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Published: Sunday, 4/22/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Drive-in field shows reel revival

Liberty Center, Tiffin screens a family affair

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Donna and Rod Saunders at their Field of Dreams Drive-In Theater in Liberty Center, Ohio. The theater is in the backyard of their 4.5-acre property on Henry County Road 6, just south of Swanton. Donna and Rod Saunders at their Field of Dreams Drive-In Theater in Liberty Center, Ohio. The theater is in the backyard of their 4.5-acre property on Henry County Road 6, just south of Swanton.
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LIBERTY CENTER, Ohio -- As a theater owner, Rod Saunders routinely sees dozens of ho-hum films, but recently he saw one that really made him tear up -- We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson.

"I could relate," Mr. Saunders said with a chuckle while recalling the 2011 film about a man who knows nothing about running a zoo but buys one anyway.

Were anyone to make a film called We Opened a Drive-In, Mr. Saunders, and his wife, Donna, would be perfect for the lead roles.

The Saunders family of Liberty Center began their sixth season Friday as owners of the Field of Dreams Drive-In company, and while their unusual business venture hasn't paid off financially yet, they've managed to improve and expand it annually to where they can envision profits a few years from now.

"With any new business you don't start to expect making money right off the bat. We knew it was going to take money and that we'd have to invest back into it," said Mrs. Saunders, who handles much of the administrative and technical work associated with the business.

"We never expected to make money for the first five years. We expected to put money into the business and grow it, and that's what we've done," Mrs. Saunders said.

In fact, the Saunderses estimate they have invested between $400,000 and $500,000 in their business since opening their Liberty Center Field of Dreams Drive-In -- conveniently located in the backyard of their 4.5-acre property on Henry County Road 6 in Washington Township just south of Swanton -- in the summer of 2007.

"Every year we were adding something -- new equipment, new screens, we grew the concessions," Mrs. Saunders said.

The first year, they showed second-run films on a 48-by-20-foot screen. But they quickly learned the realities of attracting customers: People want to see something new.

Improved concessions was their next lesson. Food sales are the key to profitability once the movie studios take their huge cut of the gate admissions.

Refreshments, an integral part of any theater experience, are served from this truck at the Field of Dreams Drive-in in Liberty Center, Ohio. The family has established a second drive-in in Tiffin. Refreshments, an integral part of any theater experience, are served from this truck at the Field of Dreams Drive-in in Liberty Center, Ohio. The family has established a second drive-in in Tiffin.
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In 2010 the couple added a second 42-by-18-foot screen after learning another hard lesson of the drive-in business: By contract, theater owners must show a first-run film for three to four weeks, but business for a film drops considerably after the first weekend.

On a film's second weekend, their 175-vehicle big screen area was usually half-empty. So their second smaller screen provided a site to fulfill their contract obligations while utilizing a smaller area (70 to 80 vehicles).

They also added a series of games, putting golf, and sand volleyball courts for customers who arrive early.

Last year the Saunderses made their biggest move yet, buying a run-down drive-in in Tiffin that was about to close.

They spent $50,000 on renovations and renamed it the Field of Dreams Tiffin Drive-In. In midseason they added a second 42-by-18-foot screen there to complement its existing 88-by-40-foot screen.

With seasonal maintenance and several blockbuster movies slated for this year, such as The Avengers, Men in Black III, and The Dark Knight Rises, the Saunders family could see their first profit this year if the films deliver and good weather prevails.

"We are close to making a profit and we are definitely seeing the writing on the wall, especially with our growth projection," Mrs. Saunders said.

"We are looking for this to be a really good year."

But while no longer neophytes, the couple say they still have a lot to learn about owning a drive-in.

"I would say we're maybe 80 percent there. We certainly know a lot now. But when we meet with other owners in this industry, we kind of shake the bushes a lot," Mrs. Saunders said.

"At conventions we ask questions -- a lot. Like, 'Why do you do that? We do it this way, but why do you do it that way?' The truth is, we don't know any better."

Pursuing the dream

In 2000, a year before the Saunders family ever dreamt of entering the drive-in business, not many people would have encouraged them to do so.

The industry peaked in 1958 with 4,063 drive-ins and it has gone downhill since, with 1,000 screens disappearing between 1978 and 1988.

The Toledo area has lost several that are fondly remembered, including the Jesse James on Reynolds Road, the Maumee Twin on Conant Street in Maumee, the Franklin Park Drive-In on Monroe Street, the Telegraph Drive-In at Telegraph and Alexis, and the Miracle Mile Drive-In on Jackman Road.

Rod Saunders prepares to check the projector at his Field of Dreams Drive-In Theater in Liberty Center, Ohio. A looming expense will happen soon as studios abandon film in favor of digital projection and films that are basically computer files. Rod Saunders prepares to check the projector at his Field of Dreams Drive-In Theater in Liberty Center, Ohio. A looming expense will happen soon as studios abandon film in favor of digital projection and films that are basically computer files.
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One survivor is the Sundance Kid Drive-In on Navarre Avenue in Oregon.

But drive-in properties became prime sites for shopping center builders offering millions for the valuable land, according to statistics from United Drive-In Theater Owners Association.

By 2000 there were just 443 drive-ins and 684 screens left, and as of December, the total was 366 drive-ins and 606 screens, including 31 drive-ins and 48 screens in Ohio, which is just behind Pennsylvania in total number of drive-ins.

But Mr. Saunders, a teacher with Toledo Public Schools, and Mrs. Saunders, an information technology specialist at Owens Corning, were seeking a side business for several reasons.

Mr. Saunders wanted an activity to fill his summers, and the couple sought a business to employ their sons, Denton and Rockne, and daughter, Callan.

