Edwards Theatres Circuit, Inc.
Edwards Theatres Circuit, Inc.
Sales: $300 million (1998)
NAIC: 512131 Motion Picture Theaters (Except Drive-Ins)
Edwards Theatres Circuit, Inc. owns and operates approximately 90 motion picture theaters with more than 725 screens. Almost all of the theaters are located in southern California, where the company was founded and is headquartered. Since 1997, however, Edwards has been expanding across California state lines, opening four theaters in Idaho and one in Houston, Texas. Since its inception in 1930, the company has been family owned and managed.
Depression Era Beginnings: 1930–50
James Edwards, founder of Edwards Theatres Circuit, bought his first movie theater in 1930—a single-screen cinema in Monterey Park, California, which cost him $1,000. The middle of the Great Depression may not have seemed like the most opportune time to start a business—especially a business that relied entirely on consumers’ disposable income. To the tenacious 23-year-old Edwards, however, the leanness of the times was no deterrent. Willing to do whatever was necessary, he and his wife essentially ran the business by themselves, manning the ticket booth, screening the movies, and cleaning up the theater after shows. Even operating on a shoestring, however, the Edwards’ fledgling business was not always solvent; the couple had to postpone payroll more than once when money was especially tight.
Despite poor economic conditions, Edwards had chosen an exciting time to enter the theater business. Hollywood’s motion picture industry was just then coming into its heyday—what would later be called its “golden age.” The new “talkie” films, which had been introduced four years earlier, had almost completely replaced the earlier, silent movies. And movie stars like Errol Flynn, Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, Mae West, and Gloria Swanson were filling the silver screen with glamour, mystery, romance, and adventure.
Through persistence and hard work, Edwards managed to parlay his Monterey Park theater into a small chain of ten screens. In 1939 he created what some consider to be the first movie multiplex by buying the building next to his theater in Alhambra, California and installing a second screen. Eventually, he and two partners started another theater circuit, which grew to include 80 screens.
Newport Beach Circuit: 1950–80
In the 1950s, a health scare sent Edwards into early retirement. Selling his interest in the theater chain, he and his family moved to Newport Beach, California—an oceanside town in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles. Health concerns notwithstanding, the retirement lifestyle did not suit Edwards; within two years of moving to Newport Beach, he was back in the theater business. Deciding to start a new circuit, Edwards began opening movie theaters in Orange County.
In the years Edwards was building his new chain, Orange County itself was undergoing a period of intense growth. One of the main catalysts of this growth was the Santa Ana Freeway. The freeway, which opened in 1954, provided a direct, convenient route between Los Angeles and the Orange County cities of Anaheim and Santa Ana. With a commute to L.A. made feasible, thousands of Los Angeles residents poured into Orange County in search of more affordable housing. Edwards realized the potential inherent in the population boom, and he set about filling the high-growth region with movie theaters. By the end of the 1970s, Edwards Theatres had almost 50 screens in more than 20 Orange County locations.
In his theaters, Edwards strove to provide the best that the industry had to offer. Believing that going to the movies should be a rich, exciting experience, he was careful to create theaters that were both comfortable and visually appealing. Edwards also fought to give his moviegoers the latest in entertainment and motion picture technology. In the 1960s, he went to bat for Orange County, persuading Hollywood execs that his theaters should offer first-run movies. Until that time, area residents had to drive into Los Angeles to see the newest shows.
Rapid Growth: 1980 to Mid-1990s
Throughout the 1980s, Edwards continued to add to his theater empire in southern California and, especially, to strengthen his presence in Orange County. Toward the latter part of the decade, the company launched a $48 million program of expansion to add 117 screens to its growing collection. As the company established more cinemas in more Orange County cities, many of the area’s residents came to view “Edwards” as synonymous with “movie theater.”
Edwards Theatres was not alone in its building frenzy; theater owners all across America were rushing to open cinemas. Much of this building boom was spurred by the shopping malls that were popping up both in urban and suburban areas all over the country. As the number of shopping centers grew, so did the number of movie theaters, which were often built directly into the mall proper. Many of these mall cinemas were multiplexes—theaters that had up to six screens. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of theater screens in the United States grew from 17,590 to 23,689—a 35 percent increase.
