THE FIRST thing to understand is that the Pedas brothers, Washington's art-house entrepreneurs, insist they did not set out to creae the biggest chain of movie houses in the metropolitan area.

The second thing is that they did.

The Pedases, Ted and Jim, proprietors of the Circle Theaters, Outer and In, became Washington's newest movie moguls two weeks ago, when they sealed a deal giving them 21 new screens formerly operated by the Showcase chain -- suddenly bringing their total holdings to 36. That's more than Marvin and Ron Goldman's K-B chain, which has 24 screens; and it also puts them ahead of Paul Roth, who has 28.

Ted Peads, who with his brother Jim bought the Circle Theater back in 1957, once tracked Little Richard across town during a short-lived career as a record producer, and built a reputation as a madcap non-mogul movie programmer who dragged passers-by off Pennsylvania Avenue to attend impromptu screenings, then called them at 1 a.m. to demand their opinion of the film.

Two decades later, the Pedas brothers -- Ted is 49, Jim two years older -- are the biggest players in Washington's multi-million-dollar movie game: betting their "big show" concept of what the public wants to see -- and how they want to see it -- against the differing philosophies of their competitors.

Ted: "Most of the new theaters we got are big ones. The day is coming when presentation is all-important. Big sound. Innovative screens. You can't do it with 250-seat theaters, although there will still be a place for them. Of course, it will take us some time to gear up for this. It may take as much as a month."

Jim: "It could be longer than that."

Ted: "It may take two months."

It may not be apparent to casual moviegoers, but for years a closely fought battle has been waged in Washington -- as in every large city -- over what films play in which theaters. Owners of movie house chains bid competitively against each other for what they judge to be hot movies. Often they bid "blind" up to a year before the picture is even released. They are in economic show business, and matching a movie to an audience is an art form requiring insights into sociology, demographics, star power, popcorn, the current state of the American psyche, meteorology, and whether director X, so greatly respected that his unseen new film is going to cost a fortune, is too hot not to cool down.

Is the future in films aimed at specific, "fractionalized" audiences? Or are big theaters with big screens and fancy sound equipment, presenting an experience as different from television as possible, the next wave in movie-going? Why would anyone buy a chain of theaters now, anyway -- isn't this one of the worse movie summers ever?

Goldman, Roth and the Pedases, the first families of film in a metropolitan area with well over 200 silver screens, are entrepreneurs with slightly different styles. They see things differently, and as a result their audiences are shown different movies.

Marvin Goldman, the cagey and hard-nosed chairman of the board of K-B theaters, has no doubt that will continue to be the case.

"When I first came here," Goldman says, "Paramount and Fox were in control of the theaters in Washington, and I was the brash independent. I was the one showing the art pictures. But then I became the big boy, and Roth and Pedas challenged me.

"They probably have surpassed us now. Ted Pedas has become big, so he'll have to change. It won't be like running a small art house, it won't be exotic and esoteric. We'll stick around and maintain the loyal opposition, of course, but I no longer want to be the biggest. I have reached an age where material things are not everything. Perhaps that is because I already have them."

Very philosophical. You could be philosophical too if one of your theaters had booked "ythe Empire Strikes Back," the only genuine blockbuster of the summer, and were planning to run it for a year. One that Goldman did not bid on was "Raise the Titanic," now playing at the Pedases' Uptown Theater. "I read the book. I thought it was frankly a pot-boiler, and I didn't see how they could make a movie of it. In retrospect, I guess I was right."

Paul Roth is also philosophical about the Pedases' ascension.

"Their economic clout is definitely enhanced by this," he said. "Maybe the extra theaters will stretch Ted out of shape, but he's probably too good a manager for that. Of course, it's competition. But I feel competition from backyard barbecues, and from beaches and from singles bars, too."

The Roth Theaters, and the Roth movie philosophy, are however quite different from the Pedases -- even the expanded Pedases. Roth pioneered the notion of "plex" theaters in this area, in which multiple movies are shown under one roof. It is an approach based on the observation of "fractionalized" audiences, the result of a society in which mass taste is presumed to be over and done with. Roth moviehouses tend to be in suburban shopping centers, to simultaneously show movies for parents and children and to avoid foreign-movies with subtitles. "The first of the multiple theaters was in Kansas City, about 15 years ago," said Roth in his soft-spoken manner. "A theater called Cineplex opened in Canada a while ago with 18 separate screens, or auditoria, as they call them there.

"What has happened is that people have become individuals rather than masses. Films are made with a specific appeal. Thirty years ago in Texas, a moviehouse played 'Francis the Talking Mule,' and everybody went to see it. Everybody had the same taste. Nowadays, you expect Pedas to have a foreign film and Goldman to have 'The Empire Strikes Back,' and the Casino Royal to have some triple-X thing.

"What we have today are not shotgun movies, trying to hit everybody, but rifle movies. So you need different auditoria." The five screens at Roth's Tyson's Corner are currently showing: "The Big Red One," "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie" and "The Final Countdown."

