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EDWARDS’ 58-YEAR RUN : Top Films in Comfortable Theaters Are Independent Chain’s Ticket to Success

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The story of James Edwards Sr. reads like the plot of a Hollywood melodrama: Dapper octogenarian fends off forces of revolution with old-fashioned commitment to excellence and saves family business for future generations.

Although the tale has yet to be optioned by a studio, chances are that the Edwards name can be found at a theater near you--if not now, soon--but it’s above the marquee and not on the silver screen.

Edwards is chairman and founder of Edwards Theatres Circuit, a family-run movie chain based in Newport Beach that operates 140 screens from Alhambra to San Diego. The chain is currently undergoing the greatest expansion of its 58-year history; by the end of 1988, Edwards expects to have 220 screens. That will include a 16-plex in Ontario opening late this year that the company touts as the second-largest theater in the nation, after the 18-screen Universal Cineplex in Los Angeles.

Edwards’ success as an independent bucks an industry trend that has seen large theater circuits gobbling up smaller chains like so much hot buttered popcorn.

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“The trend in the business is toward a few large, national circuits,” said Phil Barlow, vice president and general sales manager of Buena Vista Distribution, the distributing arm of Touchstone Pictures and Walt Disney Studios. “Edwards is one of very few that’s holding out. In the last year, I would guess that 750 to 1,000 screens have been bought by the major circuits. With the deals cooking now, there will be at least as many this year. It’s a near revolution.”

But the slight 81-year-old has been through revolutions before, and he remains undaunted. Since opening its first theater in Monterey Park on Oct. 9, 1930, with a showing of Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels,” the Edwards empire has endured radio, television and videocassettes and eventually prospered through them all.

“Radio and television were the worst competition,” Edwards said in a recent interview. “Radio became really popular in the early ‘30s. People stayed home to listen to ‘Fibber McGee and Molly,’ ‘Amos and Andy.’ We had a tough year in 1934. And then television hit really hard after the war--'48, ’49, ’50.”

Compared to radio and television, videocassettes have benefitted the movie exhibition business, Edwards contends, by increasing the demand for, and subsequently the production of, motion pictures.

“Every home has a kitchen, but people still eat out,” Edwards philosophized. “Every home has a movie theater in the form of a videocassette recorder, but people still go to the movies.”

And all three transformations were mild compared to the birth of the talking picture. Early in his career, Edwards said, his biggest headache was getting the phonograph needle on the records--which served as sound tracks for some early films--at the right time, so that the words would be synchronized with the actors’ lips.

The potential tribulations facing Edwards and other independent chains are more complex these days, usually in the form of giant theater operators casting an acquisitive eye on them. Jerome Gordon, executive director of National Assn. of Theatre Owners chapters in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, contends that only a small number of regional chains are left and said Barlow’s estimate of 750 to 1,000 screens already bought up “sounds a little low.”

“There are only 15 or so circuits left in the country in the range of 100 screens,” Gordon said. “And I would cut that in half by the end of this year. . . . There are not many left, and they’re going like crazy.”

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Cineplex Odeon Corp. has historically been one of the more voracious buyers of smaller theater chains. The Canadian firm made its first inroad into the United States with the 1985 acquisition of Los Angeles-based Plitt Theatres and Plitt Theatre Holdings--a move that cost $65 million and added 574 screens in 209 theaters.

In 1986, Cineplex Odeon bought five more regional chains, spending $266.35 million and gaining 361 screens. Those chains included Septum Cinema of Atlanta, Essaness Theatres of Chicago, RKO Century Warner Theatres of New York, Neighborhood Theatres of Richmond, Va., and the SRO theater circuit of Seattle.

Last year, Cineplex Odeon bought the 11-screen, New York-based Walter Reade Organization, and it has agreed to buy Circle Theatres of Washington, an 80-screen chain, in a deal that should cost $51 million and close at the end of the month.

In addition, Tri-Star Pictures purchased Loews Theatre Corp. in 1986. And industry experts say Columbia Pictures Entertainment--formed in the merger of Tri-Star and Coca-Cola’s Entertainment Business Sector--is currently courting USA Cinemas, which has 307 screens in the Northeast and Midwest.

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What’s left is a small number of enormous theater circuits--United Artists Communications with 2,023 screens in the United States, American Multi-Cinema with 1,438, General Cinema with 1,303, and Cineplex Odeon with 1,088 screens.

And the larger the circuit, the greater the clout in negotiating terms for films from distribution companies, theater watchers contend. As a result, they say, it is even more difficult for the regional chains to get first-rate, first-run movies in major markets and operate competitively. And that makes selling out to a bigger chain an increasingly attractive proposition.

“It’s very difficult for the independent to continue today,” Gordon said. “It seems to be a trend all over the country in every kind of business.”

Experience More ‘Palatable’

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Although many theater operators and trade association officials decry this development, at least one industry analyst contends that it has a bright side.

“Most of the chains being sold are getting very healthy sums, and high-level management is still managing many of the properties,” said Steven Eisenberg, leisure industry analyst for Bear, Stearns & Co. in New York. “In many cases the physical properties are being massively upgraded to make the theatergoing experience more palatable for the audience.”

Although Edwards officials have received offers for their company from “just about everybody in the business,” no plans are in the works to sell out, said James Edwards III, 43, Edwards’ son and company president. The plan, he said, is to pass the theater on to his own son, James Edwards IV, now 3.

