Latino media have been sizzling in Los Angeles with one notable exception.
While Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez top the music charts, Spanish-language television station KMEX-TV Channel 34 has the No. 1-rated newscast, and the circulation of Hispanic publications continues to grow, Spanish-language movie houses are quietly fading into oblivion.
There were about 40 Spanish-language theaters operating in Los Angeles during the 1960s. But despite the massive influx of Latino immigrants in recent decades, that number has dwindled to only a dozen or so. Soon they could be all gone.
"You hear about music and dance and soap operas in Spanish, but it doesn't seem to translate into the motion picture market," said Bruce Corwin, chairman of Metropolitan Theatres. "The market, quite frankly, will not be around five years from now."
Corwin should know. With nine Spanish-language theaters in L.A., Metropolitan is by far the largest operator of such theaters. But they all will be changed to English-language, Corwin said. Just last year, Metropolitan converted two of its theaters, including the historic Palace Theater in downtown, from Spanish- to English-language, with virtually no customer complaints.
Among the reasons for the declining presence of Spanish-language movie houses:
? Like their mainstream counterparts, Latino movie-goers are primarily teens and young adults, and those age groups tend to be bilingual.
? The number of distributors of Latin American-produced films has dwindled to almost zero.
? Mexico's film industry, which went into a free-fall in the 1970s, has yet to recover.
? The few remaining Spanish-language movie houses in Los Angeles tend to be old and not well maintained.
? Latino movie-goers prefer mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, especially action flicks with big-name stars.
Unlike the content in television, print and radio, the fare at L.A. Spanish-language movie houses is almost all dubbed versions of Hollywood hits, rather than original Latin American-made films.
Back in the 1960s, Mexico was exporting 100 or more films a year to Spanish-language theaters in the United States. So far this year, only about 30 films have been produced in Mexico, according to Eric Ceballos of the Mexican Film Commission in Mexico City. But many of those were on-location U.S. productions; all but a handful were foreign (non-Mexican) productions.
In addition, the major Hollywood studios are making fewer dubbed and subtitled versions of their films, further narrowing what theaters can offer, said Chan Wood, executive vice president of Pacific Theatres.
That move seems in response to dwindling demand, said Wood, noting that Pacific's two Spanish-language L.A. theaters have seen a slowdown in recent years.
"The majority of the Hispanic population are English-speaking or bilingual," Wood said. "(The Spanish-language theaters) are really for the older crowd."
While Latinos are the fastest-growing movie audience, U.S.-born Latinos are nearly twice as likely to go to the movies as are foreign-born Latinos, according to a study released in May by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Latino think tank in Claremont.
The study also found that even foreign-born Latinos who speak little English prefer English-language theaters.
"A couple of things are happening," said Mario Flores, media director at Duranzo Communications Inc., which handles Spanish-language media marketing. "One, the Hispanic audience is becoming more mainstream. Two, there aren't movies that are Spanish-language only."
And Hollywood is the worldwide movie standard, Flores said. Unlike Latino audiences of radio and television, Latino movie-goers seek out Hollywood films. "Anything associated with Hollywood is what people want to see," Flores said.
But that doesn't mean everybody has completely written off Spanish-language movies, or dubbed Hollywood movies, as dead.
Moctesuma Esparza, owner of East L.A.-based Buenavision Telecommunications and producer of "Selena" and other Latino-themed films, last month announced plans to develop a nationwide theater chain geared at Latinos.
Each of Esparza's Maya Cinemas multiplexes will play mostly mainstream Hollywood films, with just one of the 16 to 18 screens per multiplex initially devoted entirely to a Spanish-language films.
Esparza said he hopes to draw Latino film-goers with Hollywood fare, and then slowly transition a slice of that audience to original Spanish-language films like "Central Station" and "Like Water for Chocolate," which typically have played to a mostly art-house crowd.
The first Maya Cinemas multiplex, now under construction in the Bay Area community of San Pablo, is scheduled to open in a year. Esparza plans future multiplexes in San Fernando, Huntington Park and South Central L.A., as well as in Texas and Arizona.
"The Spanish-language theaters, if you go to them, they're not well kept. They're not modern and they're generally very old," said Esparza. "(Latinos) don't care what language it's in if you have a modern theater."
Some have expressed skepticism about Esparza's concept.
"I just don't see any demand for them, but I'd love playing them if there were," Corwin said. But unless the Mexican market comes back strongly, Metropolitan Theatres will go through with its plan to convert its Spanish-language theaters to English.
"The world wants to see American movies in English," Corwin said.
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