"It's not just a theory, it's something that works particularly well for families," Roth said. "Many a time the five rate theaters. Once I believe we had a Roth in all five."

New projection equipment, enabling one man to show several movies simultaneously, also contributed to the rise of the multiplex idea. At first, the projectionists' union was not happy, Roth said, but has since come to see the value "in keeping their people from a dead-end job." The Roth theaters, however, are no longer unionized.

"The important thing is to develop the 'character' of your theaters, and the way you do that is to match the right film with the right theater," Roth said. "The more theaters you have the better you can do it. That will be the Pedases' advantage now. If they can find the time to do it."

"Nothing bad is going to happen to the Circle Theaters," Ted Pedas was saying."

Jim: "It'll be a separate operation. We'd never change it."

Ted: "We would not normally even had considered expanding into the suburbs, except that John Broumas is an old friend, almost family. He wanted us to take over his Showcase theaters. He had 40 and we took 21. We had to do it. John wanted us to."

Jim: "We were very content in the city."

It is, however, a remarkable coincidence that the new theaters the Pedases have obtained -- among them large ones such as the Oxon Hill, the Fairfax and the Pike -- given the Pedas operation a new way of doing business, and a new way to place their bets. Big movie theaters in recent years had come to be considered white elephants, and many -- including Washington's noble Apex -- have succumbed to the wrecker's ball.

"But you have to be able to get the films you want, and you do that by bidding on them," Ted Pedas explained. "You bid competitively, and then there's also the pay-out deal. The distributor gets maybe 90 percent of the receipts for the first few weeks, and then the share starts getting better for you. Now suppose the bids are more or less the same, but you're offering 250-seat theaters. The other guy's got 1,000-seat theaters. Obviously, he's going to generate more money faster for the distributor, so he gets the movie." g

Jim: "The distributors want to be ready in case a film explodes."

Ted: "Also we're spending $500,000 to upgrade the Showcase theaters. Projection equipment and sound, mostly. The theater becomes important when everybody's showing the same film."

Jim: "The companies spend a lot of money advertising all at once, they want to cash in fast while the ads are running."

In fact, the Pedases began their expansion about 2 1/2 years ago, when they opened the Tenley Circle and obtained the Uptown, the Avalon and the Embassy. They were banking even then on the future of movies being big movies -- blockbusters.

"The Empire Strikes Back" is a good example of such a film. Just ask Marvin Goldman. "The bidding on that took place 14 months ago," Ted Pedas said. "Okay, I didn't think it would be as big as it is. You only figure sequels for 60 percent max of the original. Yeah, we were wrong."

Is he worried about "Raise the Titanic," which has not received positive reviews but is set for a long run at the Uptown?

"Well, that's a four-wall," he said. "Somebody else wanted to platform the picture, and so the theater is theirs for eight weeks." (Translation: Pedas has rented the "four walls" of the Uptown for a flat fee; he is assured his rental, and has no stake in whether the film does good business or lays an egg.)

The Pedas Brothers are counting on Hollywood's ability to turn out big movies that everyone will want to see. Shotgun movies, not rifle movies: movies that "plex" theaters like Paul Roth's cannot handle.

"Sure they've been trying the rifle movie approach," says Ted Pedas. "The trouble is, it's not working. People want big movies. They want 'Kramer vs. Kramer.'

"We'll get them, too. Listen to what's coming next summer," he said, pulling out a large schedule. "'Heaven's Gate' -- that's a three-hour movie. 'Superman II.' 'Reds,' a really big one with Warren Beatty and Dianne Keaton and Jack Nicholson. A sprawling epic love story in the tradition of Dr. Zhivago! 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' written by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg.And 'Greasier' -- the sequel to 'Grease.'

"See," Ted Pedas said, "these movies will go second-run real fast. But we'll have them first. We're like hardcover books. We get a high-class, four-week run, then they go to the nabes [neighborhood theaters] for six months. The nabes are the paperback books."

Ted: "We think this gives us a . . ."

Jim: ". . . Chance."

But is this the year to take it?

Variety reports that for the first 14 weeks of summer, the comulative trend is off 5 percent compared to last season, before adjustment for inflation. That is perhaps no news to film-goers, who have found few movies beyond "The Empire Strikes" back and the unballyhoows but giggle-inducing "Airplane," worth lining up for Neither Robert Redford's "Brubaker" nor Clint Eastwood's "Bronco Billy" is hot; Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" has turned out to be a disappointment, and formula diversions such as "The Final Countdown" and "Titanic" are falling flat.

"Well," said Paul Roth, "these are tough times, and not just in movies. High interest rates hurt auto dealers, and shoe stores too. It's a buyer's market. Actually, it's a good time to expand, if you can do it. We ourselves just bought 20 teachers in North and South Carolina.

