'Ping Pong' premiere prompts party

Since its establishment in 1937, the theater currently housed at the Carroll Arts Center has seen hundreds of films screened before Carroll County audiences. Before now, it has never hosted a major film premiere, according to executive director Sandy Oxx.

The center will be hosting an advance screening of Sundance selection "Ping Pong Summer" directed by Michael Tully, of Mount Airy, Thursday, a day before the film is released in theaters nationwide.

The film stars Oscar winner Susan Sarandon; Lea Thompson, of "Back to the Future"; Amy Sedaris, of "Strangers with Candy"; and John Hannah, of "The Mummy"; and was shot in Ocean City. The plot follows 13-year-old Rad Miracle as he goes on his annual family vacation to Ocean City in 1985. There, he gets caught up in a ping pong competition with some local bullies, and is forced to train under his ping pong expert neighbor, played by Sarandon.

Tully said the film is a throwback to the underdog films of his youth.

"We really tried to make it feel like a lost film from 1985," Tully said. "The '80s were very important to me because I came of age then. It's not an ironic appreciation. I have a very sincere love of '80s movies, and not even the best '80s movies. I'm not talking about 'The Karate Kid,' but the knock-offs of 'The Karate Kid,' like 'No Retreat, No Surrender' and 'Rad.'"

Tully's wife, Holly Herrick, is a producer on the film and a Westminster native. Her grandmother, Priscilla Gray Teeter, is a longtime member of the Carroll County Arts Council, and the mother-in-law of Film Lovers in Carroll County club spokesman Frank Baylor.

Baylor said when the film was taken to Sundance, he half-jokingly asked Mike if they would be able to screen it at the Carroll Arts Center in honor of Priscilla. Tully said he proposed the idea to the distributor, who quickly arranged for a benefit screening.

Oxx said tickets have been selling consistently for the past couple of weeks. In addition to the screening, the council is selling a limited number of VIP tickets, which grant access to a cocktail reception with the director and the Teeter, Tully and Herrick families before the screening of the film.

"I feel excited about it for many reasons," Oxx said. "For us to have the premiere of a big movie is huge, and for it to have been filmed in Maryland is a big deal. Perhaps the biggest thing is that Priscilla is one of the dearest, most active Arts Center members, and for her to see this happen is really exciting."

Tully said the idea for the film has been floating around his head since 1992, and he planned for it to be his first feature after graduating from University of Maryland, Baltimore County's film program in 1997. Other film projects ended up taking precedence, Tully said, and production on the film was stalled until he completed five other films.

"The fact that it was already sort of a period piece when I thought of it has been pretty convenient. That was never going to change," Tully said. "It's been so long, people are thinking we're trying to cash in on the '80s since the '80s are back now. I got to my 10-year-old niece's birthday party and everybody looks like a 'Ping Pong Summer' costume party. If I could have made this movie in 1998, I would have. It just kind of shook out that it took so long."

Tully said the path to get the film made truly started when Sarandon signed on to work on the picture. Sarandon plays Randi Jammer, the film's take on "The Karate Kid's" Mr. Miyagi.

"She happens to be the co-owner of a ping pong franchise called SPiN, and we thought it made a lot of sense," Tully said. "She's a great actor and she brings an incredible amount of cachet, but at the same time, I didn't want to be in Ocean City making the movie of my dreams with a poisonous actor on set who brings bad vibes to the production, so I wrote a friend who had directed her and he vouched for her."

With Sarandon locked, Tully said the rest of the cast quickly fell into place. In addition to the veteran actors, Tully populated the film with Maryland youth, making their first on-screen appearances in the film. He said it was important to work with local talent, giving the Ocean City setting a needed verisimilitude.

"The sincerity and earnestness is something that the OC Tourism board really got on board with," Tully said. "They funded some of the movie with the money they have for the 'Rodney the lifeguard' commercials and billboards. My love of all-you-can-eat buffets is not ironic. My love of putt-putt courses is 100 percent sincere."

Starting Friday, the film will be released in 20 theaters throughout the country, including AMC Owings Mills, the AFI theater in Silver Spring and the Charles Theater in Baltimore. In addition to the public screenings, the film will be offered on Video On-Demand for cable subscribers and on Amazon and iTunes. Tully said the VOD market has changed the distribution process for independent films.

"It's really weird. If you're a filmmaker, of course you want to see your film get released in theaters and in front of eyes, but the world is changing so drastically," Tully said. "The fact that someone can be away from these theaters playing it, and can still join the conversation is amazing. If you really love movies, this ability to connect with people on the same day it's playing in New York and L.A. and we get a New York Times review is pretty exciting. In the last couple of years, we've really noticed a change. VOD used to have the stigma of online dating, but nowadays it's a way to get folks to see it and maximize your press."

Tully said he hopes the film connects both with children of the '80s as well as modern adolescents.

"I would love to see an independent film and a Maryland film do well in the summer, which is normally when Godzilla steps on other movies and squashes them," Tully said. "I think it's cool to have a summer movie that has human beings in it and is family friendly."