by Nathan Boddy
May 6th will provide residents of the Bitterroot Valley with the return of a unique opportunity as Pharaohplex Theaters reopens its drive-in movie theater. The two-decades-old institution just north of Hamilton on Old Corvallis Road will begin its outdoor season with two shows, Top Gun 2, and Dr. Strange: In the Multiverse of Madness. Additionally, Father Stu will be playing in an indoor theater. While the format for viewing large-screen cinema has changed somewhat, Pharaohplex owner, Joe McLean, expresses confidence that their venue is well poised to serve movie-goers of the Bitterroot Valley.
“We’ve had a good 20 year run,” says McLean, noting that he first got into the theater business during a noteworthy period in movie history with the releases of the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings as well as the prequels to the Star Wars saga. “There were a lot of good movies in those years,” he says and notes that the Pharaohplex was uniquely situated to serve a need in the Bitterroot Valley.
Of course, the movie industry was heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. With mandatory shutdowns and social distancing, many shuttered venues such as theatrical productions, museums, and theaters, took a substantial hit. A recent NPR segment about theater owners highlighted the impact on box office receipts. In the year prior to the pandemic those receipts totaled $11.4 billion, while the combined total of both 2020 and 2021 was only a bit more than half. Tom Rothman, the chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group, is quoted saying about the decline, “We went through a near-death experience.”
McLean sees the transition as one which was a while in the making. “A lot of trends that nationally were underway already got accelerated by Covid,” he says, adding that, “About 10 years worth of transition within this industry occurred within the space of one year.” McLean points out the on-line streaming services such as Netflix have been on the rise for a decade, and that he saw the trend continuing. In order to remain viable as a business, the Pharaohplex would have to “rethink or revamp.” Enter a return to a new rare venue: the drive-in theater.
“We are lucky we had the room to put it together,” says McLean, adding that the space they had on the north side of the building was not only large enough to accommodate the vehicles, but provided a clear projection space for the film and enough early shade as the sun drops for films to begin in a timely manner. Even during the worst of the pandemic, the Pharaohplex was able to breathe life into the drive-in idea by screening ‘simulcast’ concerts for music-hungry fans who were missing out on live music.
Although the Pharaohplex business model has changed somewhat, McLean is optimistic that it will continue to serve a need in the valley. Concessions will be in place this season, bathrooms available indoors and sound can be brought to viewers through FM radio in their cars, or via bluetooth signal for those preferring to sit outside. Furthermore, the Pharaohplex does maintain an indoor theater for specific films such as ‘Father Stu’ which will be showing this weekend.
McLean has chosen, specifically, to show the film inside. “We’ve had a lot of interest in the valley for that movie,” says McLean. “It’s a Montana-based story, kind of a redemption story. It plays to a Montana audience pretty well.” The film stars Mark Wahlberg playing the role of Helena native and beloved priest, Stuart Long, who passed away in 2014.
McLean also points out that, despite the occasional rumors, the Pharaohplex building has not been sold, but is quite versatile and ready to be used for a variety of purposes, including theater. He points out that versatility will be important. “I think in the future, cinema might be different than what people remember. Perhaps only the largest cities will have them, and they’ll be more of a major event, like a Broadway play, not an all-the-time thing. To me that just kind of makes sense, because streaming is not going to go away. People are not going to give up their televisions, the internet, etc. You’ve got to find a way to coexist.”