(Dec. 28, 2012) Ocean City made a foray into the glamour — and investment risk — of the film industry this year, offering up not only the resort’s image, but also a significant sum of money, to back a movie that promises to showcase the resort as a character itself.
“Ping Pong Summer,” a movie written and directed by independent filmmaker Michael Tully, was first rumored to be looking at the resort as a shooting location in early June. From the very beginning of the project, Tully had said that it was his goal to shoot in Ocean City. Although other beach towns could have worked for the film’s setting, Ocean City is where Tully spent much of his childhood in the 1980s and where he developed the nostalgic atmosphere that he had in mind for the project.
Previously known for dark, complex films such as “Silver Jew,” (a documentary about the New York City band, The Silver Jews), “Cocaine Angel” and “Septien,” Tully admitted that “Ping Pong Summer” would be a significant departure for him.
The film is set in 1985, although Tully stressed that the point of the setting is not to look back on the era with a modern, satirical lens, but to make the film as if it really was being shot in 1980s. To this end, the project eschewed digital technology and shot in 16mm film. The plotline, as Tully tells it, is a “sincere coming-of-age comedy” about a listless young boy’s interest in table tennis and hip-hop, and his life-changing family summer vacation. Tully has frequently drawn parallels between his script and the 1984 movie, “The Karate Kid,” which shares a similar young-underdog theme.
The film’s producers also committed early on to auditioning and casting relatively unknown child actors from the Mid-Atlantic region as the film’s major characters, with the rationale that the roles would be best played by the sort of youth who would actually be coming to Ocean City. Emmi Shockley, an Ocean City native and Worcester Prep student, was cast as the film’s teen love interest.
Several nationally known actors, however, had already committed to playing the film’s adult roles, most notably Susan Sarandon, who appears alongside James Nesbitt, Amy Sedaris, Judah Friedlander, Robert Longstreet and several other Hollywood notables.
But the project did not come without a concrete commitment from the town. The film’s producers had previously noted that much of their budget had relied on subsidies from the Maryland Film Office, which ended up being unavailable due to budget gridlock in Annapolis.
Instead, the production team asked the city and county to help fund the project, given that Ocean City’s vintage Americana charm played almost as much of a key role in the film as did any of the actors. Small investments were also sought from business owners across Maryland.
Still, the project’s budget remained at a relatively low cost of around $1.5 million dollars, largely due to the willingness of Sarandon and other bigger names to work for minimum actors’ union wages on what they saw as a “passion project.”
According to producers, the finished project has already generated considerable interest in the industry and on the film festival circuit. Because it was done as an independent production, without any studio backing, producers will need to market the film to distributors to sell it on a national and international level.
LOOKING BACK …
June 19: The film’s lead producer, George Rush, sends an e-mail to City Council and local business leaders asking for their financial assistance after the loss of state tax credits sets the project back an estimated $300,000.
June 28: A reception is held at the Hilton in Ocean City, where Rush, Tully, and others discuss the film’s potential benefits to the resort.
July 17: Worcester County Commissioners decide to contribute $100,000 toward the movie, but only if the town of Ocean City provides the same amount.
July 31: City Council approves a $100,000 contribution, although there is some confusion over the legality of a government agency investing in an unregulated security, such as a film venture. Funds are transferred to the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, which, as a business association, can invest in the project and collect any possible returns.
Sept. 7: Open auditions are held in Ocean City for extras and small roles.
Sept. 16: Most of the film’s crew and staff arrive at the resort. A reception is held at Hooper’s in West Ocean City, where Shockley is introduced as having been given a key role.
Sept. 19: Filming begins with mostly background and atmospheric shots. Producers have 28 full days of shooting scheduled in a little over five weeks.
Oct. 1: A press conference is held with the biggest stars after they arrive in the resort to begin shooting, as well as with the lead child actors. Sarandon stays for roughly a week.
Oct. 26: Shooting wraps, with the majority of the cast and crew rushing to get out of town before Hurricane Sandy.