YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Art Films in O.C.: Demand Is There, Screens Aren't : Movies: Although local theaters showing non-mainstream fare are doing well, there are no such venues in North or South County.


Like movie-goers nationwide, Orange County residents lined up to see "Jurassic Park." But they also flocked to such specialty films as "Howards End" and "Like Water for Chocolate," indicating that local theaters showing art films and foreign films are far from extinction.

Edwards Theatres Circuit Inc., Orange County's largest cinema chain, devotes its three-screen, 1,300-seat Edwards South Coast Plaza Village theater in Santa Ana exclusively to such fare.

But "we don't have enough screens to accommodate" the number of art films (which are non-mainstream and often produced by independent studios with low budgets) and foreign films coming on the market, said Jay Cooper, the chain's advertising and marketing director.

The situation is similar at the single-screen, 930-seat Port Theatre in Corona del Mar, says David Swanson, marketing vice president for Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatre Corp., the outlet's owner since 1989.

"We wish we had more (art) theaters in the area," Swanson said. He won't release ticket-sales figures, but said "we wouldn't play films like 'Howards End' for six months if business wasn't very good. We consider the Orange County market under-screened for the kind of films we run."

The privately owned Bay Theatre in Seal Beach, the county's smallest art house at less than 425 seats, has shown mostly second-run art films since adopting the format in 1975, said manager Edward Allen.

Allen also is mum on sales receipts, but said the Main Street specialty house with an old-fashioned feel still pulls a profit and has a loyal following.

"I see a lot of the same people come back," he said. "It's just a nice, steady, dependable crowd."

Big crowds went to see "Much Ado About Nothing," actor-director Kenneth Branagh's popular version of the Shakespearean classic, at the Edwards South Coast Plaza Village, Cooper said.

In one week there, the film grossed $5,500, Cooper said, comparing that favorably to the $6,800 it grossed in a week at the Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion Cinemas multiplex in Los Angeles. Los Angeles County has the audience to sustain nearly 30 screens featuring art films, roughly six times as many as in Orange County.

The South Coast Plaza Village theater's popularity didn't blossom overnight. Some patrons, who say the house is often packed now, recall sparse attendance in its early days. Still, the specialty format caught on fairly quickly, Edwards officials say.

The Edwards chain purchased the theater from United Artists about three years ago. Six months and a major renovation later, it began screening art films and foreign films there.

Then, after another couple of months, business picked up as movie-goers became familiar with the venue's fare.

"It takes some time to develop a clientele for an art picture theater," said James Edwards Sr., the chain's chairman. ". . . We didn't do it right off the bat at the village, but now it's a goer."

With demand reportedly exceeding supply, both Edwards and Landmark are considering increasing the number of Orange County screens they devote to art films. Neither have firm plans at the moment, however.

Of course, competition can be another reason for expansion. The Port, built in the mid- to late-1940s, sometimes feels its pinch, Swanson said.


With only one screen, Port operators cannot transfer a film that is still drawing profits onto another screen or into another theater to make way for a new film. Therefore, the distributor of the new film, unable to book it into the Port, "certainly will go to another theater," Swanson said.

"We can't pull 'Howards End' out of the Port when it's still doing good business, because that would alienate its distributor," he said.

The Bay Theatre, built in 1946, is the only art house in the county with no plans to expand. That theater may in fact be sold because, manager Allen said, owners Jane and Richard Loderhose "want to retire." (The Loderhoses, who lived above the theater until the late '80s but now live out of state, could not be reached for comment.)

Distributors typically book their films into the Bay only after releasing them elsewhere, because the theater screens films only in the evening, Allen said. Still, audiences average 100 strong on weekends, he said, enough to pull a profit.

"All first-run films go to the theaters that are open during the day (for matinees), so we kind of have to wait," Allen said. "But we are an alternative for people who don't want to drive all the way to L.A." to see specialty films.

Despite the apparent popularity of art houses--and the lack of any in North and South County--attempts by the Edwards chain to establish such venues in both areas have failed.

South County residents often grouse about long commutes for art film fare, said Geof English, director of performing arts at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, which staged a classic film series last year at Edwards Crown Valley in Mission Viejo.

"They are tired of driving to Costa Mesa" or elsewhere, English said.

Los Angeles Times Articles