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January 23, 2019

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Activism meets entertainment in North Las Vegas

The theater chain birthed from a rich history of Mexican-American advocacy is set to open

Maya Cinemas

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Maya Cinemas will bring 14 screens to North Las Vegas.

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Moctesuma Esparza, film producer and CEO of Maya Cinemas, poses in the lobby of Maya Cinemas North Las Vegas 14, under construction at 2195 Las Vegas Blvd. North, in North Las Vegas, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.

In March 1968, thousands of Mexican-American students flooded the streets of Los Angeles, protesting the subpar public education system that persisted in their classrooms. The outcry became known as the East L.A. walkouts, which made their way into national headlines and helped launch the Chicano movement of the ’60s, an equality endeavor for Mexican-Americans.

Protest organizers, dubbed the Eastside 13, were indicted and faced 66 years in prison. The indictments sparked additional protests on the doorsteps of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Justice Department in Washington, and also compelled the American Civil Liberties Union to support the effort. An appeals court later ruled the 13 were exercising their First Amendment rights, and the charges were dropped.

Moctesuma Esparza, 19 at the time, was one of those organizers. He’s now a seasoned entertainment executive known for supporting films centered around the Latin-American experience, and produced Selena, Gettysburg and the HBO film Walkout, which explores the 1968 protests.

“I didn’t jump from activism to film—I extended myself from activism to film,” Esparza said. “My film career is a part of my activism; this movie [Walkout] is a reflection of that.”

Later expanding from film production to distribution, Esparza noticed that while Latinos were consistently among the highest per-capita patrons of cinema, there were few, if any, theaters located in urban areas with high populations of Mexican-Americans.

Maya and the community

The Maya Cares program offers affordable viewing of new movies to certain demographics. The first Saturday of the month, the theater will show family films. Admission will be free for those with special needs and $3 for family, friends and guardians. Films will be sensory friendly, with lower volume and brighter lighting. For more information, visit mayacinemas.com/maya-cares

From this realization, Maya Cinemas was born, with Esparza as CEO. The company develops megaplex movie theaters in lower socio-economic, minority-majority and Latino-dominated communities. In 2003, its first site opened in Salinas, California, and most of Maya Cinemas’ locations—five of the six—are in the Golden State. The only out-of-state expansion is slated for North Las Vegas this month.

Early this year, Esparza spent $7.1 million to buy the site across from North Las Vegas City Hall, and a two-story, 14-screen theater now anchors a new downtown development project. It’s located in Councilman Isaac Barron’s Ward 1; as a child, Barron played in the dirt lot where the theater stands.

If you go

• What: Maya Cinemas North Las Vegas 14

• Where: 2195 North Las Vegas Blvd. (across from North Las Vegas City Hall)

• When: Hours pending. Plans call for the theater to soft-open in late December.

“I shed tears of joy,” Barron said. “When I first came on, the City of North Las Vegas couldn’t even give land away over here. This parcel sat for so long … it changed hands several times, and they just couldn’t get it sold.”

North Las Vegas hopes it can benefit from Maya Cinemas’ track record, both culturally and economically. The city has long struggled with revitalizing its downtown, was hit especially hard during the recession and, among Southern Nevada communities, took the longest to recover. For the past decade, many looked into the site where the theater stands, but declined to develop the land.

Moviegoers by the numbers

• More than three-quarters of the U.S./Canadian population, or 263 million people, went to the movies once in 2017.

• Men and women went to theaters at equal rates.

• Per-capita attendance was highest among Latino and Asian audiences.

• In 2017, the U.S./Canada box office was down 2 percent, from $11.4 billion in 2016 to $11.2 billion.

• Movie theaters are still the most popular entertainment option, more than theme parks and all major sports (baseball, basketball, hockey and football) combined.

• In 2017, 43 million frequent moviegoers went to theaters.

Bakersfield, California’s redevelopment plan in the early 2000s had a similar history. The plan for its downtown area required three anchors for entertainment: an ice rink, a swimming pool and a theater. No national chains would commit to the area, however, because of its socioeconomic conditions, according to Maya Cinemas’ economic impact report.

So in 2009, a 16-screen theater opened and now attracts 860,000 visitors annually—more than the swimming pool and the ice rink combined.

The impact report cites that “Maya Cinemas is a key anchor of the entertainment district and led the way for subsequent development.”

As for North Las Vegas, Esparza’s goal with the $75 million center is to help bring high-quality theater entertainment to the area’s large Latino population and encourage other businesses to view the area as a worthy investment.

“It’s a gorgeous building; it’s going to be transformative to North Las Vegas,” he said. “And it’s going to bring state-of-the-art amenities and movies of all kinds. We’re committed to being a first-run movie theater that also has specialty programming, art films, documentaries, Spanish-language film, American Latino film ... any kind of genre movie or topics that there is an interest in. So we fully expect to enliven and enrich the cultural and entertainment options for the residents in the area.”

The development will also include retail and dining spaces.

“You don’t want to drive a half-hour to see a movie. You want to go five to 10 minutes, park, have a good stay, have a coffee and dinner nearby and see the movie you want to see,” Esparza said. “And that’s what we do. That’s what we bring.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.