The disappearance of iconic drive-in movie theaters from America’s landscape is well documented — an inevitable consequence of obsolescence. This is not one of those stories.
Chip Sawyer doesn’t mind if you’ve got questions about an under-30 corporate executive who owns two drive-in theaters.
“Acquaintances say, ‘Oh? Is the drive-in still open?’ Of course it’s still open — and still playing first run movies, too,” he says.
'I had to get over the fear of making my own changes, of doing things in a different way, and still be alright at the end of the day.' Chip Sawyer, Sun South Theaters
Sawyer was 24-years-old, freshly graduated from Florida Southern College and employed in Publix’s corporate finance office in 2017 when he took over the 70-year-old drive-in theater his late grandfather operated for nearly 60 years and owned for 20.
By succeeding Harold Spears Jr. as Sun South Theaters President/CEO, Sawyer embraced walking in his grandfather’s footsteps to manage Lakeland’s Silver Moon Drive-In and Dade City’s Joy-Lan Drive-In. The theatres are among Florida’s last seven drive-ins.
“Movies on the screen and cars in the lot — since a boy, always been a fascination,” he says. Drive-ins “all have their own unique story, a special feel. People like that nostalgia.”
But to be profitable, Sawyer, now 28, had to hew new paths.
“My grandfather did things for many years in a certain way because they worked so long and that’s what everyone expects,” he says. “I came to realize you’re not going to be able to do things like he did. I had to get over the fear of making my own changes, of doing things in a different way, and still be alright at the end of the day.”
Sawyer is bullish about the sustainability of surviving drive-in theaters because many are decades’ old local fixtures — places where grandparents take grandchildren to the same drive-in their grandparents took them as children. “You need creativity to differentiate yourself from indoor theaters,” he said, which remains old-fashioned value — new double-feature films for less than half an indoor theater movie ticket.
That value requires volume to be profitable and a staff of 33-34 to orchestrate. The Silver Moon shows movies simultaneously on two screens, one for 275 cars, the other 170. The single-screen Joy-Lan, in Pasco County, has a 300-car capacity.
Both are open 365 nights a year and host popular Saturday/Sunday “swap shops,” where vendors pay between $5 and $15 each day to set up shop. “All-in-all, we use the property pretty well, being open every night and the swap shop twice-a-week,” he says.
Sawyer negotiates directly with studios, including Disney, for new releases. “First-run films are more expensive but they garner the most people and that’s critical” because more people means more concession revenues, he says, noting 1,500 could be at both drive-ins on a busy night.
Because Sun South Theaters only retains about 30-50% in ticket revenues, the drive-ins are “essentially restaurants because that’s where our margins are,” he says. (The company did just under $1 million in revenue in 2019.)
In 2019, he decided to upgrade Silver Moon’s concession building so its grill could open for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays when hundreds attend swap shop. It turned out to be a seven-month lesson in “what it requires” to invest in improvements, even when it pinches, he says. “We rented a food truck and learned it’s a very tough business and parking one next to an existing restaurant didn’t work well,” Sawyer says.
The integration of technology such as tablets to allow “car hops” to deliver grill orders and coordinate exiting traffic are among changes Sawyer has introduced. “During the pandemic, we did a lot of creative stuff,” he says, because movie production slowed and outdoor spaces were in demand.
The Silver Moon hosted dance recitals, “corporate and non-profit events, live concerts that did pretty well” and an elementary school orientation. “First-run movies are back,” Sawyer says, but those innovations are percolating.
The pandemic also renewed interest in drive-ins. “We’ve had a lot of new people come out, a lot of first-timers who at least want to try it one time,” he says. “It’s a very diverse crowd, young and old, all different types of folks, which is really cool.”
Sawyer manages all this while working a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday job — he remains at Lakeland-based grocery giant Publix, where he’s a senior business analyst. He attributes the ability to work both ends to a committed staff led by supervisor James Anderson, who has been with Sun South Theaters for 20 years.
Sometimes, he says, the parts are greater than the sum.
“I find myself looking at the numbers too closely because that’s what I do. If you look at the financials too much, your productivity could suffer and your people could suffer,” he says. “You’re trying to perform the best you can on paper, but at the end of the day, you have to take care of your people and invest in your facility.”
That sounds like something Harold Spears Jr. would agree with.
“We’ve made changes along the way. I think he’d be happy with them.”