

"There has been a dramatic dropoff in the number of films I can play to Spanish-speaking audiences," says Bruce Corwin, chairman of Metropolitan Theatres, which has nine Spanish-language theaters in town, down from about 40 in the 1960s. "I need a constant flow of new movies."

Trying to fill the gap left by an over-reliance on Mexican films exhibitors began using Spanish-dubbed versions of Hollywood hits rather than original, Latin American-made films. But there's new hope.

"What is about to change is that distributors are going to tap beyond the traditional Mexican-made film market into the vast production of Spain, Central and South America," says Jaime Oriol, producer for BKL Productions in New York.

The first multiplex by Esparza's company, Maya Cinemas, is under construction in the Oakland, Calif., area. It will include two screens devoted solely to Spanish-language cinema. Besides top-notch sound and pictures and stadium seating, Esparza wants to create a community cultural center, in which moviegoers use the theaters for education and other public gatherings.

To accommodate the Latino moviegoer - statistics show Latinos attend movies in larger family groups than do Anglos - he will revive the once-common "cry" room, where babies can be taken.

And Esparza, Perkins, and Angullo all say Latino films are not just for Latinos. The Miami festival draws 30 percent non-Spanish speakers. "We think that even the Anglo mainstream will eventually realize these films are entertaining," says Perkins.

But some boosters will wait for results. "We're all reading about the resurgence of Latinos, particularly in entertainment," says Mr. Corwin of Metropolitan Theatres. "We're hoping it translates to movies. It hasn't yet."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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