By the beginning of the 1990s, the glut of theaters had begun to create a saturated market. Movie attendance had not kept pace with the increase in screens, and several theater owners were beginning to lose money on theaters in heavily screened areas. Many chains put the brakes on their expansion efforts—but Edwards was not among them. The company continued building the theaters to which it had committed, believing the new cinemas would succeed by virtue of being in high-growth areas that were “under-screened.”
As it turned out, the slowdown in the theater business was only temporary. Within just a few years, another building boom was under way. In fact, theater chains were building theaters that were bigger than ever. The multiplexes that had become so common during the 1980s were giving way to a new industry concept: the megaplex. A megaplex was generally defined as a theater with 16 or more movie screens. Like multiplexes, they were typically located near shopping malls, but were not always attached to the malls themselves. The megaplexes were able to offer customers more movie choices, often including foreign language and art house films typically unavailable in mainstream theaters. By showing the same movie on several screens, they also were able to offer moviegoers more start times and a better chance of getting a seat. Most megaplexes also tended to run movies much longer than the three or four weeks common in smaller theaters.
Edwards Theatres jumped on the megaplex bandwagon in a big way. By the mid-1990s, the company had grown to include 425 screens, 207 of which were in Orange County. An estimated 25 million moviegoers visited Edwards’ cinemas in a year’s time. With earnings of $18 million on revenues of $170 million, it was one of the most profitable theater chains in the United States. In 1996 Edwards took the industry’s “bigger is better” trend to a new level by building a $27 million, state-of-the-art megaplex in Irvine, California. The 158,000-square-foot Irvine theater contained 21 screens and seated 6,000—making it the largest theater complex in the nation.
Like many megaplexes, the Edwards Spectrum 21 offered sloping stadium seating designed to improve sight lines, more leg room, digital sound, and larger-than-normal screens. But Edwards went beyond mere comfort in designing its new complex. In keeping with James Edwards’ desire to make moviegoing an “event,” the theater exuded glamour and luxury. From its modern, high-ceilinged lobby to its soft seats to the flavored coffees and fresh-made pizza available at the concession stand, the Edwards 21 offered moviegoers a treat for the senses.
In addition to being the largest theater in the nation, Edwards’ Irvine project was also the first commercial movie complex on the West Coast to include a 3-D sight-and-sound IMAX theater. IMAX was an innovative type of theater that used giant screens and three-dimensional sound and imaging to give moviegoers a “larger-than-life” viewing experience.
With the theater industry still buzzing about the new Irvine theater, Edwards announced plans to build another impressive megaplex. The new complex, located in Ontario, California, contained 21 traditional movie screens and an IMAX and was similar in design to the Edwards 21. The Ontario theater attracted an extra share of attention by its location. The theater was built just a few hundred feet away from a competitor’s brand new megaplex. The two cinemas, which opened within weeks of each other, gave moviegoers a total of 52 screens from which to choose.
Beyond California: 1997
Since its slight lag in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the theater industry’s rush to build more and bigger cinemas had not abated. Between 1996 and 1997, the nation’s screen count increased by seven percent—bringing the total number of screens to 29,731. The building furor was especially pronounced in southern California, where the number of movie screens was increasing by approximately 11 percent annually.
Although Edwards was not one to shy away from head-to-head competition, he realized that his core market—Orange County—was very close to being overscreened. To grow, the company needed to find less saturated markets. So for the first time in its 67-year history, Edwards Theatres ventured away from its home turf.
It is all part of our philosophy that we are providing a total entertainment experience. We want our guests to feel comfortable to return again and again, whether it is to watch a movie, or to enjoy being out among their neighbors.
The company’s search for likely markets took it first to Idaho. Edwards began negotiations with a developer who was erecting a mall in Boise, on the state’s busiest freeway interchange. One of four theater companies vying to anchor the mall, Edwards won the coveted spot and began planning another of its sumptuous 21-screen megaplexes. Meanwhile, the company also began looking at locations in Texas, Arkansas, and the Washington, DC area.
