Everything old is ... well, you know the rest.

Source: The New York Times Co./Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Future of the Movies Is in the '50s

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

With all the sour news these days, you might have missed some potential fun news: the return of drive-in movies.

The motion picture business is in the doldrums. Summer is the big movie season, but this year was a season to forget. With receipts just a smidgen over $4 billion, summer 2014 was down 15 percent from last year, and the worst since 2006. The only megahit has been “Guardians of the Galaxy,” with a domestic total of almost $329 million, and worldwide receipts of $750 million and counting.

The industry is counting on the imminent release of “Mockingjay, Part 1” -- the third installment in “The Hunger Games” saga -- to counter the downturn. Meanwhile, National Amusements, the nation’s eighth-largest theater chain, faces a possible downgrade of its debt, and industry leader Regal Entertainment Group, hoping to give its business a bump, recently began serving alcohol in a handful of its theaters.

Into the midst of this malaise swaggers Johnny Rockets, promising to revitalize the business by way of the past. The restaurant chain, which has yet to find a 1950s rock-idol poster it doesn’t like, is teaming up with USA Drive-Ins to put its retro-themed restaurants in some of the 200 new drive-in theaters the Indiana cinema chain is planning to build.

It’s likely that few young people today have attended a drive-in movie. Half a century ago, the gigantic outdoor screens were everywhere -- in the 1950s there were more than 4,000 drive-ins in the U.S. -- but the current figure is well under 10 percent of that peak.

Yet one has to admire what back in the '50s would have been called the moxie. Johnny Rockets seems to be betting that, with all the world’s troubles, what will draw moviegoers back isn’t more of the 3-D Imax experience. It’s the old-time family-and-date-night, sit-in-the-car experience. Other investors, too, seem to think that the time has come to give the drive-in another shot.

Maybe they’re on to something.

Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., in his 1931 patent application for the drive-in theater, explained that “the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities.” Like so many great patents, the idea seems obvious once somebody thinks of it. The automobile, as a mass rather than a specialty product, was still young. The movie theater was a rapidly growing business, looking for a hook. All over the country, motion picture palaces were rising, largely on the model of opera houses, right down to the velvet curtains.

Hollingshead’s innovation was to combine the two trends. Kerry Segrave, in “Drive-in Theaters: A History From Their Inception in 1933,” quotes Hollingshead’s view that the outdoor drive-in “virtually transforms an ordinary motor car into a private theatre box.”

But the drive-in offered more than just a place to park while watching a film. By 1956, Segrave tells us, nine out of ten drive-in theaters in the U.S. either had playgrounds or were building them. Some even built amusement-park type rides, to give the kids something to do while parents consumed the more serious fare on the screen.

I have fond childhood memories of the drive-in. We had an old Plymouth station wagon, and my parents would take us to the triple feature. We’d buy our popcorn and burgers and tug the extension speaker over to the car window. The first film, beginning at dusk, would be something cartoonish, and the second, as full dark settled in and the youngsters began to sag, would involve what I suppose would be called family-friendly fare. After that, the five children would spread ourselves over the Plymouth’s two rear rows and sleep while Mom and Dad watched something more sophisticated.

But the world has marched on. The drive-in industry collapsed long ago. My wife and I used to take our children to a drive-in a few miles from our house, but when it closed during their teens, they scarcely noticed. That experience helps explain my skepticism that a drive-in revival will restore the fortunes of an industry that is losing its base among the young.

After all, it isn’t the lack of parking or uncomfortable seating that’s killing the movies. And it isn’t movie theater food, fun though it may be to watch the new “Star Wars” trilogy while slurping a genuine Johnny Rockets shake. Part of the problem is the quality of the fare that Hollywood has been churning out. A larger challenge is the competition -- all the other ways to consume video entertainment -- not to mention that today’s young people, except when sitting for standardized tests, haven't really mastered the habit of doing only one thing at a time.

Then there’s the automobile itself. For the first few decades after Hollingsworth’s patent, the car was only transportation. Now it’s a digitized communication center, often with its own video screens, satellite radio and 4G LTE connection. Maybe Johnny Rockets imagines this as a win-win, as the viewers can sit in their cars and watch the movie and pretend it’s still the '50s, while texting and Instagramming to their heart’s content. But the incongruity is obvious.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see the project succeed. At a time when the industry seems to think that its prospects rest on banning Google Glass from theaters, and as we await James Cameron’s promised new generation of interactive movies, where the audience wears virtual reality helmets, there may indeed be a certain virtue to be found in simplicity. The reason my generation remembers drive-ins so fondly is that it was fun to be there. Maybe Johnny Rockets can make it fun again.

  1. Of course, the formula worked imperfectly: We often kept an eye open, not to watch the screen, but to study the less family-friendly goings-on in nearby cars.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net