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THE BIG MIX : Movies : The Other Foreign-Film Experience in Los Angeles

February 05, 1989|LEONARD KLADY

It's a familiar weekend ritual--an outing at the movies.

First, there's a stop at the candy counter. Then it's a rush to find seats before the lights dim. But when the first image reflects off the screen, it's not Disney, Spielberg or other film Americana--it's "La Puerta Negra" from Mexico or Hong Kong's Chow Yun Fat in "Tiger on the Beat."

This is Los Angeles' other foreign-film experience--the movies from abroad which don't win awards at festivals and reflect a more idealized, escapist view of their society. It's a local tradition which dates back before the sound era and comes complete with coming attractions, short subjects and unique concession stands with soybean milk, Caccabaza and Mazapan.

However, the once thriving circuits of Latino, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Philippine and other multicultural films have fallen on difficult times. The boom in ethnic videocassettes and the assimilation of new generations into the American culture have taken their toll. Today, theaters playing other than mainstream or art-house films in Los Angeles exist primarily for Spanish-language, Chinese and Japanese movies.

In the past year, the city's full-time Korean-language theater--the Four Star on Wilshire--changed to playing second-runs of English-language films. Theaters which have catered to weekly or monthly rentals of Indian or Persian films have stopped receiving rental inquiries. One observer, commenting on the boom and availability of video releases, noted that it's not uncommon to find a foreign-language film on tape locally before it's even hit the screen in Bombay or Manila.

Spanish Decline

"Business is good but it's certainly been better," said Bruce Corwin, president of Metropolitan Theaters, which operates 15 Spanish-language movie houses in Southern California.

"We've been addressing this market for 25 years and there have been a lot of changes. We're here because we've always responded to the changes. For instance, for years the most popular films we showed were ranchera pictures (provincially set action-musicals) and you could never go wrong with a Cantinflas comedy. Now, films with more topical subjects, like a melodrama that was set during the recent Mexico City earthquake, or a film we had based on the life of a notorious drug czar, have hit a nerve with our audience."

Historically, said Corwin, his audience comes out on Sunday. He said that crowd accounts for about 70% of the theaters' weekly box-office income of $10,000 to $25,000 per screen. But the chain is feeling the downward trend and it has closed several theaters in the past two years.

The audience that remains is changing. Corwin observed that the Mexican-American community is "the oldest and most assimilated" in Los Angeles. However, in recent time films from Spain, Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia and El Salvador have crept into the repertoire.

Another oft-repeated factor for decline is the condition of the Latin theaters. "They are generally in a shambles and not the kind of place you'd like to visit," said Ignacio Calderon, U.S. representative of Mexico's Azteca Films.

Corwin agreed that many of the company's downtown sites are run-down and plans for renovations and improvements have proceeded slowly. He said Metropolitan's other locations, which were built more recently, are "a more pleasant movie-going experience."

Calderon added that when you consider that Latinos generally make movie-going a family outing, it's no wonder that this community accounts for the fast-growing segment in sales of VCRs. He said the home viewing experience is more pleasant and economic.

Variety in Little Tokyo

"Our older audience likes samurai films," said Yuki Takizawa of Suchiku Films, which owns and operates the two-screen Little Tokyo located downtown on South Alameda--now the city's sole Japanese venue. "Younger Japanese-Americans prefer Hollywood movies. So, we've become increasingly selective about the films we show. We still bring in a wide variety of dramas, historical films and comedies but now we have to consider a wider audience in hopes of recouping our costs from the mainstream and college circuits."

The theaters' policy is to run contemporary films on one screen and classics on the other.

"There is no market anymore for Japanese films," said Satoru Terada, the U.S. representative for Toho Films. He pointed to the fact that the Little Tokyo is the only full-time Japanese movie house left in North America, following closures of theaters in San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu. "New generations know little of their culture or its language. That's why all the films are sub-titled. I fear that this market will become increasingly insignificant."

Chinese Boom

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