Sawmill-Craig Triphan Places Letters

General Manager Craig Triphahn readies the Sawmill Theatres for its reopening Friday, Sept. 4. The Payson theater announced it was closing Mondays-Wednesdays beginning Sept. 28.

Craig Triphahn got the news he was looking for last week when the Arizona Department of Health Services released encouraging COVID-19 infection numbers for Gila County and Payson. That allowed the Sawmill Theatres general manager to increase the number of tickets he could sell from 25% of seating capacity to 50%.

Then he got the news he was dreading as MGM, Universal and Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli announced “No Time To Die,” the 25th film in the James Bond series, will be delayed until April 2, 2021.

The studio news delivered yet another gut punch to Triphahn and theaters across the country counting on that movie to save the holidays. The film, originally scheduled to hit theaters on April 10, 2020, was pushed back to Nov. 25 and now until next spring as studios try to minimize the financial hit they’ll take with theaters in the two biggest markets in the country, New York and California, either closed or operating at reduced seating capacity like all other theaters in the U.S. and many moviegoers wary of venturing out to the cinema.

“No Time To Die” was the first movie to have its release date pushed back and more than a dozen films have followed. Now, it’s been delayed again.

“It’s a blow,” Triphahn said of the Bond news. “This just keeps happening. We’re at the mercy of the studios. We’re in a Catch 22; we need these movies to get people to come to the theater, but the studios don’t want to release them until more people start going back to the theater.”

The Bond news prompted Cineworld, the owner of Regal Cinemas, to announce it would close its theaters.

Triphahn is optimistic the Sawmill can stay open, for now.

“I don’t think so,” he said when asked if the theater would have to close its doors.

How long they can stay open, remains to be seen.

Poor weekday attendance led to the theater announcing on Sept. 27 that it would only open Thursdays-Sundays, for at least the next several weeks.

“Some of our weekday attendance is about 25% of what the weekends are,” Triphahn said. “We tried closing early Mondays-Thursdays. The numbers are particularly low Mondays-Wednesdays, and it’s not worth opening the doors because you’re losing money just by opening them with the cost of labor.”

It’s been a difficult year for movie theaters across the country and Triphahn has been riding the roller coaster that started with closing the doors in mid-March before reopening on Memorial Day Weekend, closing again on June 29 and opening again on Labor Day Weekend.

For now, the theater is open Thursdays-Sundays. Every other row in all of the six theaters is covered to provide for social distancing.

The virus and restrictions to minimize its spread have now been with us for more than six months. And it’s dealt a major blow to businesses, including the Sawmill. Triphahn had to layoff his entire staff.

“We usually run around 15 people and now we’re at six,” he said. “That’s bare bones. I’ve got a couple of new people we had to bring in because I lost staff when we were closed down for so long.”

The theater has been showing a mix of new and classic movies, a formula that will continue with very limited new product available.

“We don’t have a strong product coming out through October,” Triphahn said before the latest Bond delay. “It’s challenging. Unlike other businesses, we’re so affected by what the studios are doing. We have no control on whether a movie does or doesn’t come out.”

The news could spell doom for many theaters across the country and the globe. Triphahn has maintained that a small theater like Sawmill could sustain slow ticket sales better than some of the large chains, but how long Payson’s local theater can keep their doors open with the steady stream of bad news out of Hollywood remains to be seen.

Triphahn was counting on “No Time To Die,” as well as a new “Croods” movie to help make it a good holiday season for Sawmill after they missed out on the normally lucrative summer months.

“The holidays are very important to us now,” Triphahn said on Thursday, just before the Bond news. “Thanksgiving and Christmas, we need to have some (customer) movement. If we’re choked out for the rest of the year things might get a little sketchy. We’re just looking at loss mitigation where we still have some money in the bank and will still be able to show movies.”

He’s hopeful for now.

“It’s challenging,” Triphahn said. “I think Thursdays-Sundays will work out well and hopefully Thanksgiving week we’ll go back to regular days and stay there.”

“I think going forward you’ll see a mix of classic films and new films,” Triphahn said.

And it’s a guessing game as movies continue to be pushed from this year to 2021 and beyond.

“Twenty-twenty one looks to be pretty strong,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll move some of those movies back into 2020 and give us something to show people. I’ve been calling 2020 the year of ‘I don’t know,’ because I’ve had to say ‘I don’t know’ more than any other time in my life. We’re kind of trying to adjust on the go.”

Contact the reporter at kmorris@payson.com

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