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TEXT BY RICHARD CHANG, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER; PHOTO BY ANDY TEMPLETON, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Island Cinema in Fashion Island hosted a special benefit/fundraiser for the Newport Beach Film Festival on Tuesday, Dec. 13. It was the first official event at Island Cinema, which is Orange County's newest luxury theater and the probable home of the 2012 Newport Beach film fest. The theater opened to the public on Friday, Dec. 16.
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Island Cinema brings luxury theater to Newport Beach

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

There's a new movie house in town, and its name is Island Cinema.

The high-end, luxury theater, which opened Friday, is located at Fashion Island in Newport Beach. It's in the same second-level area near Nordstrom where Edwards Island Cinemas and Red Robin used to be, but the look and experience are completely different.

Now, the 7-screen complex features a huge Italianate lobby, stadium seating with oversized, leather seats, 10-inch arm rests, wider aisles and generous legroom. The screens offer state-of-the-art Sony 4K projection, with resolution four times as vivid as the best high-definition televisions. Four of the theaters are equipped with the latest 3D technology.

Island Cinema is also offering a gourmet menu, with panini sandwiches, French quiche, smoked chicken quesadillas, turkey and vegetable wraps, and an assortment of domestic and imported beers and wines. Visitors may take their food and drinks to their seats, where they can enjoy in-theater dining.

It's a far cry from the narrow, dilapidated red seats, sticky floors and small screens of the not-too-distant past.

Island Cinema's yearlong renovation is part of a nationwide entertainment trend. As movie theaters struggle to compete with home entertainment and with each other, high-end luxury cinema has emerged as a possible solution.

Already popular in Los Angeles and other cities, luxury theaters have recently popped up at UltraLuxe Cinemas in Garden Walk, Anaheim, and Regency San Juan Capistrano. Both offer oversized seats, beer and wine service, gourmet food and in-seat ordering.

Two luxury theaters in South Orange County are scheduled to open in 2012: one in Laguna Niguel and the other in Rancho Santa Margarita. Both used to be Edwards theaters, and both are projects of the Mexico-based movie theater chain Cinepolis. The 7-screen theater in Laguna Niguel is scheduled to open in April.

While the cost of dinner, a movie and drinks could easily exceed $30 per person at these new venues, the concept is attracting a certain sector of the movie-going audience, even in a sluggish economy.

"In certain areas, people are somewhat immune. People are willing to spend the money for an experience that is adult and upscale," said Lyndon Golin, president of Regency Theatres. His company operates Regency San Jan Capistrano, which features a restaurant, Rick's Café, and a VIP auditorium with leather seats and an in-seat menu that includes Moroccan chicken salad and crostini with smoked salmon.

The luxury cinema experience could be one of the saviors of the movie industry, which this year is suffering a 4 percent decrease in ticket revenue and a 5 percent decrease in attendance, compared to 2010.

Golin said Regency San Juan Capistrano's VIP theater, which can seat 48 people, "pretty much sells out every weekend" and sells out many weeknights as well.

"I think you need to do more now than just show a movie," he said. "Our business has to evolve and continue to evolve to get people out of their homes, and this is a step in that direction – to make movie-going an event."

CAN LUXURY AND INDIE CRED CO-EXIST?

Edwards Island Cinemas was the home of the Newport Beach Film Festival since its start in 2000. When the theater closed for renovations in late 2010 through 2011, the festival had to relocate the bulk of its screenings to Starlight Cinemas at Triangle Square in Costa Mesa. It was the first time the majority of the festival occurred outside Newport Beach.

Now that the luxury Island Cinema is open, the festival is poised to move back. However, despite the high-end amenities, there are some drawbacks to the new venue.

The number of total seats has decreased by more than half, from 1,700 to 670. Now, each theater averages about 95 seats, compared to 243 in the past. And ticket prices for the venue have increased from the $10-$12 range to $16.50 for general admission.

Also, the vibe of the place is completely different. When the film fest started, it was a scrappy, grassroots gathering organized by local volunteer film lovers. A handful of screens at Edwards Island Cinemas showcased indie movies, foreign flicks and student projects, and the Orange County Museum of Art's low-tech, 108-seat auditorium served as a main screening venue.

Will the luxury atmosphere of Island Cinema gel with the independent spirit of the film fest? Gregg Schwenk, chief executive officer and executive director of the festival, thinks so.

"The Newport Beach Film Festival has always reflected the elegance and luxury that is the lifestyle of Newport Beach, but we've always been able to infuse that with cutting-edge Hollywood, and independent films from around the world," he said at a recent fundraiser for the film fest, the first official event at Island Cinema. "I think this is a spectacular venue to show off the wide range of films from both classic and contemporary filmmakers."

However, not everyone sees things that way.

"I think it changes the dynamic of it," said Regency's Golin, who has collaborated with the festival since 2002. "The culture of these film festivals is not that – it's more eclectic, grassroots and it's a different culture. It's interesting, but I don't think that's really the vibe, or the culture of that festival, to be in an upscale venue."

Schwenk said contracts haven't been signed yet, but he's hopeful that Island Cinema will continue to be the home of the festival.

He acknowledged the luxury theater's lower capacity and said the festival will "counter that by adding additional screens and other venue options." While Schwenk didn't provide specific details, the Port Theater in Corona del Mar – which has undergone major renovations and could be open early next year – has been reported as a possible future Newport film fest venue.

By spreading to additional theaters, festival organizers hope to maintain attendance levels for the annual gathering, which has become one of Newport's most popular social events. For each of the past three years, the Newport film fest has attracted 51,000 attendees – a sharp increase from the estimated 15,000-17,000 attendees during the first year.

ONLY TIME WILL TELL

So it remains to be seen whether ponytailed filmmakers, students, seniors and the region's elite will all see Island Cinema and the Newport film festival as a good fit. At the festival fundraiser this past week, attendees – many supporters of the film fest already – indicated they'd come back to the upscale venue for a movie night and for the 2012 fest, which is April 26-May 3.

"It's definitely the nicest theater I've ever been in," said Ashley Williams, 27, of San Diego. "If I had a choice, I would definitely come here. For a few extra bucks, I would do that, since I would spend that money anyway. Movies aren't cheap to begin with."

On the other hand, Benny Lujan, 71, of Irvine said he wasn't sure if he'd splurge on a movie just to see it in a luxury setting.

"It's a bit high, compared to the others," he said. "It's a couple of dollars above the normal. Why spend more when you can see a movie elsewhere for cheaper?"

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


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