Edwards’ Boise 21 opened in December of 1997—just in time for the holiday movie rush. The 106,000-square-foot theater contained 4,500 seats and featured wall-to-wall screens, state-of-the-art digital sound, ten indoor box offices, a 100-foot concession counter, and two satellite concession stands at each end of the building. The theater was such a success that it surpassed the company’s expectations. Within 60 days of opening, the complex sold 600,000 tickets, generated the 14th highest sales of the movie “Titanic” in the nation, and quickly became one of Edwards top-earning theaters. Encouraged by these results, Edwards quickly set about adding a 280-seat 3-D IMAX theater to the Boise location. The company also agreed to work with the Boise mall developer to build cinemas in shopping malls planned for Little Rock, Arkansas, and in Idaho Falls and Nampa, Idaho.
Bigger Still: 1999
The next non-California Edwards Theater to open was in Houston, Texas. As if to prove the assertion that “everything’s bigger in Texas,” the company’s Houston complex contained more screens than any of its earlier theaters. Calling the $26 million, two-story megaplex a “Grand Palace design,” Edwards implied that it would duplicate the new theater concept elsewhere. “Houston residents will be the first to enjoy our most spectacular design to date,” James Edwards III said in an October 1999 press release. “Just stepping into the 11,000-square-foot lobby with its stone and mosaics, its plasma and flat television monitors, will allow our guests to begin their premiere theatre experience.” The theater also boasted nine hand-painted murals depicting classic Hollywood scenes and stars, four full-service concession stands, and an attached, multilevel parking garage with automated ticket outlets at its entrances.
After establishing beachheads in Idaho and Texas, Edwards wasted no time in further penetrating its new markets. By the time the Houston Grand Palace opened on October 22, 1999, the company was already working on a second 24-screen theater in Houston, which was scheduled to open by Christmas. By the middle of November 1999, Edwards had opened two additional Idaho theaters located in Idaho Falls and Nampa. The two new cinemas were more modest than the Boise project, each containing only 14 screens.
Coming Soon to a Theater Near You
As the end of the 20th century approached, it appeared that Edwards Theatres would continue to grow at a rapid pace. The company had two projects planned for Arkansas—a 21-screen theater in North Little Rock and a similar theater in Fayetteville. Also in the planning stage were two megaplexes to be located in the Washington, DC vicinity.
It seemed likely that as Edwards grew, it would continue to expand outward from its southern California base, seeking regions that were less heavily screened. It also seemed probable that the company would increasingly focus on what it was best known for—huge, upscale megaplexes that sought to pamper moviegoers in every way possible.
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- James Edwards buys his first theater in Monterey Park, California.
- Edwards opens what some consider to be the first multiplex theater in Alhambra, California.
- After a heart attack, Edwards sells his interest in the theater chain and retires in Newport Beach, California.
- Coming out of retirement, Edwards starts a new theater circuit, targeting locations in Orange County.
- Edwards Theatres builds what is then the nation’s largest megaplex movie theater in Irvine, California.
- The Edwards Boise 21 opens in Boise, Idaho—the first Edwards outside California. James Edwards dies at the age of 90.
- Edwards opens a megaplex in Houston, making Texas the third state to have an Edwards.
Green, Tom, “Screen-Happy Theater Owners Leap from Multiplexes to Megaplexes,” USA Today, August 7, 1996, p. 07D.
Johnson, Greg, “Family Business Faces Growth Challenge,” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1997, p. A-32.
——, “Marquee Performer: James Edwards Still Battling Big Theater Chains at Age 88,” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1995, p, 3.
La Franco, Robert, “My Megaplex Is Bigger Than Your Megaplex,” Forbes, February 24, 1997, p. 50.
Lippman, John, “Hollywood Pulls Curtain Down on Theater Chains Entertainment,” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1991, p. 1.
McNary, Dave, “With Megaplexes, Industry Sits Back and Enjoys Show,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 30, 1996, p. 05D.
Mines, Cynthia, “SCW Profile: Boise Silences the Critics,” Shopping Center World, December 1, 1998.