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A Drive In Theater Company Makes Use of SBA Loan Programs to Grow Into the Digital Age

Field of Dreams Movie Theaters in Northern Ohio

So goes the Hollywood saying, “Build it and they will come.” – and in the case of the Field of Dreams Drive-In Theaters ™  in Liberty Township and Tiffin, Ohio, that is exactly what happened.  From as far as forty miles away patrons travel to see family-friendly movies in beautiful outdoor settings.  In 2007, at the start of the recession, Donna and Rodney Saunders took a calculated risk.  They poured hard work, financial investment and love into their business, which now thrives.  The Saunders first converted farmland into a drive-in theater; later working in close partnership with the SBA and their lenders, Henry Bank and Sutton Bank, they were able to meet the digital age and grow.

“We took notice of many people commenting about missing a drive-in theater since the last area drive-in closed in 1999,” said Donna Saunders.  “And the drive-in business worked well with my husband’s work availability as a teacher.”  Donna herself is a Senior Information Systems Professional. Donna has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration with a major in Computer Systems and Production Management.  Operating the theaters is a family affair.  The Saunders’ two eldest children assist with management duties. Denton Saunders is a teacher and manages the Tiffin location; he is an experienced projectionist and manager. Callan Saunders is the director of a fitness center; she manages the concession staff at Liberty Center. Both have been employed by the Field of Dreams Drive-In Theater ™ since the start of the business in 2007. Rockne Saunders, the youngest child of Donna and Rod, lives with multiple disabilities which affect his cognitive and physical abilities.   At the Liberty Center theater he enjoys greeting customers at the front gate or hanging out at “concession central” and visiting with customers while they are getting their food.  The balance of the drive-in staff is primarily high school or college students. Hiring preference is given to those attending college or saving to pay for college. Employee turnover is low. It is considered the “fun” place to work!  Currently, during a season as many as 44 individuals may be employed by the company.

The Saunders are experienced business owners, “We started two businesses as follows,  Automotive TLC, Inc., a full-service car wash that we sold after seven years; and Saunders Consulting; we created and marketed a car wash marketing system.  I sold the rights to the software to a carwash equipment manufacturer after three years,” said Donna Saunders.  As a result, the Saunders know what it takes to run their own business. “Owning your own business is very difficult and stressful, but we would not have it any other way.  We look at it as an investment in our future.”  The strategy for the Field of Dreams Drive-In Theaters ™ focused on starting small, to prove the business model worked before expanding.  Existing property was repurposed – a cornfield became lush lawn and used equipment was purchased.  In the first two years of running the business, the Saunders showed only “2nd run” movies because they are cheaper to license.  In the early years sales were strong for several reasons, primarily because the demand for affordable family entertainment, quality movies, and the great food and games provided.  Word-of-mouth advertising was extensive and positive.

In 2009, the Saunders made changes to the drive-in, adding “1st run” movies to the line-up. Advertising was begun in the Toledo Blade newspaper, on 50-plus online movie sites, and the owners created a Facebook group for the drive in, and added an e-mail subscription list to the existing web-site for weekly marketing campaigns – not surprisingly, once again, sales jumped over the previous year.  There were many sold-out nights in 2009.  “However, disappointing customers by turning them away at the gate due to a sell-out situation is not good for business,” said Donna Saunders.  In 2010, the Saunders increased capacity to continue to meet customer demand for product and continue to grow sales.  “The best way to expand a drive-in theater is to add additional screens.”  Changes were made to the property layout to add one portable screen.  The drive-in increased the vehicle capacity by 45.7% without the purchase of adjoining land.  “Adding more capacity to view movies also requires adding capacity to feed and entertain all those people!” noted Donna Saunders. “Concessions provide high profit margins to the drive-in business, so capacity constraints in the food preparation and serving area of our business must be addressed.”  The Saunders built a covered concession patio and purchased food storage and preparation equipment.  The job of entertaining families while they waited for movies to begin proved easy: corn-hole, ladder golf, bocce ball and miniature golf.  In 2010, a new 9-hole miniature golf course was built using cement as the foundation to withstand high traffic. 

In 2011, Saunders Theater Properties, LLC acquired a single-screen drive-in theater north of Tiffin, Ohio – the previous owners were retiring.  This drive-in had been in operation since 1948 and boasted room for 500 vehicles and a first-class concession building   A second screen was built on the 7 acre property to accommodate the business model of showing first-run movies.   During the next two years sales leaped ahead again for the company.

SBA Partnership as New Digital Projectors Are Purchased

However, the company soon faced a major challenge: by 2013 movie studios were putting significant pressure on independent theaters to make the switch to digital projectors and the Saunders reached an impasse.  They made the decision to upgrade all four 35mm projectors to new Christie digital projectors to ensure their ability to continue to receive first run movies from the movie studios.  Henry County Bank provided the SBA loan for the Liberty Center Theater digital projectors.  Sutton Bank financed the two digital projectors in Tiffin via SBA.  Both loans were SBA 7(a) loans, which may be used for a variety of purposes, including working capital and the purchase of equipment.  After installing the projectors, sales soared in 2013. The company’s success has continued.  Up through the end of 2015, major movie studios did not allow drive-in theaters to offer carload pricing, meaning one flat fee for any number of people in the vehicle.  With that end of that practice, the company began offering a $20 per carload price at both of its locations effective in 2016.  “Even with poor spring weather, the extraordinary ‘buzz’ about our new carload price offering on social media drew high traffic to our theaters in June and July, resulting in our highest revenue figures of all ten seasons!” said Donna Saunders.

Donna counsels prospective business owners, “Keep your day-time job until your business is successful and can support you.  Don’t expect to get rich overnight.  You need to have enough cash to bolster the business for at least 5 years.  Don’t expect to make a profit for the first 5 years.” The Saunders are firm believers that the investment of their time and energy will be paid back ten-fold down the road.  And they have plans for future growth – “We would like to purchase indoor theaters to make our business a year-round business and not just seasonal,” said Donna.  There’s little doubt of the Saunders’ know-how and hard work.  From the company’s opening to 2016, there has been an exponential increase in sales at Field of Dreams Drive-In Theaters ™.    Careful planning and partnership with the SBA has led the Saunders to see their business dreams come true.  They have met the challenges of new technologies and for many years to come will continue to enrich the economy of the northwest Ohio region.

Company Name: 
Field of Dreams Drive-In Theaters
Liberty Center and Tiffin, Ohio