Lock on Orange County

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“I know we haven’t considered any offers seriously, although it’s flattering to have serious offers made,” said the younger Edwards, who will not divulge how much the family has been offered. “I think the fact that other chains have sold out is a good reason not to. It adds to the value of our company.”

What makes the Edwards’ refusal to sell even more frustrating to their competitors is the virtual lock the cinema circuit has on the lucrative Orange County market. Of the county’s 185 screens, Edwards runs 80. Its closest competitor is AMC, which has 30 screens; UA is next, with 27.

Company officials decline to reveal profit. But the elder Edwards said that, in fiscal 1987, his firm should reach $50 million in revenue--$35 million from ticket sales and $15 million from concessions.

“He (Edwards Sr.) has a pretty good monopoly (in Orange County),” said John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations. “He’s very aggressive, very spry. . . . He has held his own for years against the big circuits. He’s not letting anybody get ahead of him. He’s a tough customer.”

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One telling example of Edwards’ aggressiveness concerned the Irvine Co.'s Woodbridge shopping center. In 1979, Mann Theaters outbid Edwards in heated competition to build a five-screen complex in the center.

But after construction began, Edwards decided that he had to have the theater. A week before it opened, Edwards made Mann an offer that company officials couldn’t refuse and took control on opening night.

“They are tough to compete against,” said Robert W. Selig, president of the Theatre Assn. of California. “They may not be the most popular with the film companies. . . . They get the best deal they can, they pay the last day they can, and they make every dollar count.”

But fierce business practices are only part of the theater chain’s recipe for success. The chain also is nationally known within the industry as a high-quality operation.

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“The little mom-and-pop operator in small-town South Dakota might not know about him, but the big players all want to buy him out,” said Buena Vista’s Barlow, who worked for Edwards for more than 10 years as vice president and head film buyer. “It’s an example of excellence paying off. . . . Jimmy always understood that he wanted the best film in the best surroundings.”

That’s a characteristic that the elder Edwards stumbled upon early, when operating combination movie-vaudeville theaters in the 1930s on the so-called “coffee-and-doughnut” circuit. (“Entertainers got that and $5 (a week) to perform,” he said.)

According to an early newspaper review of the Raymond Theater in Pasadena, which Edwards upgraded in 1934, he spent $60,000 in renovations that “changed the foyer, the ramp, the lounge and the auditorium into a masterpiece of modern artistic decoration.”

Today, Edwards is branching out with a vengeance.

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In 1987, the company opened a five-screen theater in Mission Viejo and a six-screen theater in Rancho Cucamonga, in San Bernardino County. And his ocean-view office at the Newport Cinema headquarters is choked with blueprints and cardboard architectural models of coming Edwards attractions across the Southland.

Openings Planned

There are the seven screens scheduled to open this summer in Newport Beach’s Fashion Island shopping center, and the 11 screens set for Corona. In March, eight screens debut at Hutton Center in Costa Mesa, and 10 more screens

are planned for Laverne in Los Angeles County.

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Then there is the theater that puts a gleam in the shrewd eyes behind the rimless glasses. “Ontario,” the elder Edwards says, caressing one particularly large cardboard model. “Sixteen screens, 4,000 seats, the second-biggest in the nation.”

What fuels this tiny man with the big plans, the courtly manner and the energy that has kept him going through four decades of 16-hour days?

One affectionate Edwards watcher contends that it is “ego.” “He’s never going to stop,” said Krier of Exhibitor Relations. “It’s an ego thing with him. Strictly ego.”

Said another: “He has pioneering spirit.”

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To Edwards himself, it is a simple combination of caution and love of work. “I don’t know if we can (stop),” he said. “You have something by the tail. If you let loose of it, it’ll turn around and bite you.”

EDWARDS CHRONOLOGY

1930--James Edwards, 23, opened the Monterey Theater in Monterey Park, his first venture into the movie exhibition business. The theater opened on Oct. 9 with a showing of Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels.” Admission was 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children.

1939--Edwards opened what is widely believed to be the first multiscreen theater in the country, a two-screen operation at Main Street and Atlantic Boulevard in Alhambra. “Everyone since who says they invented (the multiplex) is wrong,” Edwards said.

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1961--The Edwards empire had increased to 90 screens--10 in the San Gabriel Valley that Edwards owned exclusively and 80 that he operated with two partners. After suffering a heart attack, Edwards sold all but the San Gabriel Valley operations and retired to Newport Beach.

1963--After two years spent recuperating at home and observing the opportunities in underdeveloped Orange County, Edwards jumped back into the theater business by opening his first Orange County theater at Harbor Boulevard and Adams Avenue in Costa Mesa. James Edwards III, the elder Edwards’ son and current company president, took his first job with the family firm--as a combination doorman, usher and floor sweeper. “No one starts at the top,” the younger Edwards said.

1967--Newport Cinema, the company’s flagship and current headquarters, opened its doors. The theater, which boasts one of the largest screens in the Southland, has since become the chain’s biggest grossing operation.

1987--Not content to run 140 screens in five Southern California counties, James Edwards Sr. embarked on a massive expansion program. The circuit opened a five-screen theater in Mission Viejo and a six-screen theater in Rancho Cucamonga, with more to come.

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1989--By the spring of 1989 at the latest, Edwards Theatres Circuit Inc. will be operating 220 screens in Southern California, including a sixteen-plex touted as the second biggest movie theater in the world.


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