Los Angeles's Secret, Foreign Language Movie Theater Scene

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 7, 2013 01:18pm | Post a Comment

Los Angeles is a film town -- maybe the film town. Like the Hollywood district contained within it, the name "Los Angeles" a metonym for American film industry in the minds of many. "La La Land," "The Entertainment Capital of the World" and all that. I love movies; however, in my mind, the Hollywood film thing actually ranks pretty low in the long list of what makes Los Angeles the greatest city in the world. This is possibly (probably) shocking to hear/read if you're a cog in the blockbuster factory or a celebrity worshipper but better you find that out now than never. Luckily, Los Angeles doesn't just make movies, it also shows them. There are few cities in the world with as robust a film culture as Los Angeles.

For those who love celebrity-driven, gazillion dollar CGI superhero franchises you're in luck; there are multiplexes in every mall and Redboxes at every 7-11. Thankfully for other varieties of cinéastes, there's a lot more to Los Angeles’s mise en scène than that. There are architecturally beautiful picture palaces, romantic drive-ins, dingy dollar theaters, high profile revival houses, low profile smut houses, and actual art house chains. Additionally there are all sorts of special screenings and festivals that take place every week of the year.

Most of the most interesting programming in Los Angeles is screened at single-screen theaters like the Academy Little Theater, the Aero, the Alan and Elaine Armer TheaterThe Arena CinemaArt Theatre, Billy Wilder, Echo Park Film Center, Leo S. Bing, Linwood Dunn, Million Dollar Theatre, New Beverly, Nuart, Old Town Music HallOrpheum, Palace, Pendersleigh, REDCATRegentSamuel Goldwyn, Silent Movie Theatre, WGA, or Warner Grand. (Please let me know if I've skipped any).

There are also a few multiple screen venues too that show interesting programming such as Hollywood’s Egyptian and Sundance Sunset Cinemas, Irvine’s Edwards University Town Center 6 and Edwards Westpark 8 Theatres, and West Los Angeles’s Landmark. The Laemmle, with theaters in Beverly Hills, Claremont, Encino, North Hollywood, Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Sawtelle; is the county’s premier art house chain. (Again, please let me know if I've skipped any).

Los Angeles also has film festivals. There are specific festivals for classics, comedies, horror, noir, shorts, 3D, Asian-Pacific, French, Iranian, Irish, Japanese, Jewish, Korean, Pan-African, Polish, and South East European film festivals. There are additionally loads of special screenings not just in theaters but in parks, cemeteries, former service stations, cultural centers and on top of parking garages. I once endeavored to cover all of these but then someone introduced me, thankfully, to Filmradar. But not even that venerable service can cover all the Southland cinema scene.

It’s often noted (although not at all reflected in Hollywood films) that Los Angeles is a microcosm of the world. There are nearly 10 million people living in Los Angeles County today – the most populous county in the country and one that has a larger population than 42 of the 50 states. There are at least 224 languages spoken in Los Angeles homes.  In Los Angeles proper there are 336 movie theaters in existence -- though only 40 are currently screening movies. It shouldn’t then be surprising that Los Angeles has long had a diverse, popular foreign language cinema scene. In the latter half of the 20th century, as large numbers of mainstream film-going audiences abandoned movie houses in favor of home-viewing and TV, many movie theaters catered to various foreign language-speaking immigrant populations. Most of those have long since closed whilst others have opened with the express purpose of showcasing particular foreign cinemas.

As already mentioned, many foreign films are shown at festivals, special screenings and art house theaters. I wouldn't mis-characterize them all as art cinema but they're almost never exemplary of popular cinema from abroad. But Los Angeles, with its massive populations of people from around the world, also supports a number of movie theaters that cater to specific audiences with popular cinema from their various homelands. In most cases these films aren't likely going to be released domestically on DVD or Blu-Ray, they won't be nominated for Oscars, and aside from the random VCD or import DVD, you're not likely to see them in stores unless you specifically seek them out at small shops in the appropriate ethnic enclave. In other words -- you should see them in the theater, the way they were intended to be seen!



The Golden Gate Theater in East LA

There are roughly 3,582,992 residents of Los Angeles County who speak Spanish as their primary language, roughly 39% of the total population. According to the MPAA, although Latinos only make up 16% of the US’s population, they make up 25% of the theater-going audience (yet about 0% of the characters in Hollywood movies). Beginning around the 1970s, many small, local theaters switched to Spanish-language programming in their final years as movie houses. This was the case with the Arden in Lynwood, the Azteca in Boyle Heights, El Cameo in El Sereno, the Fox in Riverside, the Golden Gate in East LA, the Highland Park Theatre in Highland Park, the Orange Theatre in Orange, the Princess and the Yost in Santa Ana, the Rialto in El Monte, and the Wilshire in Fullerton – to name but a few (please let me know of more).

