, Newburyport, MA

January 30, 2013

Port's independent theater ponders its future

Port's beloved independent theater looks to survive industry's changes


---- — The technology that enables cinemas to run films is changing so fast that it is making life problematic for those in small venues such as the popular Screening Room here. To borrow from the film world, the situation appears to be somewhere between “The Turning Point” and “Brave New World.”

But Screening Room co-owner Andrew Mungo insists that this is not a case of “Apocalypse Now.”

Industry news reports reveal that within the next 18 months, large distributors will move from 35 mm film to sophisticated disc technology that requires small cinemas to update their systems at a cost of about $75,000.

That is a large sum for small merchants, especially when the future of the cinema appears to be threatened by businesses like Netflix and avocations like home-entertainment centers. Many large theaters have made the switch to digital technology, but the future of many small community theaters is less certain.

Mungo has been in the business for three decades and is weighing such changes as he ponders the future.

“The technology is the easy part,” said Mungo, who with co-founder and co-owner Nancy Langsam has run the Screening Room since 1982. “The nuance is all about whether or not the business is strong enough for the market. It is about financing, it is about building ownership, it is about one’s personal interests, even one’s own health.

“So far, though, we have yet to fail to get a film in 35 mm that we otherwise would have gotten. In other words, there is time.”

The Screening Room runs films that are considered too small to draw customers in major film houses. The most recent offerings of the 99-seat venue have included “Sessions,” “Anna Karenina” and “Hyde Park on Hudson” (playing now.)

“I really enjoy going there,” said Ellen Robbins of Newburyport. “You get to see quality films that you can’t see anywhere else, and the room itself is small and inviting.”

Another regular customer is Sharon Witner, who said, “We rarely go to another theater. It’s close for us, and frequently we see the same people in a comfortable setting.

“It’s a real asset to the community and helps make Newburyport what it is.”

One of the venue’s most successful runs was that of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Perhaps the worst was a Michael Jackson imitator years ago who drew lines that stretched past Richdale — but the performer showed up three hours late after everyone had gone home.

Attendance has not plummeted, but Mungo is among those who see a difficult future.

“Netflix is a bigger threat than the cost of converting to new technology,” he said. “The dissolution of personal interaction is causing the movie theater industry to lose its audience, not the financing of new gizmos.”

If Mungo sometimes takes a philosophical view of the workings of the world, it might be because he has had a significant exposure to it.

He grew up in Lawrence, graduating high school there in 1967, and then left the area to travel. He visited many states, and his international wandering stretched from Spain to Tahiti.

“It was less a romantic search and more of aimless drifting,” Mungo recalled. “I was unfocused.”

In 1976 he wandered through Newburyport looking for a place to crash, and he found Plum Island. He settled in this area, and after several low-level jobs, he explored the idea of opening a film house.

After several false starts, the idea gained traction. In 1982, he and Langsam opened the Screening Room. He rents the space, and with a small part-time crew has built up a following that would hate to see the operation close.

But Mungo has a full day. He is a full-time postal worker in Salisbury (since 1990), and the challenges of keeping up with the new, new thing might be getting tiresome.

Right now he feels his options for raising $75,000 include personal savings, financing through a bank, financing through a lease arrangement or go with a company that promises to set it all up, service, teach and finance.

The Screening Room appears to have much support in the community.

“This is an asset that has provided quality productions for a long time,” said Ann Ormond, president of the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We would hope that steps can be taken so it continues.”

Challenges are ahead, but Mungo says there is time.

Indeed, though one hesitates to invoke the title of the film “Gone with the Wind,” at least one Scarlett O’Hara line might be appropriate as he ponders the future: “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”