The Pedas brothers, owners of Circle Theatres, hope to expand their circle of moviegoers by distributing foreign films nationally and producing their own movies.

Ted and Jim Pedas, the founders of one of Washington's largest theater chains, made their debut as national film distributors with the release in New York this month of a Japanese "black comedy" directed by Yoshimitsu Morita. It will open here in October.

"Family Game," a Japanese film that last year won the Japanese equivalent of an Oscar for best picture, is the first of two foreign films to be released by The Washington Circle Theatre Corp.'s new subsidiary.

New-York based Circle Releasing Corp. is jointly owned by the Pedas brothers and Libra Films founder Ben Barenholtz. Barenholtz's company has distributed many foreign films of the likes of "Cousin, Cousine" and "Eraserhead."

"Distributing foreign films is a risky business," said Ron Goldman of the K-B Theatres chain here. K-B Theatres, a rival of Circle Theatres, has been distributing foreign films for 30 years. "When you're successful, there's quite a lot of money to be made," Goldman said.

"The Return of Martin Guerre," one film K-B Theatres distributed, was the most profitable film ever brought to the United States from France, Goldman said. "As the number two grossing foreign film last year, it brought in an excess of $4 million," he added. "Les Comperes," another film distributed by K-B, grossed approximately $2 million.

Chris Zarpas, spokesman and general sales manager for Circle Theatres, noted that "besides the obvious motivations of increasing profit and spreading exposure, the Pedas brothers have diversified into distribution and production because they really love and enjoy movies."

However, Goldman cautions that "the problem is that no one ever knows which foreign films will be successful," noting that "The Return of Martin Guerre" was unsuccessful in France.

"Their success, unlike American films, depends on one man, the New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby. And before you know what he thinks, you have to put a lot of money up front," Goldman said.

Canby, however, liked Circle Releasing's first foreign film.

"The Family Game is a stylish, wickedly funny comedy about Japan's comparatively affluent, utterly directionless new middle class," Canby wrote in The New York Times. " . . . The Family Game is so rich that Morita would seem to be one of the most talented and original of Japan's new generation of film-makers."

Washington Circle Theatre spokesmen insist that they are not following K-B Theatres in distributing foreign films.

"Pedas has been in the film business a lot longer than Ronnie Goldman," said Zarpas. "And he and his brother have been considering the film distribution idea for a long time."

"I was in the film distribution business when I was involved with Cinema Five Ltd. in New York, which distributed all the great foreign films of the '60s and '70s," said Ted Pedas. "But we sold our interest in that company about five years ago."

Showing and distributing films is a "symbiotic relationship," explained Zarpas."If you know one, you know another. Film distribution is a natural outgrowth of our business."

Circle Releasing's second expected release, "Go Masters," is the first film ever co-produced by Japan and the People's Republic of China, Zarpas said. "It's political detente through a cultural event," he explained. "By working together on a very important film, the two countries attempted to resolve the lasting disharmony as a result of World War II."

"Go Masters" has been seen by more than 300 million people, making it one of the most widely seen movies in the history of Asia. "More people have seen this film in Japan than the combined number of people here who saw 'Indiana Jones,' 'Ghostbusters' and 'Gremlins,' " Zarpas said.

"This film is about two masters of the game of Go, an ancient Chinese board game. The two men begin a game and are interrupted by World War II," Zarpas said.

"It's about how the obsession of this Japanese game, which continues after the war, ruins their lives."

"Go Masters" has been chosen by the American Film Institute for its annual fall benefit premier at the Kennedy Center in November, Zarpas added.

Circle Releasing, which has both American and Canadian distributing rights, plans to release about four films a year. "We don't want to create a business with a big overhead," said Ted Pedas

Circle Releasing also plans to distribute films made by American independent film makers. "They are doing some of the most innovative and interesting films now, like 'Stranger Than Paradise,' " Zarpas said.

Circle Releasing also will acquire all ancillary rights to the films it distributes, including cable, network television and video cassette rights.

Foreign and American independent film distribution has become extremely competitive in the last few years because of some successful foreign releases such as "Diva," Zarpas explained. "Major studios took note of the large profits and vigorously entered the fray. Orion, MGM United Artists and Fox formed classics divisions. That really heated up the competition in what was formerly a territory controlled by independent distributors in New York.

"When the major studios became involved, they bid the prices of foreign films up very high," Zarpas said. "That made it very difficult for the independents to survive."

He added that "the high prices even made studios like Universal take a closer look, and some of them decided it didn't pay for them to be in the field. So, some dismounted their classics divisions. Still, it's far more competitive than it used to be."

The major competitors for Circle Releasing will be Orion's classics division, MGM United Artists' classics division and the smaller, aggressive companies such as Samuel Goldwyn in California and Cenecom in New York, Zarpas said.

"It remains to be seen how long Circle will be in the film distribution business," said K-B's Goldman. "You can lose money quicker than you can make it."

The major movie theater circuits will not likely be Circle Releasing's clients; independent theater owners who specialize in art films and have two to 12 screens will be the primary market.

Washington Circle Theatre also is entering the film production arena. "The Cradle Will Rock," a major feature film directed by Orson Welles, is the Circle's first venture. Michael Fitzgerald is producing the film along with Circle Releasing, and John Landis and George Folsey Jr. are on board as executive producers.

British actor Rupert Everett of "Another Country" will portray Welles at age 22. The film concerns Welles' and John Houseman's legendary New York production of Marc Blitzstein's pro-labor opera, "The Cradle Will Rock," in 1937.

Ted Pedas wouldn't discuss the financing of Circle's new ventures. But business must be good enough for the Circle Theatres to undertake them. In addition to the 27 movie theaters with 78 screens that Circle will have by the end of the year, it has income from real estate holdings.