Buying an independent movie theater during a global pandemic is quite a leap of faith, as Becca and Ben Fundis are the first to admit. They purchased the Screening Room in July 2020, when most entertainment venues were shuttered due to social distancing restrictions. It was by most accounts a less than ideal time for investing in a movie theater.
“I had already gone through a sourdough phase,” Ben says with a laugh. But more seriously, with both of them working from home full time, isolated with their preschool son, Oscar, it seemed like kismet when they heard of the opportunity to buy the 99-seat arthouse. Founder/owners Andrew Mungo and Nancy Langsam had decided it was time to retire after running the beloved institution for nearly four decades, and wanted to ensure it went to the right people.
“The pandemic caused a lot of people to look at their priorities and make big moves,” Becca says. “Suddenly with no childcare and trying to work from home, it really made me look inside and ask, ‘How am I going to find something that makes me feel balanced as a mom, makes us feel balanced as a family, and that also allows us to keep pursuing an inspired career trajectory?” So they sold their house in Columbia County, New York, packed up and moved to the North Shore.
“The tipping point of the pandemic made it easier to make a big weird choice,” Ben agrees, noting that the purchase wasn’t out of the blue—the couple met at an independent movie theater in Rhinebeck, New York, and both have careers in film.
“Ben and I have a history of working together at a movie theater and working on film-related events,” explains Becca, whose background includes working for the Maine International Film Festival. Ben is a documentary filmmaker currently working on a YouTube video project called “Acorn to Arabella,” about two friends who are building a sailboat then setting off on an adventure.
Owning the theater is one thing—keeping it solvent during a pandemic was quite another matter. With caution and safety in mind, it was close to a year before the couple opened up for public shows. They got by renting out the space for private screenings to family pods, virtual shows, and a “Resilience Fund” that invited supporters to make donations to cover the theater’s fixed operating costs, from rent to maintenance.
“We’re really, really grateful—not only for contributions that people made, but the sweet notes people sent,” Becca says, noting that they fundraised more than $6,000. “There’s no way that we could pull it through without that community support.”
When the doors reopened in June, the couple was delighted to see guests lining up for in-person screenings of their debut film, Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. Now the theater offers a mix of private rentals, regular screenings, virtual events, and “masked matinees” with limited capacity intended for people who aren’t ready to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow patrons. “We really enjoy showing movies, and being the first ones moviegoers see when they come out, and hearing what they say,” Becca adds.
While the couple intends to continue the focus on small independent films, they also plan to beef up some family-friendly offerings, perhaps even offering interactive screenings and movie sing-alongs to classics like The Sound of Music at the holidays.
“Participation is fun,” Becca says. “There are really fun ways that you can make movies more than just a movie.”
And the Fundis family is finding that the community is up for fun again—so perhaps the rumors of the demise of in-person movies are greatly exaggerated, at least in Newburyport. “The Screening Room has a very dedicated, devoted following—it is a very personal experience,” Ben says. “And we knew that we could fit into that really well.”