As a teen, Scott Neustadter and his buddies spent every Friday evening watching movies at the Towne Stadium 16 Theatre in Egg Harbor Township or the Tilton 9 Theatre in Northfield.
Neustadter watched the newest releases on the big screen while eating a broken-up Nestle's crunch bar mixed in with his popcorn.
On Wednesday, Neustadter, along with friends and family, returned to the Towne for another film accompanied by popcorn eating. The occasion? A private screening of the romantic comedy "(500) Days of Summer" - one of the best-reviewed films of the season and a movie co-written by Neustadter.
The movie - which some critics are calling this generation's "Annie Hall" - stars Zooey Deschanel as the title character, Summer Finn, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom Hansen, a young co-worker from Margate who falls in love with her.
Neustadter, 32, said he based the movies on his own experiences with women in his younger days.
"It's based on two girls," said Neustadter, who added the women were shown the script and signed off on it. "There are verbatim scenes. I don't have a great imagination."
Balloons, posters and pictures from the movie filled the theater lobby with a festive atmosphere for the private screening - a fund raiser for the Shirley Mae Breast Cancer Assistance Fund. Before the movie began, Neustadter, who now lives in California, spent time shaking hands and greeting people he hasn't seen in a long time.
The crowd was in the mood to celebrate. They broke into applause with the first line from the film's narrator - "Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey." The crowd inside the sold-out screening also began clapping when Neustadter's name appeared in the credits at the beginning of the film. When the private screening ended, the crowd applauded Neustadter's accomplishment.
Neustadter didn't sit down to watch the film. He stood in the theater entranceway and ducked in and out to see the people's reactions to certain scenes.
"I watch the audience. This was much more about watching the people," said Neustadter. "It was super fun to see, not everybody gets to have this experience."
As a teen, Neustadter worked at Downbeach Video store in Margate with Nick Tranchitella, whose family owned the store. Tranchitella was at the screening.
"I remember occasionally going to the movie theater with him," said Tranchitella, who added Neustadter was into dramas even as a teen. "None of us were surprised that this is what he ended up doing."
Even after seeing a film with his friends on a Friday, Neustadter would convince his parents, Michael and Anne Neustadter of Margate, to drop him back off at the movies Saturday afternoon. As an eighth grader, he knew who directed every movie that was in the theaters. Now, after his movie caused a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, he mingles with film writers and directors.
Neustadter's love of movies, which he fostered in Atlantic County, is evident in "(500) Days of Summer." The characters go to movies alone, they go to movies together, they spend time talking about movies while they drive.
Joshua Greenberg, 33, was one of Neustadter's movie friends.
Greenberg, now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., but he returned to the area for the private screening. Neustadter was the first person to tell him that schools were available to study film. Greenberg, an attorney, just completed the Columbia University graduate program for producing.
"We would come home from the movies and act them out. Scott always played along. He was intellectual about them, more analytical. He would think about writing stories," said Greenberg, who grew up in Margate. The two movie lovers collaborated on making their own art with a video camera.
"One of them was 'The Attack of Killer Blankets.' Scott wanted to flesh it out more. I just wanted to start shooting," Greenberg said.
Neustadter's dedication to moviegoing on Fridays in his youth lasted for years from sixth grade through college with a group ranging in size from four to 15. A stop at T.G.I.F's also was a part of the ritual.
"I would see any and everything. The only thing I was passionate about was music and movies," Neustadter said.
Sidney Jacoby, now 33, was a part of Neustadter's moviegoing gang, and also is one of his closest friends. They attended school together, from the Eugene A. Tighe Middle School in Margate to the University of Pennsylvania.
"It was our favorite thing. Scott would pick out the movies. ... He would go through phases where he would watch every Hitchcock movie, every Woody Allen movie," said Jacoby, now a Philadelphia resident. "We played Trivia Pursuit. His knowledge of pop culture and arts even at a young age was unbelievable. ... He was clearly the ringmaster. It was a core group of five or six buddies, like (the movie) 'Stand By Me.'"
Neustadter was writing during this time, but he didn't have confidence in his work.
"As a kid, I wrote fictional stuff, but I erased it and never finished it," Neustadter said. "I would write things down, but no idea I had was above a C plus. I loved books and movies. I used to think writers were supergenuises."
When they worked at the video store, Neustadter and Tranchitella constantly watched movies on the TV screens suspended from the ceiling.
"We had very different tastes. Scott's was more artistic, movies with messages attached. I was interested in action movies," said Tranchitella, now 32, and living in West Orange, Essex County.
Tranchitella remembers some of Neustadter's favorite movies being "The Graduate," "The Shining" and "A Clockwork Orange."
Neustadter's knowledge of movie history was evident in "(500) Days of Summer" during a segment of the film when the Hansen character appears in scenes that are tributes to the work of French filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Jean-Loc Godard and Swedish movie director Ingmar Bergman.
After the screening ended, Neustadter spent the next hour answering questions from the audience, taking pictures, shaking hands and signing autographs. He listened as person after person told him how much they loved his film and what a great job he did writing it. The screening at the Towne ends Neustadter's personal, domestic promotion of the movie. He plans to attend the premiere of the film in London and in France in September before award season starts.
"I got an e-mail from Mike Nichols (the director of 'The Graduate') yesterday. I couldn't even breathe yesterday. He likes the movie," Neustadter said.
E-mail Vincent Jackson:
MOVIE - "(500) Days of Summer, written by Scott Neustadter of Margate and Michael H. Weber, and starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt opens Aug. 7 at the Towne Stadium 16 in Egg Harbor Township.