TheaterEars: Driving Diversity through Tech

Hispanic audiences are America’s most active moviegoers. According to the MPPA, they represented 18 percent of the U.S. population but 24 percent of frequent moviegoers. They made up the highest annual attendance per capita compared to any other ethnic group, going to the movies an average of 4.7 times in 2018 (despite being significantly underrepresented in both cast and crew). Yet the language barrier prevents still more Latinx people from enjoying the moviegoing experience.

TheaterEars, a free, ad-based mobile app that lets moviegoers access a Spanish-language soundtrack on their phones, wants to bring more Spanish speakers to the theater. The Florida-based start-up uses the phone’s microphone to identify and sync the film with its official Spanish audio track, allowing viewers to listen to it discreetly with a pair of headphones as their screen dims. The app is available in all theaters in the United States and Puerto Rico, with plans for an international expansion in the making. 

TheaterEars CEO Dan Mangru describes the inspiration for his app: “I was in Boca Raton, Florida, and when two of my best friends, Larry and Virginia—who’s Colombian—got married, Virginia’s mom came with her from Colombia. Like many immigrants, she didn’t speak English and she never really learned, as is the case with many people who come to the U.S. after the age of 30. As time went on, they had family movie nights and they wanted to bring the mother-in-law, Maria, to the movies. She just didn’t want to go because of the language barrier. The idea was, why don’t we make an app in Spanish so that she can go to the movies? So, we started to work on TheaterEars,” says Mangru, whose mother is from Puerto Rico. “This couldn’t have happened 20 years ago, but when the technology was ready, I really wanted to pursue this and make it into something real. I just knew how important that was to individuals and how empowering it was because language is such a barrier.”

According to a Pew Research study, more than 37 million Latinx people speak Spanish at home, making it the most widely spoken language in the U.S. after English. About 12.5 million Hispanics ages 5 and older—or 30 percent of this group—are not proficient in English. Another 3.2 million, most of them foreign born, say they do not speak English at all. Currently, almost half a million people use TheaterEars, with 97.8 percent of them speaking primarily Spanish.

The app was launched in 2017 with Disney’s Coco, picking up more subscribers with blockbusters such as Jumanji and Rampage. But the project was years in the making, with almost four years of R&D before the launch. Constant attention to detail as well as innovation was necessary to develop the app. “Dealing with audio, the track can’t be pretty or kinda close,” says Mangu. “It needs to be exactly dead-on or it’s going to be a big strain. The technology always has its challenges and it’s always evolving. There’s always a new iPhone, a new operating system. You’re constantly working on improvements.” An additional challenge to launching the app was the team’s lack of ties to the entertainment industry. “I didn’t come in from the industry with 20 years of entertainment contacts; we had to introduce ourselves.” 

“The thing that we see the most when people talk to us is that the app helps them get closer. It’s bringing people closer together and enables them to share an experience that they couldn’t have before,” says Mangru. In that same spirit of creating community, the TheaterEars team works with social media influences for its marketing initiatives. 

Studios, which provide the official audio for the movies, play a central role in marketing campaigns. With Disney-Pixar’s Coco campaign, for example, news about the newly launched TheaterEars was picked up by various media outlets. But Spanish-language influencers have really propelled the app’s publicity. “What’s really interesting is that we don’t have a formal influencer program,” says Mangu, “but we had people who genuinely enjoyed and needed the product. Spanish-language influencers found us. We’ve been very fortunate that people have reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, how can we help with what you guys are doing? Because now we can go to the movies.’” Eugenio Derbez, Coco’s director Lee Unkrich, and Pitch Perfect’s Chrissie Fit were among the celebrities to endorse the product. Award-winning actor and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda was also recently welcomed as a global ambassador and investor to help raise awareness about the start-up.

On the app itself, bonus content, including tagged trailers in Spanish, movie reviews (by influencers such as @ElAlexGoncales), and exclusive interviews and celebrity promos, enhances that sense of community. Eugenio Derbez’s special message to TheaterEars users for Dora and the Lost City of Gold garnered 23,600 views on Instagram alone. “We found that our users wanted a feature-rich experience. The interest in movies was so high that they wanted to engage with them. I think that TheaterEars became a hub for multilanguage engagement with movies,” says Mangru. 

At the heart of TheaterEars’ offering is building an audience among untapped demographics. For Mangru, “with competition for entertainment being as high as it is now, putting an emphasis into expanding into diverse audiences is beneficial to everybody.” 

Recently, other products geared toward Hispanic moviegoers have entered the market. MyLingo, a similar app that offers a dubbed version of mainstream movies in Spanish, is TheaterEars’ direct competitor, but exhibitors and tech providers have jumped on the bandwagon as well. On the tech side, First Class Seating showcased an innovation at CinemaCon 2019 that would allow viewers to access a foreign-language track through a headphone jack built into the chair. In May, Atom Tickets announced a partnership with Ticketòn, a ticketing company for the U.S. Hispanic market. And My Cinema has built a focus on marketing a diverse slate of films to Hispanic audiences. On the exhibitor side, Maya Cinemas is dedicated to building cinemas in underserved Latino neighborhoods in the U.S. 

But while initiatives looking to drive more Hispanics to the movies are flourishing, little progress has been made regarding on- and behind-the-screen representation. A report from USC’s Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative found that in the 100 top films of 2016, Latinos were represented by just 3 percent of speaking parts. A study by the USC Annenberg Initiative released in August revealed that little has changed since. In fact, the proportion has remained stable over the last decade. Of the 1,200 titles that were examined, 568 (4.5%) did not feature a single speaking Lantinx character, and 61.9 percent of Latinx characters were shown engaged in illegal activity, either as gang members or drug dealers.

But ultimately, as Mangru puts it, going to the movies is about connection: connection through better accessibility but also proper representation. “We get to connect with the movies, the experiences of other people; we connect with the people that are sitting next to us. But we also connect with the characters on screen. It’s part of a shared human experience. I don’t think that will ever go away. That’s where the moviegoing theatrical experience is so valuable and so important.”

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