Mexican Theater Chain Projects Its Future In U.S.

Originally published on August 22, 2011 12:10 pm

Cinepolis doesn't look like a typical movie theater. Dave and Kris Litvak, patrons of the new cinema in San Diego, say it's more like a chic hotel.

Before the building was renovated, "it looked like a horrible kind of movie theater," Dave Litvak says. Now, he says, "it's modern, and it's elegant."

The lobby floors are dark hardwood, and there's an art gallery. General Manager Antonio Garcia points to people sipping cocktails at the bar.

"We have an extensive wine menu with 40 different wines. We also have an extensive drink list from chili mango martinis to the Cinepolis Magnificent Margarita," he says.

Small dining tables are dotted about. Sushi and fancy finger foods are made fresh in the kitchen.

And, you can order this all with the push of a button from your cushy, leather powered recliner in the chain's state-of-the-art theaters.

Surprising Origins

People in the lobby have as many guesses about the concept's origin as flavors of popcorn on the menu. When Kristen Blakeman finds out Cinepolis is from Mexico, she's surprised.

"Typically, things go the other way, as opposed to this kind of luxury coming up here from there," Blakeman says.

Carlos Wellman, who manages Cinepolis' U.S. expansion, grew up in Mexico City.

Cinepolis began in Mexico in the late 1940s, and it is now the world's fourth-largest cinema chain. Wellman says it was tough to open on this side of the border.

"It's always been, like even since I was a little kid, explaining to people that we don't necessarily drive burros and eat tacos every single day," he says.

Mexican businesses have been coming to the U.S. for years. Baked goods manufacturers Entenmann's and Thomas' are owned by a Mexican company, Grupo Bimbo.

A New Trend

Traditionally, it's huge Mexican corporations that buy existing U.S. companies. But Cinepolis is on the cusp of a new trend: Mexican companies coming to the U.S. as themselves.

"The small companies of the young entrepreneurs—they say, 'I have the vision. I have the energy. I am not afraid of the U.S. I feel very comfortable in the U.S. market. I have a good product and I can be successful there,'" says San Diego attorney Enrique Hernandez.

Hernandez specializes in helping Mexicans conduct business in the U.S. Cinepolis is one of his clients. Hernandez says many of these businessmen, like two of the Cinepolis USA partners, got graduate degrees in the U.S.

Back at the movie theater, Cinepolis director Carlos Wellman says he hopes the theaters expand people's perception of Mexico.

"There are surprising companies that people aren't necessarily aware of that came from Mexico — the education, the culture, the population. And we hope this will set a standard," he says.

Cinepolis has identified 15 markets across the U.S. that it plans to move into. The business wants to be as synonymous with film as Thomas' is with English muffins.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Here in Southern California, a company based in Mexico is expanding north of the border. It's a chain of movie theaters, and as reporter Amy Isackson found at one of its theaters in San Diego, it is very high-end.

AMY ISACKSON: When you step into Cinepolis, it doesn't look like a movie theater. Dave and Kris Litvak say it's more like a chic hotel.

MONTAGNE: It looks, you know, kind of young and hip, and it looks like a fun place to come.

MONTAGNE: I mean, from what it was, it looked like a, you know, horrible kind of movie theater, to now it's modern and it's elegant.

ISACKSON: Cinepolis has raised the bar. The lobby floors are dark hardwood. There's an art gallery. General Manager Antonio Garcia points to people sipping cocktails at the bar.

MONTAGNE: We have an extensive wine menu with 40 different wines. We also have an extensive drink list from Chile mango martinis to Cinepolis Magnificent Margarita.

ISACKSON: When asked where they think the concept originated, people in the lobby have nearly as many guesses as there are flavors of popcorn on the menu.

MONTAGNE: I would guess France.

MONTAGNE: China? Greece? From Europe.

MONTAGNE: Honestly, I'm not even sure.

ISACKSON: That's Kris Litvak, Julie Brewster and Jenny Flannigan. When Kristen Blakeman finds out Cinepolis is from Mexico, she's surprised.

MONTAGNE: Typically, things go the other way, as opposed to this kind of luxury coming up here from there.

MONTAGNE: It's always been, like even since I was a little kid, explaining to people that we don't necessarily drive burros and eat tacos every single day.

ISACKSON: Carlos Wellman grew up in Mexico City. He's managing Cinepolis' expansion in the U.S. Cinepolis began in Mexico in the late 1940s. It's now the world's fourth-largest cinema chain. Even so, Wellman says it was tough to open on this side of the border.

MONTAGNE: I mean, how are you guys going to do theaters if we invented the cinema, right?

ISACKSON: Enrique Hernandez is an attorney in San Diego who specializes in helping Mexicans do business in the U.S. Cinepolis is one of his clients. He says there's a new generation of Mexican businessmen eyeing the U.S. market.

MONTAGNE: The small companies of the young entrepreneurs, they say, I have the vision. I have the energy. I'm not afraid of the U.S. I actually feel very comfortable in the U.S. market. I have a good product, and I can be successful there.

ISACKSON: Hernandez says many of these businessmen, like two of the Cinepolis USA partners, get graduate degrees in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

ISACKSON: Back at the movie theater, Cinepolis director Carlos Wellman says he hopes the theaters help expand people's perception of Mexico.

MONTAGNE: There are surprising companies that people aren't necessarily aware of that come from Mexico - the education, the culture, the population. And we hope this will set a standard.

ISACKSON: For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson, in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.