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CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER; TEXT BY RICHARD CHANG, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
At right, Sam Huntington and the cast of "Tug" at Edwards Island Cinemas in Newport Beach on the closing night of the 2010 Newport Beach Film Festival. Edwards Island has served as a good venue for press interviews and networking during the film festival. However, the theaters will be closed from Jan. 12 until the Christmas movie season, forcing the 11-year-old film festival to seek alternative screening venues, probably outside Newport Beach.
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Newport Film Festival loses a major venue

Newport Film Festival loses a major venue

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

The county's biggest film festival will have to find a new home for the majority of its presentations if it hopes to continue this spring.

The Newport Beach Film Festival, an 11-year-old gathering that has grown to become one of the more respected film fests in California, will be forced to move from Edwards Island Cinemas at Fashion Island, which is undergoing major renovations starting Jan. 12. The theater complex will be closed until the Christmas 2011 movie season.

The Irvine Company, which owns and operates Fashion Island, announced in December renovations to its seven-screen multiplex. That was a surprise to organizers of the Newport Beach Film Festival, who were planning to screen the majority of their 300-plus films at Edwards Island Cinemas, as they have since 2000. Last year, more than 51,000 people attended Newport Beach film fest events, tying a record set in 2009.

"It's going to have a devastating impact, given the very short notice that we had to develop alternative sites and options for the 2011 film festival," said Gregg Schwenk, chief executive officer and executive director of the film fest. "We have to come up with some alternatives. We were totally blindsided by it. This is a shock to us."

The 12th annual Newport Beach Film Festival is scheduled for April 28-May 5. The festival – if it takes place – will continue to screen films at the Regency Lido Theater, which has one large screen and 622 seats. Opening night will still be at Edwards Big Newport, which has a gigantic, 40-by-80 foot screen, one of the largest in the country, and 1,108 seats.

Yet, the heart of the festival has always been at Edwards Island Cinemas, which has the ability to screen multiple films at the same time, accommodate thousands during a busy week, and host question-and-answer sessions. The second-floor venue has also served as a meeting place, a hub for film information, and a spot where festival participants can talk to the media, each other, and pose for pictures and video.

Edwards Island is also close to hotels where participants stay, restaurants and other events related to the festival.

"I look at it as the unofficial home of the Newport Beach Film Festival," Schwenk said. "It's where the true heart of the event is."

A CHANGE IS COMING

According to a news release, here's what the Irvine Company has in store for Edwards Island Cinemas, which hasn't been refurbished since its opening in 1989: a spacious lobby with a classic look that reflects Fashion Island's Italianate architecture; stadium seating in all auditoriums; larger, more comfortable seats and wider aisles with generous legroom; reserved seating and a variety of food and beverage options.

Erin Freeman, spokeswoman for the Irvine Company, said despite the closure and renovations at Edwards Island, her company will continue to work closely with the festival, providing financial and in-kind assistance.

"Fashion Island has been a consistent supporter of the Newport Beach Film Festival," Freeman said. "As in past years, Fashion Island has again offered to host the opening night gala and provide green-room facilities and volunteer support.

"We understand the cinema renovation will mean the need to identify alternative screens in other locations. It is our understanding that reasonable alternative venues have been identified."

Edwards Big Newport (with six screens) is the only multiplex in Newport Beach comparable to Edwards Island Cinemas. Thus, the film festival is looking beyond Newport Beach for possible screening venues.

Edwards Westpark 8 and Edwards University Town Center 6, both in Irvine, have been identified as possible locales for the 2011 festival, according to Freeman, Schwenk and other sources. However, Schwenk said he doesn't want to move the festival too far away from its namesake city.

Many of the film festival sponsors and supporters are based in Newport Beach. The city of Newport Beach grants $100,000 per year to the festival. That grant, plus a $5,000 cultural arts grant from the city's arts commission, are expected to continue this year, according to Tara Finnigan, chief information officer for Newport Beach.

"It would be a temporary change that's needed to keep the event on track for 2011," Finnigan said of a move. "This is just a challenging year for them. I believe we would be willing to accommodate that plan and are already looking forward to having all of the festival back home in Newport in 2012."

Still, festival organizers haven't determined for certain where the festival will be based come April.

"Those are possible venues, but there's a great deal of logistical costs," Schwenk said of the two Edwards theaters in Irvine. "There are logistics issues, event issues, escalating costs. They need to be worked out. We're looking at all different options and ideas, but given the time frame since this announcement was made, it put us under a great deal of pressure. All possibilities have been considered."

A SILVER LINING?

It's been a difficult year for those close to the Newport Beach Film Festival. The Regency Lido Theater was largely unavailable during last year's fest, due to a run of the big studio production "Clash of the Titans."

Hardworking communications manager Saba Shirazi died in auto accident in July, and the news of the Edwards Island shutdown is proving problematic with Fashion Island retailers and other businesses that have sponsored or done cross promotions with the festival.

While no one wants to move the film fest out of Newport Beach this year, it appears to be the only alternative if the festival aims to survive.

Janice Arrington, Orange County Film Commissioner, who's also on the board of the Newport film festival, says there may be a silver lining to this upheaval.

"It would spread us out to another theater complex for a change," she said. "It could be a good way to attract new people that haven't been to the film festival before."

Miriam Saadati, a features programmer and mentor to other volunteers, recognized Edwards Island as "the hub of the festival." However, she said she's "really excited to see what other venues become available."

"It's going to be fun no matter where we end up," she said. "New and different is also new and exciting."

Contact the writer: 714-796-6026 or rchang@ocregister.com


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