On a balmy summer evening outside the plush, 10-theater cineplex in this hillside community just east of Los Angeles, a loudspeaker is blaring the ubiquitous pop hit "La Vida Loca," while families push baby strollers past the Spanish House gift store.

Inside the cinema, however, there is no hint of Hispanic flavor.

On screens one through 10, the movies featured are "Big Daddy," "South Park," "Star Wars," "Austin Powers" and "Notting Hill"--nothing to suggest the diversity of the theatergoers in this burgeoning middle-class town.

Surprising? Hardly. African Americans have long complained that Hollywood ignores their stories and shortchanges black culture. But for Hispanics--nearly as numerous as black Americans, though far less vocal--the problem is more basic: They are practically invisible on the entertainment landscape.

The busiest movie season of the year has been launched with barely a whisper from Hispanic actors. The new fall schedule unveiled by the television networks fails to feature a single leading Latino character, much less a Latino-themed show. The latest craze for salsa-swinger Ricky Martin and the recent rise of Jennifer Lopez hardly make up for the overall sparseness of Hispanic figures in the entertainment universe.

"No one will ever forget the fall season of 1999. You don't even have to say anything anymore," said actor Edward James Olmos, a longtime advocate for diversity in entertainment. "If I was one of the executives in charge of TV in the U.S.A., I would feel embarrassed, and I would feel like I was out of touch."

The overall lack of diversity on the fall 1999 schedule--despite a couple of supporting Latino or African American characters--has sparked an outcry among minority advocacy groups that have banded together to protest.

But the movies are hardly an improvement over the small screen. Says Olmos, who has several movies being developed, "It's even worse. It always sounds promising until you get to the point of 'Let's green-light.' They they say, 'We have a different idea.' "

In an industry in which TV networks are desperately scrambling for audiences and movie studio executives constantly whine about nonexistent profit margins, the disregard for Latinos makes little economic sense. A mountain of market research shows that Hispanics represent the fastest-growing segment of the population and are among its most avid consumers of popular entertainment. Latino advocates wonder why such a huge potential market is being ignored.

"We're out of the loop [and] we need to get in the loop. We need to put the industry on notice that we exist," says Jesus Trevino, a Hispanic writer and director, speaking at a recent symposium on the topic. "We have to drag the industry to the trough and say 'Here's the water, buddy--drink.' "

On paper, at least, Trevino has a strong case. Latinos now make up more than 11 percent of the nation's population and are poised to grow to 14 percent by 2010, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show. But they accounted for only 3.5 percent of television and movie roles last year, according to the Screen Actors Guild. That's proportionately the most meager representation of any minority population and a drop of one-half of a percentage point from the previous year.

"This is a population that will soon represent 15 to 20 percent of the country, who is not seeing itself reflected in entertainment, and would like to," says Screen Actors Guild President Richard Masur.

A recent study by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, based in Claremont, Calif., found that Latino families spent an average of $1,137 a year on movies, sports and recreation in 1997, about $200 more than African American families and about $800 less than non-Hispanic whites. But they also spent a far larger share of their income (about 6.5 percent) on movie tickets than non-Hispanic whites, who spent about 4.7 percent. African Americans spent about 5.9 percent.

The study also showed that the vast majority of those surveyed watched television mostly in English, or in both Spanish and English. But the most noteworthy statistic is the projection that, thanks to immigration and a high birth rate, the number of Hispanic American citizens is expected to balloon to 40 million in just over a decade, an 80 percent growth since 1990.

"Why have producers and advertisers failed to recognize this huge market?" asks actress Salma Hayek, who, in her supporting role in "Wild Wild West," is one of only a few Hispanic actors on the big screen this summer. Hayek was a star in her native Mexico before crossing the border a few years ago. "There are so many incorrect assumptions, so many long-held beliefs."

"Miller and Bud have picked up on this market," says James Blancarte, president of the Mexican-American Bar Association and entertainment lawyer, referring to Latino-oriented advertising by the beer giants. "Why is Hollywood so slow to pick up on the fact that we represent significant economic bucks?"

Hollywood's own analysts seem well aware of the facts, though they can't explain the lack of response. "We are very cognizant of the importance of this audience and the growth of this audience, and they are part of our programming strategy. I can say that definitively," says Dave Poltrack, the head of planning and research at CBS. This is especially true, he adds, since most of the networks--including CBS--own and operate stations in Hispanic markets such as Miami, New York and Los Angeles. These are key profit centers for the struggling broadcast giants. "It is a critical market, and we are paying attention to it," he says.