When the Wauseon Drive-In closed in 1999, leaving few places where families or teenagers could gather for an evening of wholesome fun, Mrs. Saunders would frequently remark, "Somebody ought to …, Somebody ought to …" start a new drive-in, Mr. Saunders said. "I said to her, 'You like to do research. Go research it,' " he added.

Finding their field

Mrs. Saunders ordered a booklet on How to Start a Drive-In from a man in Texas, which gave the couple some ideas, Mr. Saunders said.

They tried to buy a closed drive-in in Napoleon but couldn't strike a deal and were about to give up the idea.

Then one day a teaching colleague said, "Why don't you just put it in your backyard?" Mr. Saunders said.

They got their land rezoned, rented a concessions truck, built a projection booth, installed their 48-by-20-foot screen, and found a film distributor in the Cleveland area.

Callan, 20, has been running their concessions operations in Liberty Center, and Denton, 22, now runs the Tiffin drive-in. Rockne, 18, who has physical disabilities, serves as a greeter and performs other work at the Liberty Center site.

The idea of the Field of Dreams, which is formally called Saunders Theater Properties LLC, was to provide the Saunders family with a business, jobs, and revenues.

But it has ended up being nearly as important to the Liberty Center community.

"It's something really nice in the summertime," said Austin Rosales, 20, a Liberty Center resident who has been going to films at Field of Dreams Drive-In since it opened.

"I go there with a lot of my friends. We'll get a group of people together and go," Mr. Rosales said. "It's actually real nice. They have activities in the front you can mess around with if you want, and it's convenient. It's within a couple of miles of our house.

"I believe it brings the community together and gives people something to do together," Mr. Rosales added.

Family outings

Mrs. Saunders said she has tracked customers and believe 25 percent of their business is families.

The Liberty Center location gets customers from Defiance, Perrysburg, Maumee, Holland, and even Adrian, Mich.

The Saunderses have added a series of games at the Liberty Center drive-in for guests who arrive early. The Saunderses have added a series of games at the Liberty Center drive-in for guests who arrive early.
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"I knew that we would get people to come out," Mr. Saunders said. "I didn't know we'd have people coming out as often as they do," he said, explaining that their drive-in has nights when it sells out.

"I think what people recognize is this is run by our family for other families, and I think people like and appreciate that," Mr. Saunders added.

But not everyone appreciates the business.

A month before the Liberty Center drive-in opened "we got an anonymous letter telling us how stupid we were," Mr. Saunders said. They kept the letter as a reminder to keep improving their product and to spark an occasional laugh.

Last year the Saunders family got into a fight with Washington Township trustees and one of their neighbors over the location of their smaller second screen. The dispute spilled into a lawsuit that nearly shut them down until it was resolved through mediation in federal court and an agreement that the family would put up fencing and trees along their property line.

"We're good to go forever now on the screen," Mrs. Saunders said.

Digital conversion

However, a new headache will be brewing fairly soon for the Field of Dreams and most of the nation's other drive-ins. Most drive-ins, including both Field of Dreams Drive-Ins, still use 35mm film to project movies. But all studios are in the process of abandoning film in favor of digital projection and movies that, like DVDs, are basically computer files. It is expected that in the next two years, no studio will offer 35mm prints, leaving 35mm theaters or drive-ins without content.

While conversion to digital projection will be necessary, it also means a huge investment.

An existing drive-in in Kansas City, Mo., recently converted to a digital projection system by Christie Inc., a theater projection provider, and the cost was $86,000 per screen for a projector, computer server, hard drive, sound decoder, an automation system, a lens system, and remodeling of a projection booth.

However, that is for a cheaper 2K system that handles 24 frames per second. A 4K system, which handles 60 frames per second for enhanced clarity, costs an added $26,000, and some studios are filming upcoming blockbusters only in 60-frame format.

"Once we get through this digital conversion we'll be in a time where we won't have to be reinvesting in anything major. The screens don't require constant maintenance, the property doesn't require constant maintenance, it will literally run itself," Mrs. Saunders said.

"And once we go to digital, we won't have to go through all the manpower we go through now to play the movies. We won't need a special projectionist," she said. "Film is labor intensive, but when we go to digital, literally you load the movie from a [computer] hard drive or load it off a satellite. You could start the movie by phone."

Model still works

In fact, Mrs. Saunders thinks the digital format, with its fixed costs and simplicity, may spark a revival in drive-in theaters.

"What we had been told when we got into the business and what I agree with -- because we have lived it -- is that drive-ins declined first because of the primary value of the property of the business. … Owners most commonly were offered so much money for their land to put up box store or a center, they sold out," she said.

"The other thing that happened was, as cities expanded, all the lights that would be around [a drive-in] made it really difficult to stay in business with the ambient light factor. You couldn't put up a good enough picture," she added.

But Field of Dreams and other newer drive-ins -- 42 have been built and 63 reopened since the 1990s -- prove that in the right location, the business model still works, Mrs. Saunders said.

"We kind of have a vision, especially once things go digital, that drive-ins are going to come back. The costs to build a new drive-in will be low compared to what we've experienced in the past," she said. "And I'm not saying this will happen in the next five years, but I think in next 10 to 20 years there will be a lot more drive-ins …

"People yearn for the experience. There's no competition between indoors and outdoors theaters. They're completely different markets," Mrs. Saunders said. "People who come to the drive-in are typically looking for a way to spend time with others and to build memories.

"When people tell me of their experiences here their memory is not over the movie. They usually don't remember what they saw. But the memory is the time they spent with the family, how they played some games, caught lightning bugs," she said. "Those are the kind of stories I hear."

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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