Q & A with The Screening Room owners, Becca and Ben Fundis

The Screening Room logo  that says The Screening Room, 82 State Street Newburyport, MA
Courtesy of The Screening Room

Recently, the NECC Observer was fortunate enough to chat with the owners of The Screening Room, an independent movie theater in downtown Newburyport. Owned by Becca and Ben Fundis, this past summer, The Screening Room showed both “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie”! Check out part of our interview below!

Shaun: Walk us through the series of events that ultimately led to owning The Screening Room, from back when you had no idea you would own a movie theater, to when the transition was settled and done.

Becca: We both worked in the movie theater. We actually met working in a movie theater a long time ago, and we had wanted to work together again. During the pandemic, I was working in an opera house, Ben was working as a video editor and a friend of ours called us from Maine, and he said he was programming the theater for the owner, for the original owner, Andrew Mungo. Andrew was looking to retire. He had a deal with the actors’ studio to take over this space and continue the theater in a different way, so the theater would’ve still been there. That deal had fell through because of the pandemic when our friend contacted us and just let us know about the opportunity. On a whim, we drove out here just to check it out and meet Andrew. We wound up thinking it would be a good idea.

Ben: After visiting the area a couple of times, we learned very quickly that The Screening Room had been incredibly well-supported for a very long time by its audience, and that without the pandemic it would be in fine shape as opposed to a lot of other small theaters in America. Even before the pandemic, most small theaters weren’t necessarily doing great. So The Screening Room looked like a good and fun opportunity, and it sure mixed up our pandemic.

Becca: Halfway through when people were still inside their houses, we were moving and then finding ourselves in a new territory without knowing anyone, which was interesting and fun.

Ben: We spent the pandemic changing our lives around completely.

Shaun: Tell us about this past summer and what it was like to take part in the Barbenheimer phenomenon.

Ben: We have been asked a whole lot about “showing stuff that’s not an artsy-fartsy French movie.” We felt that these were strong movies that had, in some cases, independent cinema credibility with Greta Gerwig, the director of “Barbie.” She comes from indie cinema.

Becca: We were also looking at other arthouse theaters and they were all playing “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie.” We started with “Oppenheimer” during opening weekend, we weren’t sure if we were going to play, be able to play both of them. We only have one screen, so we couldn’t do them at the same time, and we thought Barbie would’ve been played out.

So, we opened “Barbie” on its fourth week thinking that we would get some people, it would be fun, but by Monday after that weekend, the opening weekend, we were selling out every single night. What we thought was going to be kind of a fun, relaxing, summer vacation became all hands on deck; we were dragging our son with us to the movie theater so we could work the shows together. It was so great to see people dress up in pink with women and men getting behind the movie and its messaging. It was really fun.

Ben: It helped us reach out to a much wider audience than what we even normally get, which was excellent. When I was in front of the audiences, I asked that since they’re coming to see these movies, we’ll show them, but you have to promise to come see a movie that’s in a foreign language or a movie with an actor whose name you don’t recognize. There’s an exchange between, wanting to get people to see the challenging stuff and bringing that wonderful aspect of cinema to a wider audience, but we want to also not be complete sticks in the mud and not be able to have some fun.

Shaun: I know The Screening Room is usually playing artsy movies and/or independent movies, so Barbenheimer was quite different from most of what The Screening Room is commonly known for among local customers. Would you consider those five weeks to be a one-and-done thing, or are you open to playing more blockbusters in the near future?

Becca: Well, I think that it’s an interesting question. During the pandemic, things shifted for theaters so much that theaters were doing whatever they could to draw audiences back once they reopened. So we started playing things from Universal and Warner Brothers. I never showed anything from Warner Brothers when I worked in an art house before, but the first movie that we reopened with, post-pandemic, which was being offered to every single movie theater, was “In the Heights,” and people came to see that. The funny thing is, what’s defined as independence is really what distributor it is coming from, who produces behind it, but it’s all perception. People didn’t question in the Heights for some reason, whereas people did question “Barbie.” However, with Greta Gerwig, Ben points out that she comes from independent cinema roots, so why is that distinction being made?

It’s not being made because of Greta Gerwig, it’s being made because of “Barbie”! The distinction on my end is really saying that arthouses traditionally deal with certain sets of distributors, and that doesn’t usually include the major studios. What you’re seeing post-pandemic is that we are arthouses, and it’s not just us. So, we’re not an anomaly, we’re not independently making this decision, we’re following other people.

Stay tuned until December 8th, when the rest of our interview will be published. In the meantime, visit The Screening Room at 82 State Street in Newburyport, where “The Holdovers” is playing  starting today, November 17th! “The Holdovers” showtimes for November 17th through November 21st can be found below. For the most up-to-date information, visit The Screning Room’s website at newburyportmovies.com.