MOVIES: Swanky or cheap, big hits or foreign films – Orange County theaters have it all

The search for the best moviegoing experience in Orange County takes us to downtown Santa Ana, where you find the rarest of film sanctuaries – a true art house.

You scan the old theater, which seems familiar enough with its block-lettered marquee and its hot popcorn smell. But something is missing. The screen has a few stains. The floor is slightly sticky. The movie posters on the wall are in a language you don’t understand. What isn’t here?

Then you realize.

Cup holders.

The Frida Cinema, the only nonprofit movie mecca in Orange County, has old-school, auditorium-style seats and a lineup of independent, foreign and classic films, but it has no cup holders, which might explain the hint of soda residue on the floor.

And no hot dogs. The Frida offers soda, popcorn and candy – that’s it. Hot dogs are too high-maintenance and require different permits.

“We keep the experience of going to the movies alive,” said The Frida’s executive director, Logan Crow. “In most theaters, you miss the sticky floors and the squeaky seats that you remember from your childhood. We have it here.”

There are six types of movie experiences in Orange County’s 39 theaters – art house, discount, independent/foreign/documentary, cineplex, IMAX and luxury. No matter how much they cost, or what kind of menu they offer, all offer the same basic experience – you sit in the dark watching flickering images with strangers.

Sadly, there are no more drive-ins in Orange County.


Sometimes we incorrectly call them “dollar theaters” when, actually, discount theaters charge more than a dollar.

I found ticket prices as low as $1.75 for some matinees at The Picture Show at MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana. The Picture Show prices vary from $2 to $3 for other matinee tickets (before 6 p.m.). The Brea Plaza 5 charges $3.25. Other theaters, like Cinemark in Huntington Beach, offer all kinds of reduced prices for early birds, seniors, families, students and active military.

The most important quality for enjoying discount theaters is patience. Today, for example, you can pay a reduced price to see a film, but that film will be “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” or “Daddy’s Home” or something that was in mainstream theaters two or three months ago.

The good news about discount theaters in Orange County is that they are pretty clean.

The bad news is the food and drink prices are not discount.


Orange County doesn’t have a wide range of choices of theaters offering foreign, independent or documentary films. But you can find them, especially if you look near UC Irvine. Orange County’s center of the independent film universe is Irvine, with a couple of theaters aimed at that film crowd.

You can see films like “Embrace of the Serpent” or “Hello, My Name is Doris” at the Westpark 8 or the University Town Center in Irvine. Westpark has all the feel of an upscale experience where you can get a Stella Artois beer or a glass of merlot in the lobby.

The Director’s Cut Cinema in Laguna Niguel offers a slate of popular independent films and a restaurant-type experience in the lobby.

Some of the mainstream theaters, like AMC Orange 30 or the Irvine Spectrum 21, usually offer some non-mainstream films.


If you want to see the newest movie without driving too far, Orange County has plenty of choices in theaters that usually anchor shopping centers.

The norm for theaters is reclining seats, digital projection and state-of-the-art sound. Food and drink prices are amazingly high – at the AMC Orange 30, for example, a medium soda costs $5.96, chicken tenders cost $7.39 and an espresso costs $5.89.

But an alarming trend is happening. With the rise of home theaters and movies on your phone, the number of movie theaters has diminished over the years. In 1996, the height of movie theater expansion in Orange County, there were 57 theaters. Today, there are 39, and cities like Los Alamitos, Cypress, Lake Forest and Yorba Linda don’t have theaters.

The movie listings in 1986 were full of showtimes for “Twin Cinemas,” which offered two screens. Today, 16, 21 or 30 screens in one location are common.


You can see 60-foot-tall images of your favorite movie stars all across Orange County. IMAX theaters are common adjuncts to cineplexes, like those in Irvine, Mission Viejo, Aliso Viejo, Orange and Newport Beach. You’ll pay substantially more than the normal $11.50 ticket price. I found a ticket to see “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” in IMAX for $20.25 at the Aliso Viejo Stadium 20.

I recently saw “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the locked-room/monster thriller, in IMAX in Orange. If you like to be overwhelmed by the images, then this is the experience for you. I enjoyed the scares more because it was so HUGE. You have to turn your head to follow an image all the way across the screen.

IMAX is something that home theaters and phones will never duplicate.


Upscale is hot in Orange County moviegoing.

The Port in Newport Beach and the Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas in Rancho Santa Margarita and Laguna Niguel offer leather recliners, gourmet food and service at your seat. Luxury theaters are date-night destinations. You can have dinner and a movie in the same seat.

The ticket prices are a bit higher ($17), but when you add food, alcohol and tip, a date can pass the $100 barrier.

“We focus on movies first with the projection and sound,” said April Mendoza, the Cinepolis vice president of sales and marketing. “But you can have a martini or a glass of wine.”

The Cinepolis concept began in the 1970s in Mexico, Mendoza said. And they’ve expanded to 13 countries. Mendoza called her theaters’ secret “the elevated experience.”

“We’ll give you a blanket,” she said.

It’s pricey. But at Cinepolis theaters, you can order salad, sliders, crepes and desserts by just pushing a button at your seat.

Mendoza predicted that individual experience theaters – like a children’s theater with ball pits, bean bag seats, games and a viewing area for parents – is the next wave in the “elevated” movie experience.

Expect new children’s theaters in the next few years, she said.

The Port offers a brunch ($55 for adults) where you get a movie and pancakes, sausage, rosemary potatoes, fruit skewers and mimosas.


When David Bowie died, Crow, The Frida Cinema’s executive director, began working the phones to book “The Hunger,” “Labyrinth” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Those movies were showing within three days. He’s usually not locked into agreements with movie distributors.

“That’s what an art house does,” Crow said.

Crow said he spends most of his time on the phone booking films, sometimes working 20 hours per day to fill his two screens.

“This theater is a museum of film,” he said. “Our art moves and makes noise.”

Some of the most exciting nights at The Frida are showings of “El Topo,” “The Holy Mountain” and “Fando y Lis” by Alejandro Jodorowsky – films that have been banned in other countries. You’re not going to see films like that anywhere else in Orange County.

The biggest box office movie at The Frida has been “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which plays at midnight every other Saturday.

This weekend, Crow has booked “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” And he’ll be handing out coconut shells to the audience so that they can clap loudly along with the characters.

“You will not see a mainstream movie here,” Crow said. “Those movies are less than a mile away.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-7898 or

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