Of all the businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, movie theaters have been among those hit hardest in Massachusetts. They were shuttered last March until Phase 3 of Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan began on July 6, and have subsequently operated under various reduced capacity percentages and other restrictions.
Why, then, would Ben and Becca Fundis leave their home and jobs in New York’s Hudson Valley and relocate to Newburyport with their 5-year-old son, Oscar, for the chance to operate The Screening Room — when allowed, that is — during a global health crisis?
As it turns out, the reason is a story as old as time.
“We fell in love with it,” Becca Fundis said of the venerable landmark located at 82 State St. “The pandemic has made a lot of people realize what really matters in life, and we saw the opportunity to raise our son in an amazing community and be stewards of something we love. We’re probably a little crazy, but we took a leap of faith toward the life we wanted.”
Andrew Mungo, who founded and operated The Screening Room for 38 years with business partner Nancy Langsam, said the couple has relieved him of the only item on his bucket list: To find the right successors.
“Becca is a fraction of my age, but she has more experience than I do because it’s in so many different aspects,” Mungo said. “She and Ben are movie theater people, and with Oscar, there are two generations to care for The Screening Room into the future now.”
In fact, the Fundises have extensive experience in the film industry. Ben is a composer, filmmaker, and editor. Becca worked for Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, Maine, and helped run two nonprofit cinemas in the Hudson Valley, including Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where the couple met a decade ago.
“One of the first things that attracted me to Ben is that we could watch movies together, and he understood the things that I was seeing,” Becca said. On one of their first dates, they collaborated on a weeklong documentary film festival, which eventually featured 11 guest speakers and 20 films playing on three screens.
Fast forward to June 2020, when the couple learned through a mutual friend that Mungo and Langsam intended to retire. It couldn’t hurt, they reasoned, to take a look at The Screening Room.
What they saw was captivating. The cozy 99-seat storefront theater is a single-screen room featuring charming architectural details, clever uses of reclaimed and recycled materials, and whimsical touches such as bathroom doors differentiated by pictures of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
“The theater looks very warm and inviting,” Ben said, “and it is.”
The Fundises took ownership of The Screening Room in July, relocated to Newburyport in September, and reopened the theater on Oct. 9 with new flooring, curtains, and safety precautions in place under CinemaSafe, protocols developed by epidemiologists to promote a safe return to movie theaters. Even Oscar played a part, giving a tour to some of the first arrivals.
“Oscar is so social and likes people a lot,” said Becca, noting his penchant for “popping out” to greet cinema patrons from his nook beneath the projection booth adorned with foam mats, a child-size Adirondack chair, blanket, pillow, and backpack full of Legos, trucks, and other toys.
“Oscar learned to turn the projector on, and he’s helped me put ink in the printer, so he’s involved,” she added. “He told us, ‘I want to work at the theater with you guys and sell tickets,’ which is really sweet.”
Although the Fundises have put in-person screenings on hold due to rising COVID-19 cases until late winter or early spring, The Screening Room can be rented by families and pods for $150. In addition, a Virtual Cinema offering films is available at www.newburyportmovies.com.
While Becca maintains that movie theaters play a “huge role in the cultural fabric,” Hollywood recently resumed but then paused production once again due to coronavirus concerns. Numerous movie releases have been delayed, and studios have debuted others on streaming platforms to accommodate in-home viewing demand.
To ease the burden of sharply reduced ticket sales, the Fundises launched the Resilience Fund in conjunction with Small Business Saturday on Nov. 28 to help ensure that Newburyport’s independent cinema can survive the pandemic. Although The Screening Room is a for-profit endeavor, neither Becca nor Ben – who edits the weekly “Acorn to Arabella” YouTube videos to make ends meet – has collected a salary from it yet.
According to Becca, approximately $4,000 of their $20,000 fund-raising goal has been donated to the Resiliency Fund to date at www.newburyportmovies.com/sr-history to cover basic operational costs, including rent, utilities, equipment maintenance, and service contracts. The couple is hoping to secure an additional $10,000 through the Save Our Stages Act,a COVID-19 relief bill.
“The cinema was in operation in February 2020, so it should be eligible for funding,” she said. “But it was under its old ownership, so we’re not sure where that’s going to leave our eligibility as funding applicants in 2021.”
Although they are realistic about the challenges that persist in the new year, the Fundises remain optimistic that moviegoers will return to The Screening Room – and to theaters in general – as soon as it is safe to do so. In the meantime, Becca said her family has appreciated all the warm welcomes and kind comments extended by theater loyalists.
“We’re grateful to everyone who has e-mailed to say hi and share their appreciation for The Screening Room, little bits of town history, and all the things they love about it here,” she said. “We’ve heard a lot of thank-yous, but not too many face-to-face. We can’t wait to meet everybody.”
Cindy Cantrell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.