Shattering the Stereotypes But you would never guess that from watching popular entertainment. In the movies, "if you're Hispanic, you're pregnant or you're a gangster or a chollo [gang member]," says Sylvia Vazquez, 14, on her way to see "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" with her sister Susan in Montebello. "We're never attorneys or doctors or something."

"The average person who watches TV wouldn't think there are very many Latinos in this country, and those that are are gang members and criminals," says Brent Wilkes, of the Washington-based League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a Latino civil rights group.

That impression, supported by various studies, may have less to do with deliberate discrimination in Hollywood than with the industry's clubby way of doing business and its tendency to rely on known formulas and stock characters.

"It's a nightmare in the Latino community," says Sandy Martin, president of Olmos Productions, Edward James Olmos's production company. "There are only six or seven names that people are interested in. We need to start giving a break to some newcomers. . . . You pitch a movie and it's 'Who are your stars?' This whole business is a name game."

Scott Sassa, president of NBC Entertainment, defends his programming as colorblind. "We get rewarded by advertisers for reaching younger and upscale audiences. . . . We don't make distinctions for being black, white or brown."

But producers and writers who struggle to win green lights for their projects say they are constantly confronted with entertainment executives who have virtually no experience with Hispanic people--apart from their nannies and gardeners--and no appreciation for their culture.

"There are stories I'd like to tell, I'd like to see, and they're not getting made," says Randa Haines, director of last year's "Dance With Me," starring Vanessa Williams and Puerto Rican pop star Chayanne. "These stories are beyond the experience of the people in power. They don't understand it, so they're frightened of it."

Producer Gregory Cascante, who has worked on movies from "Dirty Dancing" to "Glengarry Glen Ross," has had every major studio reject his project about a young Latino boy who is ashamed of his heritage and tries to "pass" as an Anglo.

"The comments I got were: It's not exploitive enough for Latin audiences," he recalls angrily. "There's an ignorance about the importance of the Latin sector. It's frustrating [for me] as a person who gets movies made. I've been turned down by everyone." Cascante is now looking for an independent distributor for the film.

"Hollywood is a very small community of insiders, a club. It's a whirling system of paybacks," observes veteran producer Mike Medavoy. "I think there is room to break in, but one obvious thing is political power. The problem is to get organized and realize it will have an impact. You need to get into the executive ranks, to educate people."

Mark Gill, who heads Miramax's West Coast office, says there needs to be a box office track record; once there's a Hispanic megahit movie, everyone will want to make one.

"Look at the emerging teen market, that's a parallel," he cautions, referring to the current slew of movies appealing to teens. "We've known this would happen for seven or eight years. It's been pretty obvious looking at the demographics. Yet it took the success of 'Scream' for studios to respond. When it hit, everyone said, "I want one, too.' It got the major studios on board. Remember: First and foremost, it's about money."

Miramax has one of the few Hispanic-themed projects in Hollywood at the moment, "Frida," about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. (Hayek is being considered for the lead.)

A Moving Target

Studio and network decision-makers say a host of economic factors argue against Hispanic-themed programming. One is the success that aggressive Spanish-language television networks Univision and Telemundo already have in that market. Univision in particular has rocketed from about 900,000 viewers in the coveted 18-to-49-year-old age group in 1992 to 1.6 million adults this past season, according to Nielsen research.

Univision affiliate KMEX in Los Angeles was the highest-rated station--in any language--in February, and is often near the top of the ratings. The same is true in Miami. In the nation's premier media market, New York, the Spanish-language radio station WSKQ (La Mega) is among the top stations. (The emerging Washington area Hispanic radio market now represents 7 percent of the local audience.)

Says Poltrack of CBS, "Univision and Telemundo have done such a very good job of targeting and reaching this market that they have made it difficult for broader-based networks to capture the market."

Another problem is the diversity of the Hispanic population. "The market in Miami is very different from the Hispanic market in Los Angeles," Poltrack says. "The Spanish-only segment of the audience is very different from the bilingual segment. The younger generation is more assimilated and more likely to watch the same things as teenagers and young adults of other ethnic groups."

In the movie world, this means that it is hard to justify significant budgets for Hispanic audiences, says Universal Studios acquisitions executive Ted Perkins. "Yes, there's a Latin audience that has a certain buying power," he says, but it's not a cinch that expensive movies aimed at that audience will make money. "Hispanic American movies don't necessarily travel well to Latin America. They don't work in Europe or Asia. It's not something they want to buy. So you cut out all those revenues and work backward to the negative cost--that's what the movie should be. You've backed yourself into a certain budget range. You have to know how to manage that risk."

