By Russell Contreras / Associated Press
For nearly 10 years, residents in a California farming community have had to drive nearly 40 miles to see the latest film, a rare trip for some in a place where a third of the population lives in poverty.
That all changed in May when Moctesuma Esparza, a Latino movie producer, opened his latest Maya Cinemas theater in Delano in his ongoing effort to open theaters in poor, rural areas in the U.S. that lack entertainment options. The $20 million project gives Delano’s 53,000 residents access to recent movie releases in a high-end experience with luxury seating. In 1965, Delano helped spark Cesar Chavez’s farm worker union movement.
Esparza, who produced the 1997 movie “Selena” and has opened up four identical theaters in poor areas in California, said poverty shouldn’t sentence residents to “movie deserts” where inexpensive leisure is limited. He has vowed to do his part to change the landscape in rural America.
For years, rural communities in Appalachia, the American Southwest and the Mississippi Delta have seen small theaters close due to the high cost of technology updates and to economic downturns that discourage investors from taking over struggling movie houses.
Data from the National Association of Theater Owners, the trade organization that represents exhibitors, also found that the overall number of U.S. cinema sites fell 25 percent from 1995 to 2018. However, the number of screens spiked 45 percent largely as a result of an increase in megaplex movie theaters opening in urban areas.
The group estimates about 10,000 screens could go dark soon because small independent and rural theaters can’t afford to make digital upgrades that modern movies require.
Being in a rural area that may lack broadband or have spotty cell service that makes streaming services like Netflix and Hulu difficult to access, combined with the absence of a movie theater, can be isolating or just boring.
“We have nothing out here,” said Chanika Green, 18, of Shelby, Mississippi, a town of around 3,000 residents two hours south of Memphis, Tennessee. “No movie theater, nothing. It’d be nice to have something so we could do something.”
The lack of a movie theater and basic leisure like skating rinks hurts struggling regions that have seen jobs leave, said Robby Moore, mayor of Lobelville, Tennessee. Residents in rural areas often have to travel more than an hour to watch a movie.
That’s why Esparza began building theaters in underserved areas in 2000. The theaters also provide jobs.
“I saw a business opportunity. But what I soon realized was that I have to become a developer, too,” Esparza said. “Few people were investing in these communities.”
Esparza is erecting megaplex movie theaters in rural Latino areas in California. Besides Delano, theaters have opened in Salinas, Bakersfield, Pittsburg, and Fresno.
His next theater is being planned for North Las Vegas. He says a developer could do the same for rural areas in Kentucky, West Virginia and the Deep South, if they research the need and build complexes that give moviegoers a special experience.
Some states are encouraging local communities to take active steps to bring movies to town.
New Mexico announced two years ago that it was joining other states in pushing an initiative to revitalize downtown districts in isolated, small towns by rehabilitating aging, historic theaters.
An economic development program, similar to efforts in Iowa and Illinois, seeks to save often-forgotten facilities like the Shuler Theater in Raton, New Mexico — a poor and rural area. The program helps refurbish buildings and gives grants for new digital projection and sound equipment.
New Mexico officials believe that reviving theaters in ranching towns and small cities near American Indian reservations will help create jobs in struggling downtown districts and spark excitement in entertainment deserts.
The Gates Family Foundation also is awarding $10,000 to $30,000 grants to rural communities to purchase new digital equipment for movie theaters.
Esparza says like food and shelter, all people need the communal experience that movies provide.
“Everyone should have a right to dream,” Esparza said. “Movies allow people to dream, to think of a world outside their experiences.”