After a 14-year dark spell, the remodeled Port Theater in Corona del Mar will reopen during this year's Newport Beach Film Festival with free screenings and seminars.
The theater will officially welcome the public back on Saturday with the seminar series "Vision and Craft: The Art of Filmmaking," from 1 to 5 p.m. "Kingdom Come," a documentary by first-time director Daniel Gillies, will be screened at 5:30 p.m.
The buzz surrounding the reopening of the East Coast Highway venue, which closed in 1998, could have been expected to increase ticket sales, but festival organizers said they decided to offer all of the programming for free throughout the festival, which opens Thursday and runs through May 3.
"We thought that this was an important opportunity to give back to community and we are hopeful that in the future, patrons and sponsors will underwrite these opportunities," said Gregg Schwenk, the festival's chief executive. "We are extremely proud to partner with the Port Theater and offer a unique selection of films and seminars."
The Orange County Film Society, which founded the festival, is interested in possibly using the theater for other screenings and events year-round, Schwenk said.
Though few details have been made public, the theater reportedly has undergone an interior remodel and has less — but more flexible — seating to accommodate events other than film screenings.
"The owner has done a tremendous job of restoring and re-imagining the Port Theater," Schwenk said. "In a word, it's beautiful. It will be a true gift back to the community."
Port Theater owner Fariborz Maseeh, a Newport Beach resident and philanthropist, has declined to talk about the renovation, and calls to his office last week were not returned.
Some question how Maseeh will solve the building's past parking and traffic problems along that congested strip of Coast Highway.
"I think there will be challenges, but there are challenges created any time you have a new business opening up," said Bernie Svalstad, chairman of the Corona del Mar Business Improvement District. "This site is a little unusual due to that the parking was grandfathered in because of the historical nature of the building to the city."
Svalstad said he is excited about the reopening and expects the theater to attract visitors from surrounding communities.
"In Corona del Mar, one of the most-asked questions is 'What they are going to do?'" Svalstad said. "That, and what it's like in there, have been the focus of a lot of interest."
Officials estimated that more than 50,000 people attended the festival last year. With that kind of popularity, organizers chose to hang on to Triangle Square Cinemas in Costa Mesa as a venue. The festival expanded into Costa Mesa for the first time last year to compensate for the loss Island Cinema at Fashion Island, which was closed for a nearly year-long remodel. It is again part of the festival lineup.
"We've become one of the larger film festivals in Southern California, and the demand by our audience is such that we have to look at all venue options," Schwenk said.
In years to come, the NBFF will look at other small community theaters, including the Balboa Theater, which has undergone some restoration over the years.