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Orange County Gaining Clout at Box Office

November 01, 1987|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

On Sept. 25, "The Princess Bride" made its U.S. debut in five cities: New York, Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles--and Newport Beach.

It wasn't the first time the film industry has included Orange County on its list of prime testing grounds: Last year, Costa Mesa was one of the first cities where "Platoon" was shown. And sneak previews have been increasingly common in the county, from 1984 ("A Soldier's Story") to as recently as last month ("Suspect").

In years past, according to Hollywood marketing experts, Orange County's conservative tastes meant it couldn't always be counted on to mirror the rest of America. But as its population has grown, "its audiences have become broader in tastes," says John De Simio of 20th Century-Fox, which is distributing "The Princess Bride."

"And it's grown so much, and so fast," De Simio adds, "that it's a market unto itself. It's no longer a stepchild to L.A."

Orange County's tastes are solidly mainstream these days. The hits here have been hits everywhere: "Beverly Hills Cop 2," "Crocodile Dundee," the Stallone-Schwarzenegger sagas, "Fatal Attraction," "The Princess Bride."

"Generally," says Art Murphy, a longtime industry analyst on the faculty of USC's School of Cinema-Television, "if it's a hit in New York or L.A. or San Jose, it's a hit in Orange County."

And if it's a hit in Orange County, it's big business.

Most theater operators won't disclose figures. But James Edwards, founder-president of the Orange County-based Edwards Theatres Circuit Inc., gives an idea of what the numbers are: Last year, he says, his chain, which dominates the market with 82 screens at 24 locations, sold about 12 million tickets and grossed about $35 million--a figure he says accounts for 60% of all cinema revenues countywide.

Fox's choice to unveil "The Princess Bride" at the Edwards Newport Cinema paid off, he says: The box office gross for the movie's first week there was $30,000--more than the movie took in that same week in Hollywood or Westwood.

The flip side of being mainstream, though, is that the offbeat often goes wanting.

For all they apparently share in tastes with the rest of America, Orange County moviegoers have some notable distinctions, according to Hollywood marketing specialists. They can boast higher-than-average income and education. And they seem to be slightly older than the national average, which is 14-30 years old. "We don't have any surveys," says Joseph Farrell, head of National Research Group, a Hollywood-based marketing research firm, "but I'd say we're talking about a range that's more like to 14 to 49 or higher in Orange County."

In some areas, especially the south county sector (which industry insiders have dubbed "the Westwood of Orange County"), these differences have manifested themselves in a greater desire for upscale, sophisticated movies, the kind usually dubbed "art films."

But generally, those movies continue to be relegated to the county's handful of small "art houses" and campus film festivals, while "action-oriented" films, musicals and other traditional, wide-appeal, all-but-surefire fare dominate the commercial marketplace.

The Port in Corona del Mar has long been the haven for such foreign-language works as Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" from Japan and "Jean de Florette" from France, and for such British works as "84 Charing Cross Road."

The Balboa Cinema, also in Newport Beach, a one-time revival house that has been showing first-run rarities since early 1985, has been the showcase--often the sole showcase--for such works as Sergio Leone's full-length "Once Upon a Time in America," West German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" and, more recently, "Shoah" and "Maurice."

Among student-run film groups on various campuses, the UC Irvine Film Society, especially, has presented work seldom if ever before seen in Orange County. A stronghold for revivals--a recent series on French auteur Jean Renoir and a screening of "Muddy River" by Japanese director Kohei Oguri come to mind--the campus this year billed the only Orange County showing of "Caravaggio," British director Derek Jarman's movie about the 16th century artist.

Fans of such serious, hard-to-find films may find that things are improving. Recently, the big chains have been offering more "limited audience" movies, such as "A Room With a View," and are finding that they do have a certain commercial appeal.

Edwards says a turnabout in attitude started with the box office success in chain theaters here of such foreign-language works as 1978's "La Cage aux Folles" and 1981's "Das Boot." Edwards has presented such films as "Mona Lisa" and "Sid and Nancy"; the United Artists chain recently showed "Matewan" at its South Coast Village theater, and American Multi-Cinema (AMC) is showing "My Life As a Dog" at its newly opened MainPlace complex.

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