A passion for movies helps Moctesuma Esparza give back to his community through Maya Cinemas

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Interviewed by Dustin S. Klein

Moctesuma Esparza grew up in movie theaters.

As a chef, his father was off on Mondays and so that would be the day he and his son would take in a movie. Growing up in Los Angeles, there were plenty of beautiful theaters for Esparza and his father to visit.

“I grew up with this extraordinary experience of how movies can transport you and open up worlds and how you can actually live in them for that time you’re in the theater,” Esparza says. “You’re on a ride and if the movie is really good, you’re transported.”

Sometimes it was Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, other times it was the Egyptian Theatre or the Mayan Theatre. They were also frequent visitors to the Million Dollar Theatre on Third and Broadway and the California Theatre on Los Angeles Street and Eighth.

“Within three miles, which we could walk as kids, there were actually four theaters,” Esparza says. “That was fairly common in the city and all over the United States. These were neighborhood theaters. They still exist today, but now they are performing arts centers or churches. Those old-fashioned theaters were where people went on the weekend.”

Esparza’s love of movies only grew as he got older.

“I was what would today be considered a geek or a nerd when I was a kid,” Esparza says. “I was a studious kid growing up in a very rough neighborhood. So when I was in high school, what nurtured me in an otherwise uninspiring school were the one or two teachers who were in charge of the drama program, the speech program and the music program. It was the arts, and I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the path for my life.”

That path would lead him on a journey to recreate the theater experience of his youth through Maya Cinemas North America Inc. Esparza did it for everyone who shares his love of film, but there was a little extra motivation in his heart for those who share his Latino heritage.

“The Motion Picture Association has research that shows Latinos go to movies 10 times a year versus everybody else who goes six or seven times,” says Esparza, founder and CEO of the 220-employee company. “I knew that love of movies and the way people in the Latino community consumed movies was a huge business opportunity.”

Here’s a look at the challenges Esparza faced in his quest to capitalize on that opportunity and the goals that are still out there that continue to fuel his passion.

Patience and persistence pays off

Esparza’s career prospects took a huge leap forward in the 1980s. The relatively unknown filmmaker, who had made a number of documentaries and independent films, connected with Robert Redford to make “The Milagro Beanfield War.”

Esparza had acquired the rights to turn the book, written by John Nichols, into a movie. Soon after that, he got a call from Redford who shared Esparza’s passion for Nichols’ story of a man’s struggle to defend both his small bean field and his community against larger business and political interests.

Redford invited Esparza to a private screening of the director’s cut of a film he was wrapping up called “Ordinary People.”

Esparza knew of Redford as an actor, but didn’t know who he was as a director and this was an opportunity to get a closer look at his approach to directing a film.

“So he played ‘Ordinary People’ for me,” Esparza says. “After I picked myself up off the floor, I said, ‘Bob, what do you want?’ What he actually said was, ‘You’ve got the boat, and I want to sail in it.’ I said, ‘Fine, let’s be partners.’ And so we produced it together.”

In 1987, as the movie was nearing completion, Esparza convinced Universal Studios to launch a marketing campaign that reached out to the Latino community, which he felt would want to see the film.

“I discovered there were no modern movie theaters that were nice in any Latino community in the United States in 1987,” Esparza says. “They had to drive an hour and a half to go where we booked the movie. Robert Redford and Universal were only going to have that movie in a quality venue where you’d have a premiere. So that immediately said to me there is an inefficiency in the marketplace, and this is an opportunity to provide a service and a business.”

It was obviously too late to build gleaming new theaters to screen “The Milagro Beanfield War.”

In fact, it would take years of talking, negotiating and learning the ins and outs of land development and municipal politics before Esparza opened his first multiplex in Salinas, Calif., in 2005.

“We became the No. 1 theater in the county, both in box office and in attendance, and we transformed Salinas,” Esparza says. “Stadium seating, high-back seats, leather chairs, the best sound system, the best projectors. When it opened, the local newspapers called it ‘The Ritz of Salinas.’”

Esparza played everything in the theaters from mainstream first-run films to Spanish movies to art productions and documentaries.

