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Fariborz Maseeh didn’t set out to lose money when he undertook the rebuilding of the sleek, state-of-the-art Port Theater in Corona del Mar. He kept only three walls and the classic neon sign of the original theater that sat empty for 14 years.
The grueling process took eight years to satisfy the city of Newport Beach, the community and his own high standards for technological excellence and design cool.
He had little sense of what he was getting into.
“I set out to invest in the entertainment industry, and do something special and state-of-the art,” he says. “We’ve accomplished that. But I never had a comprehensive study or plan. I had no idea that the process would be so torturous or the business so complex.”
While he may never recoup his costs in time, effort and money, he is proud of the outcome, which is a visual, cultural and economic boost to the community.
“Now that it’s open, I have a great sense of satisfaction,” the low-profile, low-key investor says. “I love to see people from the surrounding communities enjoy our movies and the experience.”
Maseeh didn’t know the late Jim Edwards, Sr., but appreciates his genius and reputation as a movie industry icon who spent a career taking movie theaters to places they had never been before. They have little in common except for one big thing: Both breathed new life into old, high-profile movie theaters in small coastal neighborhoods with the hope for great acceptance, but a modest expectation of making their significant investments pay off.
Edwards painstakingly restored and updated the historic Lido Theater on the Newport Peninsula that operates today as part of the resourceful and enterprising Regency chain. The regional independent is constantly experimenting to bring film lovers a rich variety of distinctive movie offerings heavily tilted toward foreign films.
In a sense, both men knew they were engaged in a labor of love to give something back to the residents of the communities they had come to appreciate.
“Jim knew the Lido wouldn’t make any money to justify the significant investment,” says a longtime associate and admirer. “But that wasn’t what motivated him.”
It no doubt was easier for Jim Sr. to tackle a restoration given that he had spent a lifetime in and around movie theaters. He was a film-loving marketing genius who had created the first “multiplex” theater in 1939, and had gone on to set a new industry standard in 1996 with the stunning 21-screen complex that was the first “anchor” of the fledgling Irvine Spectrum Center.
In contrast, Maseeh had no special connections to the entertainment industry, and no understanding of the complexities of the theater business. The Port now seats fewer than 100 in comfortable leather sofas and chairs, some of which recline. The screen is huge and the sight and sound systems are exceptional.
A ticket costs $18, plus a $5 service charge if you reserve the seat of your choice. Soon the theater will be offering wine and food – a step up from its already decent Port Dog.
You’re Not in Netflix Anymore
Along coastal Orange County, Fashion Island 7 has embraced the concept, and so has Cinepolis at Ocean Ranch. And Regency just completed a beautiful renovation of its Rancho Niguel Theater, now perhaps the most impressive art house in the OC. It also has an ambitious menu of food offerings, and a handsome wine bar.
This higher-class and higher-comfort movie-going experience is designed to pry adults out of their own homes with their flat screens, wine and home-cooked meals. “People ask if we worry about Netflix, and my answer is: Every home has a kitchen, but the restaurants are packed,” says the Regency’s Larry Porricelli, a wonderfully optimistic movie-lover who has been a change-maker in the Southern California theater industry for more than 30 years.
“We are operating as an independent with one screen, which puts us at a disadvantage with most everyone else,” says Port owner Fariborz Maseeh. But it permits the theater to be used for a wide range of special events that are seeking great venues with a great vibe. An SRO crowd jammed the Port recently for Robert Kline’s popular pre-Oscar revue sponsored by the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation.
Keeping movie theaters alive in our rapidly changing entertainment world is a huge challenge, but one that’s being met with comfort, creativity and high style.