A Healthy Glow From Summer : Movies: Orange County art houses manage to do well with titles that most film-goers might never have heard of. Those in the business say there's room for growth.

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It was a summer dominated by a handful of blockbuster films, "The Lion King," "Forrest Gump" and "Speed" leading the pack. It was also a summer that left some high-priced hopefuls gasping for want of an audience.

So how did the art houses survive the dog days amid such bruising competition? Quite well, thanks, at least according to a check with Orange County's two leading outlets for foreign and independent films, the Edwards South Coast Plaza Village in Santa Ana and the Port Theatre in Newport Beach.

Art Wardner, who manages the South Coast Plaza Village cinema, said the foreign film business in Orange County has secured a niche that frees it of competition with the summer blockbusters. Wardner said the art-house audiences seek out foreign films year-round and in a good week, 6,000 to 8,000 people buy tickets.

"It's pretty steady," he said. "We have established a base of people who really enjoy foreign films. I'll see the same people come in."

Dennis O'Connor, who booked the Port until recently, said summers traditionally used to be a quiet time at art houses, a time to lie low until fall, the season for "serious" films. But, he continued, that has changed dramatically, largely because of two films that broke the mold: "The Crying Game" in 1992 and last year's "Like Water for Chocolate."

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Wardner agreed. For "Like Water for Chocolate," a Mexican film, "we had lines around the block," he said. "That was unheard of around here."

This summer didn't produce that kind of breakout hit, according to Joanna Siegel, who now books the Port. Some films, such as "Bhaji on the Beach" and "Go Fish," did well in short runs, but overall it was been a more "traditional" summer, she said.

One late entry had an effect, though: "Eat Drink Man Woman," the second film from Taiwanese director Ang Lee (who made "The Wedding Banquet") has been playing the Port for more than a month, and its audience continues to expand (the film is also showing at Cinemapolis in Anaheim and at the Bay Theatre in Seal Beach). "The word of mouth," Siegel said, "has been wonderful."

She also said it looks like a strong fall, not only for foreign and independent films but for offbeat or serious films from the major studios. Even Disney is getting in on the act, with "Quiz Show." Other entries coming to Orange County include Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway."

Because there are only two full-time art houses in the county, each is able to book exclusives without much direct competition. Indeed, representatives of both theaters have said there is room for growth here.

"We have found basically that Orange County is underserved in terms of the foreign, artsy type film," said Wardner. "You hear over and over people say they have to go all the way to L.A. to see an art film."

Mega-chain Edwards' entry into the art-house market is unusual given that nationally, the market tends to be dominated by smaller specialty chains (such as the Los Angeles-based Landmark, which operates the Port).

Wardner has tried to distinguish the theater with several touches, including tables and chairs in the lobby where people may sit and soak up classical music.

There's also an art gallery there. With cooperation from the Costa Mesa Art League, local artists have been lining up to display their photographs, paintings and sculpture in the lobby, and Wardner said the walls are booked through December of 1995.

The theater recently finished renovating the largest of its three screens, installing a digital sound system and bringing seating capacity up to 800, making it one of the largest theaters in the county, Wardner said.

Meanwhile, the Port has plans of its own. The single-screen theater would be expanded into a triplex and would get a face lift under plans filed recently by Landmark with the city of Newport Beach (a permit still has to be issued).

According to the plans, Landmark intends to refurbish the 925-seat Port (new wallpaper, carpets and lighting fixtures) and to split its balcony area into two theaters, each with about 115 seats. The first-floor seating configuration would stay pretty much the same.

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Landmark used to operate the Balboa Theatre in Newport Beach until its lease ran out in 1992 (the building still sits vacant). Landmark also was a partner in plans for renovation of the Fox theater in Fullerton, until the recession scuttled that idea.

Siegel said she cannot comment on the proposed expansion of the Port but did say that booking it now is a challenge. She noted that most of Landmark's Los Angeles locations have multiple screens.

The Port "is a difficult theater to book because it's just a single screen and we like to put those 'A' titles in there," she said. When those "A" titles aren't available, as during much of this summer, the Port must engage shorter runs of less bankable titles.

Three screens at the Port could be a boon for local film aficionados in that they would allow Landmark to book the larger screen with relatively popular films and to reserve the smaller rooms for more adventurous fare that now often doesn't make it to Orange County at all.

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