Despite this robust history, I’m not aware of any local theaters specializing in Spanish-language programs today. Perhaps, as with English-language cinema, the Spanish-speaking audience is too large and spread out to warrant a specialty theater… or perhaps there is/are Spanish-language theaters that I don’t know of. It seems most likely that, as with all immigrant populations in the USA, the second generation is fluent in English and by and large more eager to watch Hollywood fare than films from their ancestral homelands. 



331,246 of Los Angeles County residents speak a form of Chinese (Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin, etc) as their primary language. That’s roughly the same number as people as comprise the entire population of Honolulu. Los Angeles County was home to the first Chinese-American majority population of any city – Monterey Park. Nowadays the San Gabriel Valley has several Chinese and Taiwanese-plurality communities including Alhambra, Arcadia, Diamond Bar, East San Gabriel, Hacienda Heights, Rosemead, Rowland Heights, San Marino, South San Gabriel, Temple City, and Walnut.

In the past there were at least two theaters specializing in Chinese-language Cinema, both in the SGV: Alhambra’s Garfield Theater and Monterey Park’s Monterey Theatre. Neither currently show films and, sadly,  I’m not aware of any Chinese theaters currently in operation in Los Angeles County. As with Spanish-language cinemas, I'd bet that this fact is due to American-born Chinese all being more comfortable with English and Hollywood than the languages (and films) of their parents and ancestors. There is, however, at least one multiplex that almost always has one Chinese-language film in their line-up at any given time, the AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, in Monterey Park's Atlantic Times Square mall/apartment complex (aka "The Asian-Americana").


Edwards Cerritos Stadium 10 (image source: Jason "The Don" A.)

There are 223,572 Pinoys in Los Angeles who speak Tagalog as their primary language – more than the entire population of Scottsdale, Arizona. There is only one theater that I know of that regularly shows Filipino fare: Edwards Cerritos Stadium 10 in Cerritos, near Orange County (which is home to an additional 41,391 Tagalog speakers). Filipino films have yet to really crack the foreign art film scene so I’ll be surprised if Graceland screens there.



                                      CGV                                                                             KCCLA

There are 183,700 people in Los Angeles who speak Korean as a first language, a number larger than the entire population of Tallahassee, Florida. Orange County is home to an additional 68,811 residents who speak Korean as a first language and its Little Seoul neighborhood, though dwarfed by LA’s Koreatown, is one of the largest Korean enclaves in the country. The Korean Wave took off recently in the US, beginning in the early 2000s when 쉬리 (Swiri) was released and K-Dramas began to take over the world’s television sets. As far as I know, there are two venues that regularly showcase Korean films. CGV Cinemas (CGV at Madang, Los Angeles) in Koreatown shows a mix of Hollywood and Korean films 전설의 주먹 (Fists of Legend) is currently showing) and is the first American theater opened by the South Korean multiplex chain. The Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles (KCCLA) is a real treasure, showing FREE Korean films regularly (as well as other non-cinematic programming). Sometimes the films are great, sometimes they’re the opposite – but occasionally there are pastries to sweeten the deal… and again, it’s free~



The Naz 8 (image source: LA Weekly)

There are only 10,296 native Hindi speakers in Los Angeles County but Bollywood films have long been popular far beyond the borders of Mumbai. The NAZ 8 in Lakewood (just outside Little India) almost exclusively shows Bollywood films (with English subtitles). Right now Chashme Baddor, Ek Thi Daayan, Himmatwala, Kai Po Che, Nautanki Saala, Rangrezz, and Shootout At Wadala are showing. Occasionally the theater also show films from Afghanistan, China, Hollywood, Iran, Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. The AMC Orange 30 in Orange also usually has a Bollywood film in its roster.



The Southland is home to 225,158 native Vietnamese speakers – two thirds which live in Orange County.  Little Saigon was once home to the Thu Do, which replaced the Edwards Westbrook Theater and showed Vietnamese, Chinese, and French films in the early 1990s.  In 1994 it showed Mùi đu đủ xanh (The Scent of Green Papaya) and director Tran Anh Hung and star Trân Nu Yên-Khê were in attendance. The theater closed around 1996.  I’m not aware of any Vietnamese theaters currently locally operating.


George and the Sakaye Aratani/Japan America Theatre

Today there are only 57,376 Angelenos who speak Japanese as a first language (obviously tens of thousands more ethnically Japanese Angelenos speak English as a first language). The Japan America  Theater at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Little Tokyo opened in 1983 -- in 2001 it was re-named George and the Sakaye Aratani/Japan America Theatre. To this day it hosts a variety of programs including Japanese films. I caught a Korean film there too during the Little Tokyo Korea Japan Festival although that may’ve been a one-off event. 

Are there any foreign language cinemas that I missed? Please do let me know. And get out there and take advantage of being in Los Angeles to visit these theaters!


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