“I had to convince city council,” Esparza says of his theater plans. “So I made a commitment to them about what we would do and how we would be integrated into the community. We were going to make the movie theaters part of the community. We would offer scholarships and be friendly to community groups and local nonprofits that wanted to book the theater for events. They accepted it and took me at my word, and we fulfilled it.”

Think about customer needs

Unlike all the hoops Esparza had to jump through to get his movie theater business up and running, he had no problem establishing a culture of great customer service at Maya Cinemas.

“It’s having the customer be at the center of what our people are there to provide,” Esparza says. “It’s being able to have all the employees understand that we’re all there, and we’re all making a living because of the customer. Give that customer respect.”

So how do you make sure your employees are providing top-level service?

“It’s very easy,” Esparza says. “You go and hang out at the theater, and you watch them. You talk to people. You see what works and what doesn’t, and you make small adjustments along the way.”

One example is the inclusion of “cry rooms” at Maya Cinemas’ theaters. Understanding how much of a family experience going to the movies is in the Latino community, Esparza wanted to make it possible for patrons of all ages to have a good time at his theaters.

“It’s a big deal to have a babysitter because it’s expensive,” Esparza says. “If you’re going to the movies, you’re going to take everybody, including the toddlers. So we built cry rooms in the mezzanine levels of all our theaters.”

Another nod to family is the location of ticket windows. Esparza recalled when he would take his kids to a movie and then be told he couldn’t come into the lobby to find them afterward without buying a ticket.

“We designed our lobby so you don’t need a ticket to go in,” Esparza says. “The ticket control is way inside. You can go into any of our lobbies and buy popcorn and sit down and nobody is going to hassle you. That’s a design feature that was copied. Now all of the major chains are doing that.”

Esparza also takes a fatherly approach to the young employees who come to work in his theaters, which now number three with a fourth set to open in Fresno, Calif., early next year.

“We look to give these employees a meaningful experience,” Esparza says. “It’s OK for us if they move on. They’ve gotten some work values and a sense of customer service, respect and work ethic. We look to give that to them so that they can go on to college and do well. Those that come back to us can get another job, and we’ve had people who started as ushers who are now the manager of a theater.”

But as much as he loves movies, filmmaking and his theaters, Esparza says he learned a valuable lesson just before his big break with Redford and “The Milagro Beanfield War” that has stuck with him through the years.

“I set up my own movie production company and did an independent feature, and I lost my shirt,” Esparza says, referring to the 1978 film “Only Once in a Lifetime.”

“I almost lost my house. It really came out nice, but nobody paid any money to see it. I never again made a movie where I didn’t understand whom I was making it for and how I was going to market it. I very clearly learned at that moment that movies and art are a business. There has to be someone who is willing to pay to see it or you’re just doing art for yourself. That’s not a business.” 

Takeaways:

  • Be persistent in pursuing your dreams.
  • Never lose sight of your customer.
  • Make sure there is demand for your idea.

The Esparza File

Name: Moctesuma Esparza

Title: Founder and CEO

Company: Maya Cinemas North America Inc.

Born: Los Angeles

Education: Esparza attended UCLA and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theatre arts, motion pictures and television.

Honor roll: Esparza has received numerous awards and honors including an Academy Award nomination, a Golden Globe nomination, an Emmy award, a Clio award, an Alma award, a Cine Golden Eagle award and a Lifetime Achievement award by the Imagen Foundation. He was also named one of the Most Powerful and Influential Latinos of 2008 and 2011 by The Imagen Foundation. 

Esparza on his most influential high school teacher: He loved opera, drama and literature and he instilled it in his students. He had a small group of students who all succeeded, and I was the youngest member of the group. He died from lung cancer when I was a senior. But of the kids that I knew when I started with him in ninth grade, two went to Harvard and another went to Yale. I was going to go to Columbia (University in New York), but I ended up going to UCLA.

The rest of the faculty was upset with him. They didn’t like him because he made them all look bad. The rest of the faculty thought, ‘Oh, these Mexican kids. They don’t have anything. Let’s just put them through.’ It was a mill, a baby-care kind of institutional educational experience.

But Tom Kelley, who was an Irish white guy, he loved us and we loved him back. And we performed for him.