Rebecca Fundis

Tell me about your business or specialty.

I own, with my husband, a single screen arthouse cinema in Newburyport, Massachusetts called The Screening Room. Our job is as straightforward as it sounds, and that’s the beauty. We get to share the movie titles we’re most enthusiastic about with our community, have conversations, and hold events. It’s my favorite job in the world.

How’d you get to where you are now?

As a grad student, I remember playing this game where we dreamed about what our alternate lives could look like if we weren’t academics. Six years into a PhD program in anthropology, I was convinced I was heading into academia, but my career took a shift and, in a way, I wound up living my alternate life instead. On a break from grad school, I went up to Waterville, Maine for a short time and worked at Railroad Square Cinema, Shadow Distribution, and the Maine International Film Festival. I’d worked in an indie cinema once before, at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, NY, and on this break, I found myself hooked on the world of film exhibition once again. What was supposed to be a short stint in Waterville turned into more than two years, and after that, I headed back down to Rhinebeck where I worked as Associate Director of Upstate for about 11 more. Just before the pandemic hit, I shifted over to a Director of Development position at Hudson Hall in Hudson, NY. And then in March of 2020, of course, everything from arts venues to cinemas had to close to the public.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was working my development job from home and finding it far from simple to balance work with raising my 5-year-old son. With schools closed and no extended family in the area, we lacked the help we needed with childcare. I found myself thinking deeply about my priorities and wondering how I could find the life balance I was looking for as a Mom and move along an inspired career trajectory at the same time. (Hey, parents! I know I’m not alone.)

In mid-June, a friend mentioned that there was this cinema in Newburyport, MA whose owners were looking to retire, yet were having trouble finding someone to take over their theater. On a whim, we drove out to the coast and back in one day to see the place, and we fell in love. The Screening Room was built and run with such care that the space has a personality you can feel. After we saw it, we knew it would never make us wealthy…but if we went for it, we could help a town keep the theater it loved, work on a project we were both passionate about, raise our son in a fantastic community setting, and – because the business is small – hopefully have some time to pursue another passion or two, or literally stop and smell the roses that are all over town.

It was a dream for a second, but it became a reality quickly. After running some numbers, making some calls, finding a buyer for our house upstate, and making another trip to the coast, we purchased the business in late July and moved to Newburyport by September 1, 2020. Now that we’re here? No regrets.

How has the Covid Crisis affected your work or business? Any new ideas or approaches, or lessons learned so far?

It’s funny. As I’m responding to this question, I’m sitting in the lobby, listening to an apocalypse play out on the other side of the doors for a couple on their date night. A few hours before them, I had a pod of six-year-olds here for a pink and purple birthday party. In between, I cleaned the entire theater down for just under an hour. Our days look nothing like they would if we were running 2-3 screenings of a single indie feature every day. When we arrived in September 2020, the theater had been “shuttered for the duration of the plague,” in the words of its former owners Andrew Mungo and Nancy Langsam.

We went to work sewing new drapes for the windows, laying new flooring in the lobby, and doing a deep clean of the whole space. October 9th, we reopened the cinema under the National Association of Theater Owners’ CinemaSafe guidelines, showing Miranda July’s film Kajillionaire as our first feature. But as winter approached, Covid rates increased, distributors began pulling opening dates for titles that had been slated to play around the holidays, and we decided to alter our business model temporarily to stay on the safe side – for ourselves and for our community. Taking cues from other theater owners, we developed ways to adapt our business and close our brick and mortar while staying in touch with the theater’s patrons.

Right now, we’re closed for public screenings but we’re hosting private rentals for families and pods at a reasonable rate to enable small, socially contained groups to have the option to enjoy a safe activity indoors. To give people a curated selection of films to enjoy at home, we run six or more titles in our Virtual Cinema each week, and we’re currently planning our first live virtual event in conjunction with the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival. While these things keep us active, they bring in less money than we need to keep the business afloat, so we applied for state aid and developed a Resilience Fund to help ensure that the cinema makes it through the pandemic. We’re optimistic that we’re going to be able to pull the cinema through, and right now we’re looking for the right set of conditions to begin reopening once again, hopefully by late spring or summer.

What surprises you in your work, now or in the past?

