Johnny Rockets: Our Nostalgic Future Is at Drive-In Movies

Johnny Rockets drive-in movie
Johnny Rockets
Forget the standard fast food drive-through. Johnny Rockets is going that one better and bringing its burgers and shakes to the drive-in -- the drive-in theater, that is.

No, the chain hasn't totally traded burgers and fries for movie screens and popcorn. But Johnny Rockets has announced a partnership with USA Drive-Ins, which is building upwards of 200 new drive-in theater locations by 2018, with many that will sport their own Johnny Rockets, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek report.

The "locations will present family-friendly films and embody a nostalgic, all-American experience," according to a Johnny Rockets press release.

"Drive-ins aren't just about the movie, they're about the whole experience," Johnny Rockets Chief Development Officer James Walker told Bloomberg Businessweek. "You're able to interact with each other more than you would in an enclosed theater." Plus, a drive-in movie can have a captive audience of between 1,200 to 2,000 people. That's a lot of people waiting to hear, "Do you want fries with that?"

The first drive-in theaters appeared in the 1930s. Their cultural high point was in 1958, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, when there were 4,063 locations in operation. But then the craze began to decline, with 1,000 closures between 1978 and 1988 alone.

The reasons were varied, including owners who wanted to retire, the rising value of the land they sat on, competition from VCRs and multiplexes, and a growing difficulty in getting distributors to provide them with first-run releases. An added complication was the industry's move to digital technology. Replacing the equipment for a single screen ran tens of thousands of dollars. As of August 2014, there were just 393 drive-in locations with 656 screens.

But drive-ins still have nostalgia value and a retro vibe that is popular with many younger people. Also, there may be a business opportunity. The USA Drive-Ins website notes that while "traditional film viewership at enclosed theatres has fluctuated, drive-in attendance has remained steady."

Johnny Rockets isn't betting the farm on drive-ins. Among other things, the company plans a food-truck concept and a "pop-up theatre prototype with a combined mobile restaurant that allows owners to create a dinner and movie combination in a myriad of venues," as the company's press release explained.

Maybe if you stand in one place and wait long enough, the movie and dinner will drive up to you.
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