Theater Turns Tide In Local Teen Entertainment Market

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The Sawmill Theaters have been open for a full month now, and its six movie screens continue to draw crowds, particularly on weekend nights.

But has this brand new Main-Street-and-Beeline-Highway draw also been pulling customers into or away from neighboring and competing businesses?

Before the theater's arrival, just about the only place a family or group of young people could spend an evening out together was at Payson Bowl. But that is changing, according to co-owner Joan Spurlin.

"The opening of the movie theaters really hurt us among the kids, who used to come here every Friday night for Laser Bowl because it was the only thing in town to do," Spurlin said. "But since the theaters opened, that part of the business has really dropped off. We used to have waiting lists for our 16 lanes, which can add up to over 100 kids. But now, I'd say we're only getting about 20 kids every Friday night."

As far as Payson Bowl's adult customers go, Spurlin added, "I don't know that there's been any change at all. It's hard to say, because this is typically a slow season, because everyone is out shopping and visiting and getting ready for Christmas. But the movie theaters have definitely drawn a lot of the kids away."

Sean Sloan, co-owner of both Famous Sam's and Payson's KFC franchise, said half of his business was affected, briefly.

"We noticed about a 10-percent decrease in business at Famous Sam's when the theaters first opened," Sloan said. "But that's pretty much evened out now, I think, and we're back to the same numbers as before the theaters opened.

"Since we weren't here last year, it's impossible to know for sure if it's the season or the theaters, really. But I think the theaters had a lot to do with it. People were given another option and, especially at first, took advantage of it. But I do think the novelty is wearing off."

Sloan said that Famous Sam's has benefited from the theaters' opening, too.

"We have seen an influx of people coming in before and after they go to the movies. One of the reasons for that is that we're open until 11 p.m., which is later than most restaurants in Payson. So all in all, theaters have been a good thing for us, I'd say."

Over at KFC, Sloan added, "There has been no change at all. Business is exactly the same now as before the theaters opened."

That's precisely the assessment of the theaters' impact on the customer count at the Knotty Pine Cafe.

"I really don't think it's had much effect," said night waitress Karen Ybarra. "Our dinner crowds are about the same as they've always been at this time of year."

Greg Day, co-owner of Macky's Grill, isn't certain if the Sawmill Theatres have been a help or a hindrance to his business.

"I don't know," he said. "It was a slow season to start with. I do think it's a good possibility that people are spending more of their expendable income at the movie theaters and eating out less. But it's really hard to say."

There is one local businessman who's very happy with the crowds being drawn out of their homes and to the Sawmill Theatres: the cinemas' director of theater operations, Brian Deveny.

"On our opening weekend, we did almost double the business that we had anticipated," Deveny said. "And the numbers have stayed high, which has surprised us. We're especially happy to see how well our matinees are going; we were a little nervous about them at the outset, but they are doing very well, much better than expected.

"Let me put it this way," Deveny said. "The movie distributors and movie companies are very happy. And when that happens, it makes us very happy."

So far, Deveny said, the theater's biggest moneymakers have been the Jim Carrey-Ron Howard adaptation of the Dr. Suess tale, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and Mel Gibson's romantic comedy, "What Women Want."

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