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‘Big One’: Opens Wednesday : Leisure: Edwards’ mammoth Irvine cineplex bets on happy ending to the stay-at-home trend.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Weren’t the ‘90s supposed to be the stay-at-home decade, when we’d all gather around the big-screen TVs, videodisc players and other accouterments of our home entertainment centers?

Movie theater builders are betting big that the “cocooning” trend is an illusion--or can be stopped in its tracks. Give ‘em an entertainment experience that can’t be matched at home, developers surmise, and the folks can be lured out of their secure houses--disposable income in hand--for a night out.

Exhibit A opens Wednesday. The Irvine Entertainment Center at the Spectrum, an Irvine Co. project, boasts restaurants, a giant bookstore, a virtual reality game center, a coffeehouse and one very large movie complex.

So large, in fact, that its owners, the folks at Edwards Cinemas in Newport Beach, simply call it The Big One. Its size--158,000 square feet--and number of seats--6,400--both are being touted as world records. It will have 21 screens, more than any other theater in the state (at least until AMC opens a 30-screen, 5,700 seat megaplex in Ontario that was announced late last week). And the screening rooms aren’t all your typical multiplex shoe boxes: Four of them boast a respectable 600 seats and screens bigger than any in the Edwards 75-theater chain.

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The 21st screen, which will open in January, will be the first 3-D IMAX theater on the West Coast. It will be six stories high.

James Edwards Sr., who turns 89 on Thursday, says The Big One is the $27-million crown jewel of his burgeoning regional movie chain (six of every 10 screens in Orange County belong to Edwards).

Elaborate design touches include murals and gateways that evoke the movie palaces of the 1920s and ‘30s; a large, brass-and-marble festooned lobby, and neon sculptures. The overall concept for the outside of the building is Moorish fantasy, says the architect, Marios Savopoulos, with elements inspired by the Casino in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island.

The goal was to create “a sense of place where you can escape from everyday reality,” Savopoulos said while giving a tour of the building, which was still buzzing with construction activity late last week.

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Movie multiplexes are not new, of course, but they are getting bigger as a sort of cinema arms race heats up. AMC is the biggest gun nationwide: It opened a 24-screen theater in Dallas this year and, in addition to its complex in Ontario, has plans for another 24-screen complex in Foothill Ranch and a 25-screen behemoth in Arcadia.

“Multiplexes have been very successful. Audiences have responded very well,” said Jeff Kozak, director of communications for the National Assn. of Theater Owners in North Hollywood. Choice is the chief attraction, adds John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, a firm that tracks box office figures. “If you can’t get into one [movie], you can get into another.”

Fans of independent and foreign films often benefit from the trend toward huge multiplexes as some operators--Edwards included--reserve some of their screens for fare outside the moviegoing mainstream.

Such films seldom are shown at smaller chain complexes and must rely on so-called art houses. “That’s always been the stumbling block for the independents,” said Rick Ferncase, an associate professor of film and television at Chapman University, whose history of independent films of the ‘80s will be published next summer. “The screens are all pledged to the studio offerings.”

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The new megaplexes are also installing the latest in sound and projection technology in further attempts to add to the allure. Another draw is the oldest one: the simple pleasure of seeing a movie with an audience. At home, Krier says, viewers have “never been able to get anything close to [the experience of] seeing it in a theater.”

Several of the planned megaplexes are parts of huge discount retail centers, but others, such as the new Edwards in Irvine, are the centerpieces of entertainment-oriented malls that focus on experience (games, food, movies) rather than retail. CityWalk in Universal City is the model.

A somewhat smaller-scale project sits closer to Orange County. Pine Square in Long Beach has a 14-screen AMC theater that has anchored a revitalization of a section of downtown that had fallen on hard times. Krier says that several movie chains passed on the project before AMC picked it up.

The gamble succeeded. Revitalization “was the hope, and it has worked tremendously” with a dramatic upswing in restaurant and retail business in the vicinity, according to Susan Schick, Community Development Director for Long Beach.

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In Irvine, the entertainment center has risen from former agricultural land, prime real estate at the intersection of two major freeways, the Santa Ana and the San Diego.

Talks between Edwards and the Irvine Co. started more than two years ago, and the size of the theater complex has increased gradually during the design process. The addition of the IMAX theater, not finalized until June, turned the project into something that could draw from as far away as San Diego and Los Angeles counties, Savopoulos said. It is the only the third IMAX facility in Southern California.

There are about 130 Imax and Omnimax theaters nationwide, with about 20 new ones being added each year, according to Greg MacGillivray, a producer of IMAX films who lives in Laguna Beach. “Each one has been real successful,” he said. “They’re throwing good profits, which is why museums like them.”

The only other 3-D IMAX facility so far is at Lincoln Center in New York City. Edwards’ decision to build one should help the center build a reputation as a high-tech film facility.

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“They’re trying to create a state-of-the-art movie palace kind of setting,” MacGillivray said. “It should be quite a draw.”

Krier, a veteran of more than 30 years in the exhibition business, notes the irony of the new entertainment-oriented retail centers. “There was a time when the malls didn’t want theaters,” he said. “They took up parking, they didn’t bring in enough money.”

Now, with theaters anchoring their own malls, “a night out can be spent all in one place.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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The Big One

Anyone familiar with multiplexes knows that the 20 screens (not counting IMAX) at the new Edwards 21 will not necessarily mean 20 different films playing at any given time. Blockbusters will play on more than one screen, which may cut down on overall choice, but should help ensure that if you can’t get into the movie you came to see, you won’t have to wait long for the next showing. The Big One, as Edwards calls it, will open Wednesday with 11 movies:

* “Toy Story” (Buena Vista), a computer-animated feature

* “Casino” (Universal), the latest from Martin Scorsese, with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone in ‘70s Las Vegas

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* “Nick of Time” (Paramount), a thriller starring Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken

* “Money Train” (Columbia), an action buddy movie with Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson

* “GoldenEye” (MGM) introducing Pierce Brosnan as James Bond

* “The American President” (Columbia), a romantic comedy with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening

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* “The Crossing Guard” (Miramax), a thriller starring Jack Nicholson

* “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” (Warner Bros.), the latest slapstick comedy from Jim Carrey

* “Leaving Las Vegas” (MGM), a drama starring Nicholas Cage

* “Carrington” (Gramercy), a Cannes favorite with Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce

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* “Get Shorty” (MGM), a show-biz satire with John Travolta

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The IMAX theater won’t open until January, but two 3-D films already have been lined up:

* “Wings of Courage,” a historically based feature with Val Kilmer and Elizabeth McGovern

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* “Into the Deep,” a documentary on marine life off the California coast


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