Taste! People’s tastes surprise me. You can’t always predict them. And if you ever need a reminder that every single person looks at the world slightly differently, just stand in a cinema lobby for a few weeks and ask different people what they think about the same title.

People’s reactions are fun, especially to things that baffle them a little bit. I remember cinema owners getting creative across the country when they were screening Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which audiences responded to in a rainbow of ways. Theaters worked to signal audiences in advance, letting them know that this wasn’t a typical Brad Pitt, Sean Penn movie, that it was a “challenge” (Upstate’s version), in order to avoid being on the receiving end of waves of anger. People can get really upset when they don’t like or don’t understand a film.

Luckily, most of the time, people love or at least like what they see, because audiences tend to be self-selecting, which is also part of the fun. The films we show attract people topic by topic, and you can meet different pockets of a regional community because they’re drawn out by something they’re fascinated with or an area of the world they feel personally connected to. When you see an array of audiences and personal reactions week after week, it’s a beautiful and pretty unique way to experience the place you live in and the people around you. Audiences and spectatorship are just as interesting as every other aspect of the movie business, in my opinion.

What drives you crazy?

Very little. Except maybe people who come out of a movie and say, “EVERYONE should see that.” I’m not sure there’s a movie I would say that about, because everyone is different. I try to understand the emotional strength of the sentiment, since people say this sentence all the time -- especially after political documentaries they really agree with. And I can relate to their strong sense of right and wrong, even if I can’t relate to the universalism in the sentence. But I wonder sometimes if there’s not a tinge of entitlement behind that statement, and that wondering drives me nuts.

Who inspires you? (It can be anybody you know or don’t know)

I’m inspired by people I know intimately, by my family and the friends I’ve made over the years. I have deep love and respect for the Moms and Dads I’ve come to know while raising my son, along with friends from school who are raising their own families, publishing their work, and taking on the world through teaching, advocacy, and art. I’m inspired by former professors I worked with, especially Cathy Lutz and Nick Townsend, and by David Graeber, an anthropologist I love to read but who unfortunately recently passed away. I’m into anyone who writes social theory or makes artwork that opens up a new way of thinking or seeing.

In the world-at-large, I’m inspired by people who make things regardless of notoriety or reward, by people who protect small spaces in the midst of growth and development, by people who work against obstacles to achieve something, by people who are true to themselves and their inspiration… People, really, are pretty great, and they do inspiring things in small ways all the time.

You’re a trailblazer. What are some highlights in your career to date?

I don’t think of myself as a trailblazer, but one time I got to explain a huge thought I was working on to someone I idolized, and who was standing outside of a conference saying something about how he hadn’t heard any really new ideas. I spoke up, feeling nervous and gutsy, and told him I had an idea. We had a chat for an hour and ended up laughing over the snazzy sneakers he was wearing. This moment didn’t mean anything to anyone, but in my eyes, it was meaningful enough to be memorable.

In the world of cinema, I’ve enjoyed working some events and film festivals with wonderful groups of people. Getting to hang out with Hal Hartley for an evening before presenting his movie, Trust, was a personal dream. Eating the food from the movie Big Night was fun, thanks to the chef from Cucina and Steve Leiber from Upstate Films. A parade of timpano! That’s something you don’t experience every day. Also, buying this place and owning my own theater, that’s a major highlight.

Words of wisdom or advice… final thoughts?

Try to do good. Ask yourself questions and look at things from different angles but trust your gut. Stay true to that… You’ll be okay.


Rebecca Fundis is an anthropologist at heart who also shows movies. She did her undergraduate work at Bard College and moved to Providence to pursue a degree in Cultural Anthropology at Brown University, where she studied sociolinguistics, media and performance studies, social movements, and U.S. culture. Her master’s research took her to France to follow cross-cultural performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and her subsequent work focused on social movement theory and pre-Occupy activism. After grad school, she returned to the world of film exhibition and worked with a fantastic crew at Shadow Distribution, Railroad Square Cinema, and the Maine International Film Festival before moving back to the Hudson Valley, where she worked as Associate Director of Upstate Films and Director of Development at Hudson Hall. In 2020, she became co-owner of The Screening Room in Newburyport, MA, where she now lives and works with her husband, Ben, and is Mom to their fabulous 6-year-old son, Oscar.

(published 2021)