Bringing a Little Hollywood to Montana Communities
In March 2020, COVID-19 had officially arrived in Montana. Some said for a few weeks or a month, others suggested as long as six months. And even then, there were whispers that this pandemic wasn't just settling in for a visit, but would be a major health concern for the next eighteen to twenty-four months. Possibly longer. And so businesses set in to wait. To see how the world would shift and when they could reopen their doors. For many, it felt like riding a placid animal that suddenly went wild, throwing its rider off and bucking them face-first into the dirt.
“How do we do events without people?”
At first it was easy to see which businesses would be hit hardest—it was there for everyone to see. But not every business was in the frontline of the resulting chaos. Smaller service-driven businesses, especially those that are run by entrepreneurs, were also hit hard. And when public events disappeared, so did Jordan and Jessica Lister's business. And suddenly the born-and-raised Flathead Valley residents found themselves staring down the biggest professional obstacle of their lives. And, as it turned out, a social one as well.
“Covid brought a lot of challenges and difficulties to everyone here in the valley—particularly business owners—but the community itself, we all felt the struggle of the lack of connection,” says Jessica.
“Covid brought a lot of challenges and difficulties to everyone here in the valley—particularly business owners—but the community itself, we all felt the struggle of the lack of connection.”
Jordan and Jessica own and operate Big Screen Montana, a mobile video company whose business consisted of covering and broadcasting live sporting events to an enormous mobile LED screen. The bulk of their business? Providing big-screen coverage for Valley-based events, like football games, basketball games, and rodeo events. But when Covid hit, the games ended. The stands that were once filled with members of the community, all who were cheering, applauding, laughing, shouting, jumping, clapping... it was all gone. The fields and stadiums were still. Empty. Members of the community sat at home, isolated and worried for their families and for many, their own livelihoods. What was once the most vibrant hubs for the community and community spirit had shut down.
Life in the Valley had gone silent.
“Those sports and events and gatherings, there's something for people to cheer for,” says Jordan. “They're the bright part of somebody's week, their month. You just take it in and cheer for a common goal.”
“So that all just came to a halt,” adds Jessica. “You just kind of feel this—I don't know how to describe this—just this kind of sadness.”
It wasn't just their small business that was suffering, but their community, who had lost that opportunity to feel connected to each other. Those games, those events, those each played a big part in fostering that sense of togetherness and camaraderie. No matter how small the community, it reflected the big picture, happening across towns, cities, states and countries. But for this strong-knit community, it was like being cut adrift. And the Listers' ability to support and feed their family depended on those events, those games, those moments of community pride and spirit. They weren't just losing their communities ties, but a means of making a living.
“So all of sudden when these live events are canceled, and all these gatherings are canceled, we had to come up with something else to survive,” points out Jordan. And it was at this point that Jordan and Jessica discovered that it was (cue the buzzword of 2020) time to find a way to pivot their business. “That's part of the fun—also the challenge of but part of the fun—of being self-employed, is figuring out how to make it through different challenges. And so the challenge became, 'How do we do events without people?'” Jordan says with a laugh. “Without people gathering in person?”
For most small businesses (at least those that weren't online ordering and delivery services), pivoting was absolutely essential to surviving the pandemic. Companies needed to step back, assess their current business model, and look for new opportunities to either change how they do business, or adapt and shift their business model to a current need. The challenge, for the Listers, was how they could take their enormous LED screen and sense of community and meld them together in a way that would rejuvenate the isolated people in the Valley.
The solution, as it turned out, had already been suggested to them by other Montanans: movie nights. But instead of just a regular movie night, Jordan and Jessica decided to create a mobile drive-in. Overnight, it seemed, they had gone from participating in events to actually holding them. And it was the first test run that really changed the game for them.
“At first we thought, 'Oh, let's just do a movie night, an outdoor drive-in type style and fifty people will show up or 100 people will show up, and we'll kind of get our feet wet,'” recalls Jordan.
As it turns out, a lot more than fifty people were interested. It was closer to 1200.
Those football fields once filled with players and sports were replaced by another field filled with cars and trucks. Parking lots filled with cars and Montanans desperate to find some sense of community together, even if it was from their own cars. Perhaps movie theaters were closed, but Jordan and Jessica found a way to bring that community movie night feeling to the Valley.
“People are just crazy about connection one way or another,” says Jessica. “And this was the avenue for that.” But it got them thinking. Surely there were other ways to take this phenomenon one step further. “It allowed us and other people to start thinking outside the box. Like, 'OK, we have this option here in the valley, how can we utilize this and do our own drive-in style events.”
And so Big Screen Montana started screening movies under the big skies of Montana. For what seemed like the first time, the people in the Valley could safely come together as a community—and they wanted more.
“It allowed us and other people to start thinking outside the box. Like, 'OK, we have this option here in the valley, how can we utilize this and do our own drive-in style events.”
“So we just had to schedule some more of them,” says Jordan. “So that's the beginning of our business. The key part of it has been partnering with local companies that want to see things happen and want to be in front of their community and involved. And we've had the opportunity to be involved with Whitefish Credit Union multiple times on a variety of events.”
It wasn't long before the Listers realized there were more opportunities than just entertainment. There were other ways they could help communities and companies who were struggling to find unique and creative ways to gather people. If Montanans were willing to watch their movies from their cars, what about other kinds of gatherings? Like larger meetings and corporate events. Suddenly large companies—including a power company—decided to try something new. Annual meetings were held, and instead of voting by a show of hands, motions were carried “by show of honk.” And for Jordan and Jessica, there was this sense that suddenly meetings could be shifted into a kind of “fun, community, we're-all-in-this-together event.”
“We never thought the annual meeting of the power company was going to be one of the highlights of our year, but it truly was,” Jordan says, chuckling. “It was just one of those serendipitous moments.”
“We never thought the annual meeting of the power company was going to be one of the highlights of our year, but it truly was.”
And yet for the Listers, there were extra unexpected dividends resulting from the changes to not only their business, but their lifestyle. As Jessica puts it, they've found the opportunity to be more “intentional” with their time and how they want to spend it as a family. There's almost a palatable shift in their priorities, as if that moment of pivot changed everything for them, beyond as a small business. They discovered that more can be gained by not only focusing on family and each other, but ensuring their community is looked after, as well.
Jordan and Jessica Lister found an alternate path, a new approach for moving into this brave new life together. And most of all, they found the confidence that comes from facing—and overcoming—an obstacle no one really expected.
“This last year taught us that even though we've adapted to challenges in the past, we've never had things crash to a screaming halt like we did this year,” reflects Jordan. “And we still made it through. And so sometimes, when you have a fear of something going wrong, the best thing is actually to dive into that fear.”
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