Others counter that with the right marketing strategy, modestly budgeted movies can be big moneymakers. An astounding 89 percent of American Latinos polled by the Tomas Rivera Institute said they saw the 1987 movie "La Bamba" about singer Ritchie Valens, which crossed over into a mainstream audience. That was largely because the studio released a Spanish-dubbed version and advertised heavily in Hispanic and non-Hispanic residential areas. The same was true for the 1997 hit "Selena," about the Tejano singer, which shocked Hollywood by raking in $11 million during its opening weekend. For a film that cost only $20 million, that was a major success, even if the revenues were still modest compared with hits like the latest "Austin Powers" film, which opened at more than $50 million.

Some of these realities could be changed by bold casting decisions, says Si TV Co-Chairman Jeff Valdez, a leader in developing English-language programming for Hispanic audiences.

Valdez, who was a Clinton appointee to the Kennedy Center's Advisory Committee on the Arts, suggests: "Take a show, any show--'Friends,' 'Mad About You'--and cast" some Hispanics in the leads, he says. "It's that simple. It's been 25 years since 'Chico and the Man.' " But such creative thinking is rare. Actor Bruno Campos debuted on "Jesse" last year as Diego, Christina Applegate's Chilean-born neighbor, and eventually came back as a regular love interest. Cheech Marin has a supporting role in "Nash Bridges" that was created for him. The current furor over the TV season seems to have sparked some movement at Fox, which has beefed up the role of Hispanic actress Roselyn Sanchez on the cop drama "Ryan Caulfield."

But if Hollywood has mostly failed to act, it is at least partly because until recently Latinos have not agitated for them to do so, many Latinos argue.

Says Cascante, "We need to cry out that we want more movies. We make our own problems because we're not vocal. There's no one yet sensitized enough on the issue of awareness, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as no one is aware of demand, there are always reasons to justify saying no."

Some progress has been made, such as the creation of the Alma Awards by the National Council of La Raza four years ago to recognize Hispanic actors' performances. There has also been testimony on Capitol Hill by prominent actors, including Olmos and Jimmy Smits, on the subject.

But advocates are still frustrated at Hollywood's tepid response. "It's a bit of a mixed message," says Lisa Navarette, a spokeswoman for Washington-based La Raza.

She has often met with studio executives to complain. "We have found that when we meet, there is no one who doesn't acknowledge that there's a problem. But where we're still not succeeding is in getting them to do something about it," she said. "The studios say they need to talk to the guilds, the guilds say talk to the agents. There doesn't seem to be anywhere where the buck stops. No one assumes responsibility."

Navarette despaired when she saw the new fall television schedule. "For the networks to present a fall schedule that not only has few Latinos, but is one of the whitest schedules in memory--it seems as if they're shedding crocodile tears about their ability to change things," she says.

Lately La Raza has been pushing to get a network to give the green light to a Hispanic-themed sitcom or drama. "What we need is a 'Cosby' show," Navarette says. "That really changed things."

Triumphs and Challenges

Some in Hollywood are beginning to reach out to the untapped Hispanic market. In addition to the Screen Actors Guild's recent crusade, New Line Cinema signed a much-touted production deal a few months ago with the writer-director Gregory Nava ("Mi Familia," "Selena") to develop and direct Latino-themed movies. Playboy has just announced that it is about to launch a 24-hour Spanish-language channel that will hit major American cities by August. Latinos are "a very fast-growing and increasingly economically empowered segment of the audience," Playboy President Anthony Lynn told the Los Angeles Times when the channel was announced last month. "I think the potential is terrific for us."

But for the most part, progress is frustratingly slow, a pace that weighs heavily on those who hope to improve the image of Hispanic Americans nationally.

"One of the reasons we find that we're losing on a lot of substantive issues in Congress is because of the negative perception of Hispanics," laments LULAC's Wilkes, who recently attended a racially charged committee hearing in the House on immigration. "The media has such a huge role in the country's perception of what is fact, what is reality. It drives the immigration debate, it drives other issues we confront in terms of hostility toward the Hispanic population, hate crimes and such. We think it's definitely a concern, which is why we're trying to invest more time and effort into that dynamic."

CAPTION: The 1997 hit "Selena," starring Jennifer Lopez and Edward James Olmos, above, took in an impressive $11 million during its opening weekend. In "Wild Wild West," Salma Hayek, left, is one of the few Latin stars making it big this summer.

CAPTION: Puerto Rican Ricky Martin attracts mobs of fans since his hit song "La Vida Loca" topped the charts.