“Jaws” may have scared moviegoers out of the ocean in the 1970s but Craig Triphahn hopes one of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood history attracts them back to the theater this week.
If it doesn’t, he’s got another huge studio moneymaker in “Jurassic Park” to whet the appetites of Rim Country cinema lovers.
Those two classics are among six films Sawmill Theatres plans to screen three times a day as the only movie house in the area reopens daily beginning today, May 22 for the first time since March 16.
The films all screen three times per day in the 1, 4 and 7 o’clock hours. Tickets are $5 for all showings.
Also featured are the Jane Austen comedy “Emma,” “I Still Believe,” “Despicable Me” and “The Secret Life of Pets.”
“Emma” and “I Still Believe” are recent films released around the time Gov. Doug Ducey announced the shutdown of theaters, bars and halted indoor dining at restaurants two months ago.
“‘I Still Believe’ opened on Friday and we closed on Tuesday and ‘Emma’ was set to open (three days after we closed),” Triphahn said. “So, we’re bringing those back.”
He’s also hoping to get two other films that opened elsewhere but hadn’t reached Payson in “Bloodshot” and “The Way Back.”
Triphahn counts on a blockbuster film to anchor the Memorial Day weekend slate on what is normally one of the biggest box office weeks of the year.
But the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down theaters across the country makes this anything but a typical year. In fact, it’s likely to rank as the worst year at the box office in recent decades for the entire movie industry.
And studios aren’t releasing new films until July. “I think the studios are going to wait until the middle of July to put out big movies,” Triphahn said.
“Unhinged” starring Russell Crowe is scheduled to be the first wide theatrical release on July 1. “The Outpost” hits theaters on July 3. “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to “Dunkirk” on July 17 is the most anticipated July release, followed by “Mulan” on July 24.
So, Triphahn is opening back up offering films he hopes will inspire folks to venture back out to the theater.
“With these classics, it’s a great opportunity to come see them on the big screen, which is the only way to really appreciate them,” he said.
He tried a limited reopening last weekend that didn’t go so well. He offered two Saturday screenings and one Sunday showing of both “Casablanca” and “Home Alone” on May 16 and 17. That’s six total screenings. They averaged five people per showing.
“It was terrible,” Triphahn said. “We had like 30 people for the two days.”
Undaunted, he’s pushing ahead.
“We’ve got Memorial Day coming up, so we’re just going to go ahead and do a full opening,” Triphahn said.
Sawmill is one of the few theaters in the state now open. It’s unclear if any others are open. Most of the largest theater chains in the country are waiting until July and the new studio releases.
Restaurants have reopened. But theaters face the challenge of no new product to show.
“We’re kind of in a different situation than most businesses in that we have to wait for studios to release stuff,” Triphahn said. “We’re going to be doing more classic films for the next five to six weeks with $5 tickets all day until this is over with.”
Sawmill Theatres had 15 employees before shutting down. The staff was laid off.
“We’re in the process of bringing people back and getting set up,” Triphahn said. “There’s still so much uncertainty right now of what to expect crowd-wise. We don’t know if 20 people will show up or we’ll get 200 and have to add people. That’s the biggest challenge.”
Staff will wear masks and gloves and the theater is using enhanced cleaning and hand washing. They’ve installed plexiglass shields at the concession stand.
“We’re keeping everything as clean as we can,” he said.
Every other row is blocked off and some seats in the open rows are covered, so they’re limiting ticket sales to about 35% of capacity.
“There’s going to be spacing,” Triphahn said. “You’re not going to see a crowded theater. We want people to feel comfortable.”
Their two biggest theaters normally seat 135 people. They’re limiting those two to about 50 tickets each.
“A sellout is not going to look like a normal sellout,” he said.
He knows it’ll be a challenge to get some people to come back to the movies. He figures it’s about one-third of the public that need convincing that it’s OK to head back out to the movies.
“I think 33% of the people aren’t going to come out, 33% don’t care and will go anywhere and 33% are not sure,” Triphahn said. “And we want to make them feel comfortable.”
He offered to show anyone unsure of whether to return to the theater the measures they’re taking to minimize their risk.
“I can give you a little tour and show you what we’re doing,” he said.
He’s open to suggestions on the movies they’ll show until the studios send them films.
To offer suggestions or for more information, visit the Sawmill Theatres Facebook page.