An accomplished movie producer and entertainment executive, Moctesuma Esparza describes his decision to enter the exhibition business in very simple terms. “My interests have always centered on creating entertainment and getting that content to an audience,” says the Mexican American producer of Selena (1997). Esparza never doubted there would be a big audience for his productions; it was finding venues to play his films that would prove most challenging. At the turn of the 21st century he decided to take matters into his own hands by founding Maya Cinemas, a company dedicated to bringing state-of-the-art cinemas to underserved, Latino-dominant communities across the United States. “I knew that there was a love of movies and a tremendous appetite and appreciation for movies across underrepresented communities in the U.S., partly because of my own history and experience with the movies that I produced,” Esparza tells Boxoffice. “By going into exhibition, my goal was to reinvest back into the type of communities that I grew up in.”
What Esparza didn’t anticipate, however, was that it would take him half a decade to open his first location. The initial barrier to entry came with finding a developer; had the first Maya site been earmarked for a suburban shopping mall, it wouldn’t have been much of a challenge to get it off the ground. But by betting on up-and-coming Latino-dominant neighborhoods, Esparza had a hard time finding the right partner to help him realize the vision. “I had to become a developer,” he says. “That was the only way for me to get the land and make the case that a movie theater would be successful in a Latino working-class community.”
According to the MPAA’s annual moviegoing statistics report (THEME), Hispanic moviegoers are the leading demographic group when it comes to moviegoing frequency in the United States. It wasn’t hard to make the case that these communities were underserved in terms of cinema screens; finding lenders willing to put up the money, however, was to emerge as the next significant challenge for the nascent circuit. Eventually, Esparza partnered with a Taiwanese bank that saw the opportunity in engaging with an immigrant community. It came at a cost for the entrepreneurs behind Maya Cinemas. “They did not have the same kind of redlining history that other mainstream American banks might have had in putting up a lot of money in a working-class neighborhood,” says Esparza. “But they did require that we put up a lot of equity, far more than would have been typical if we had been in some upper-middle-class suburban community.”
With the financing settled, the Maya team set out to find their first location. Esparza initially identified San Antonio as an ideal candidate but was unable to come to terms in securing an appropriate site. They eventually landed on Salinas, California, where they counted on support from the city to revive its struggling downtown area. The Maya Cinemas Salinas location opened in July 2005, benefiting from a nearby parking structure newly provided by the city. “If you go to downtown Salinas today, it’s a very attractive tourist destination,” says Esparza. “They have microbreweries, gourmet restaurants, and a new performance venue”—a far cry from the boarded-up buildings and disrepair the Maya founder encountered in his first visit to the city.
The Salinas location was an important proof of concept for Maya Cinemas, evidence that opening a new theater in an underserved area could help revitalize a community. Bakersfield would become the next Maya location to open—albeit four years later, in July 2009. “The one after that, in Pittsburg, California, took us three years to open,” recounts Esparza. “And the next, in Fresno, took us two. The one in Delano also took us two years, and our newest cinema [in North Las Vegas] took us less than a year from the Delano opening. So at least I can say that it’s becoming easier and faster to grow—and that each of our theaters has been a success.”
The growth is notable because Maya Cinemas has never strayed from its mission to build in underserved Latino-dominant neighborhoods. Forming ties to those communities is the reason for the circuit’s success; the theaters simultaneously function as entertainment destinations and job creators. Initiatives like the Maya Education Fund, which fundraises and donates scholarships to local students in each of its communities, have also helped strengthen relationships with Maya neighborhoods. “The idea is to promote a conversation about the value of education by encouraging the local community to donate whatever they’d like,” says Esparza. “We match each of those donations, up to $10,000, and if the community ends up giving more than that, then we go to our corporate partners and ask them to match it as well. If somebody applies for a scholarship and receives some money, the whole community talks about it. That promotes the conversation and helps students feel like it’s real, that they can succeed, that they can have careers and make a difference in their communities.”
As for the cinemas themselves, the circuit has made a concerted effort to embrace some of the industry’s cutting-edge technology, like Dolby Atmos immersive audio and immersive seating from D-BOX. “It’s not just about bringing movie theaters to underserved communities; we’re building state-of-the-art cinemas that you would find in New York or Los Angeles,” says Chief Operations Officer Jeremy Welman. Although the circuit does charge extra for these premium amenities, it remains price sensitive to its communities’ needs. “We are a quality-value proposition,” adds Esparza. “The highest quality, equal or better than any other circuit, for a value that welcomes everyone in our community.”
That has been the thinking behind Maya’s discount day programs, which offer reduced admission price for students, families, and seniors on different days of the week.
Maya Cinemas currently operates five locations in California and recently opened its first cinema in Nevada, a 14-screen complex in North Las Vegas. As Esparza previously noted, it is the second Maya location to open in an eight-month span—and the company is showing no sign of slowing down. “It’s always one location, one market at a time,” says Esparza. “We want to grow as soundly and carefully as possible so that we continue our success. And we definitely plan to continue growing and succeeding in the coming years.”