"Besides, when this summer is history, I think we will find it turns out to be slightly better than last summer after all. There's still time to catch up. Maybe 'Urban Cowboy' fell out of bed, but I don't think anyone could have predicted that the "The Blue Lagoon' would be doing the business it is."

Marvin Goldman agrees that the long-term problem is not with the product, but with hardball economic factors and softball matters of public enjoyment and tradition:

"Sure it's harder to find good movies now, because only 200 or so are produced every year, and of those only 20 are really going to be worthwhile. Still, the movies' success rate is very good compared to any other art form. But it does mean that sometimes you'll be playing lesser pictures, possibly at the expense of pictures that could make money. Sure I could play 'Caligula.' Except that I saw it, and it's an abomination."

On the hardball subject of blind bidding, a procedure by which distributors require theaters to buy projection rights to a movie without an opportunity to see it first, Goldman has sharp views. As president of the National Association of Theater Owners from 1976 to 1978, he helped write legislation bannnng the practice; which is now unlawful in 19 states.

"Why do distributors like blind bidding? Because it artificially inflates the value of a movie. You pay $100,000 for $25,000 worth. Blind bidding is permitted in Maryland -- we've failed twice to get rid of it there. As a result, there are no screenings in Maryland, the distributors are absolutely united against it. But over the line in Virginia, where blind bidding is prohibited, they'll screen any movie you want. No other industry would put up with that way of doing business, and I don't know why we do."

The important thing for the movie business, Goldman says, is to provide a service the public likes. At his Cinema Theater, he is experimenting for the first time with the sale of popcorn and soft drinks outside the theater and at the seats.

"We found that in a crowded theater situation, people bypass the concessions: They want to get a seat and keep it. Also, if you have somebody selling lemonade in line, it contributes to the feeling of anticipation. Atmosphere is very important."

Goldman considered introducing hot dogs, but rejected the idea, deciding that "it would not be the proper accompaniment to the experience." Pedas, as it happens, intends to test hot dog sales at several of his theaters soon.

"But the real money has to be spent keeping up with new sound equipment and production stuff," according to Goldman, who says K-B Theaters has spent $250,000 in the past two years on such improvements. "We actually have a pretty ambitious research and development program here, and eventually big changes will come. Digital or maybe holographic projection someday. Right now, we're basically still putting on movies the way Edison did back in 1902."

Roth attended a demonstration of a new sound-enchancement system at Goldman's Cinema theater Wednesday morning, and came out sounding impressed. g"They played a reel of 'Ben-Hur,'" Roth reported. "It is remarkable what that system can do with the monaural sound track of a movie that is certainly not new."

One thing that may be gleefully apparent to moviegoers is that there is a healthy bit of competition for their ticket money in the nation's capital.

Paul Roth has committed to developing the multi-theater idea in the suburbs, Goldman's K-B is running big theaters and small ones in the city, and now the Pedases -- struck by chain lightning -- are going to try to book blockbusters with one hand and keep their foreign films going with the other.

"There has been some animosity, sure," said Roth. "We're bidding against each other, and it sometimes gets bloody. Same with locations. Same with personnel. But if I had my choice between sticking a knife in Marvin Goldman's back or playing golf with him, I'd rather play."

"It's not a feud," says Goldman. "God Bless Roth and Pedas too."

As for the Pedases, it will be interesting to see whether they can keep their circle unbroken. Ted Pedas looks back with nostalgia -- sort of -- on the simpler times, when, as law school students at George Washington, he and his brother decided the only way to improve the movies showing at the Circle Theater across the street was to buy it. It was a family business which made their father George, now 89, a constant presence in the lobby, and often saw their late mother in the ticket booth.

Pedas was glad to get out of the record business, however, dispite a success with a notable platter by the name of "Big Bop Bip," sung by Don Convay and the Paper Dollars on the now-defunct Colt 45 label.

Jim: "We used to sell records right out of the Circle offices."

Ted: "It was crazy, though. Once I signed up Little Richard and we set up a recording date, for which he did't show up. Well, I had to go find him, because we had booked the studio. Tracked him to the old Dunbar Hotel. hHe wouldn't answer his phone and he wouldn't answer his doorbell. I finally talked my way in -- you remember Little Richard? Kind of an ususal guy?There he was in a satin kimona and high heels, and that high-pitched voice. Very religious, too. He said he couldn't perform. I said, 'Look, you've got to, we're booked.' And finallly he admitted what he was afraid of: that he had developed a distinctive beat of his own, and he was afraid somebody would steal it. That was Little Richard. Quite an unusual guy."

Since then, things have become more elaborate. Their executive suites, located behind the West End Circle Theater, are semi-posh and currently ring with the sound of movies being brokered, schedules juggled, and plans being put into action. Ticking off the names of his new locations as if they were newly discovered planets in the solar system, the Pedas brothers suddely realized something:

Jim: "See, we've got theaters all around us."

Ted: "Yeah. It's all a Big Circle now."