ONTARIO — Edwards Theatres beamed searchlights into a hazy night sky. Over at AMC, colored lights shone on the megaplex’s massive rooftop globe.

Both theaters entertained crowds with street performers.

Both theaters offered free popcorn and drinks.

And on Friday, both theaters opened Jim Carrey’s “Liar Liar” on multiple screens, as well as unspooling a handful of other films already in release.

The frenzy to build ever bigger multiplexes reached a milestone over the weekend, as Edwards Theatres opened its 22-screen multiplex just across the street from AMC’s 3-month-old, 30-screen cinema at the new shopping mecca Ontario Mills.

It is one of the largest concentration of movie screens in the country, a unique competitive situation that already has both exhibitors showing several overlapping titles and ever-more sophisticated customers looking for even the tiniest of differences.

On Friday night, lights cut through the hazy sky at Edwards’ site, the Orange County-based chain’s largest theater complex in terms of the number of screens. During the early evening, crowds waited in long lines to check out the megaplex, which features a wind-sheltered foyer to buy tickets, leading to a massive lobby of movie ad displays and concession stands along with nooks of tables and chairs. In front of the entrance to some theaters, the floor has been decorated with terrazzo tiles depicting the planet Saturn and comets.

Over at AMC, it was far from a ghost-town, as customers stood before a row of ticket booths trying to decide. High-tech displays announce if a title has sold out, and a giant screen shows movie previews. Inside, more electronic displays direct visitors to the right wing of theaters. Screens are curved at the edges — what is called a Torus screen.

Spirited competition

Officially, executives from both chains believe the region can sustain this mass of moviegoing, and that the competition is a spirited, so-far friendly challenge.

And based on opening weekend results, the numbers do look good. On Saturday night alone, “Liar Liar” took in $29,167 at the Edwards multiplex, and $25,588 at the AMC. Taken as a single playdate, that would make Ontario Mills the highest-grossing location in the nation for the film.

That’s good news for Universal, which along with New Line and Miramax has committed to opening its films simultaneously in both theaters. Of course, cautioned U distribution prexy Nikki Rocco, “Only time will tell whether it’s the free popcorn.”

The Edwards Ontario 22 had the nation’s third-highest ticket sales for Warner Bros.’ “Selena,” with a $19,600 gross Friday and $29,100 Saturday. Only the AMC Grand in Dallas and California’s AMC Norwalk attracted more moviegoers to biopic.

And while each megaplex differs greatly in design, each has also been sure to feature the latest in exhibition frills: stadium seating, high-backed seats, pull-up armrests (making loveseats), and concession stands galore. Edwards will open its Imax 3-D theater on Friday. Under construction next to AMC will be another large-screen theater called Ultra Screen.

The similarities left customers with a curious set of factors in making their decision about which theater to visit. Some customers chose Edwards for “Liar Liar” for the sole reason that it was opening night at the megaplex, even if it was only three months ago that AMC opened.

“We wanted to see what the place looked like,” said Mary Nehrer, coming out of the Jim Carrey comedy with her husband Frederick and daughter Desiree, a college student. The verdict? “The seating is better here,” she said.

Another moviegoer said the same thing — but about AMC’s multiplex. “We love it here,” said Vicki Rasmussen, who lives in the area, as she sat down to watch “Liar Liar.” Will she go to Edwards? “Oh no. This is our theater.”

‘Selena’ big draw at Edwards

But Edwards did have the upper hand in playing “Selena.” Performances sold out throughout the day. The hottest ticket: shows in subtitles.

“We are getting a lot of response to that,” said James Woodin, Edwards’ district supervisor. As he spoke, a new print of “Selena” had just arrived, and a worker was feverishly removing the title “People vs. Larry Flynt” from a marquee to get “Selena” started on the new screen.

Petra Ramirez of Moreno Valley drove with a large group of family and friends to see “Selena.” “It is real pretty,” she said of the megaplex as she stood in the foyer.

Just then, she got word that the early evening shows were sold out. Not to worry. One of her friends was exchanging cash for another woman’s extra tickets.

Over at AMC, a steady stream of moviegoers also was watching “Liar Liar,” on what was billed as a “customer appreciation weekend.”

Michael Loring Tieger, the managing director of Ontario Mills, testifies to the comfort of the seats: He slept on them overnight in the frantic pace to open last year. Enthusiastic and energetic about the company, he started as an usher at AMC’s La Habra theatres 16 years ago. That was a four-plex.

“I drove by it today and I just said, ‘Man, I’m driving to a 30-plex,’ ” he said.

The mass of screens was enough publicity to attract customers.

“We used to go at an AMC 10 in Chino,” said Renee Rodriguez, a USC sociology student. “Once this place opened, my girlfriends and I said, ‘We’re here! The competition is groovy.”

She chose AMC for “Liar Liar.” They have a “Movie Watcher” program that awards gifts and prizes for frequent moviegoers.

Moviegoing was once spread out through 10- and 12-plexes at nearby malls near Ontario, which is about 50 miles east of Los Angeles at the intersection of I-10 and I-15. But Ontario Mills has quickly become a moviegoing magnet, drawing visitors from as far as 50 miles away. Not only are families and teenagers going to more movies, but the megaplex has created new gathering places.

Community groups already are holding meetings and special events in AMC’s “hospitality suite,” where the theater decorates its nondescript space with movie posters. One retired nanny has carved out a career playing Sparky the Clown, sort of a mascot for AMC who greets visitors. And she has added duties: booking comedians and music acts for the plaza in front of the theater.

“It’s unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable,” said Amy Heyman, 29, a secretary at Fontana High School, after checking out the new Edwards complex and AMC’s. “We were going to come here but it is an absolute madhouse.”

Mega-arcade coming

And the next few months will only solidify the area as a prime example of “location-based entertainment”: the new mega-arcade GameWorks will open in the mall.

Some wonder if it is all too much.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Peter Fabel, 19, of Walnut, a student at Fullerton Junior College, as he came out of “Liar Liar” at Edwards. “It is like technology in your face.” Said his friend, Canoe Andrew, 20, also of Walnut: “It’s force-fed entertainment. It’s corporations and consumers. This is like ‘Are we going to think anymore?’ “

Others, however, view the mega-concentration of the megaplexes as a boon that was a long time coming for the area. For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, families flocked to Ontario and Riverside for the affordable homes and ample land as prices skyrocketed closer to the beach. But entertainment options, many say, lagged behind, leaving the area untapped.

Said Cindy Davis, 39, a school youth services coordinator in Fontana: “It’s glamorous. It is like a little bit of Hollywood out here. That is what we need.”

Davis, along with sons Chase, 9, and Travis, 12, as well as Amy Heyman, checked out the Edwards theater after taking in “Liar Liar” at AMC. Before the megaplex opened, “I hadn’t been to a movie in a year,” Heyman said. “I have been to three in the past three months.”

And in her class, Davis has found a new incentive to give to her students for work well done: movie passes.

MARCH 24, 1997

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