By Walt Belcher, Tampa Tribune (MCT)
1:20 PM PDT, September 19, 2011
CLEARWATER -- Winter, a cute, tailless dolphin with a perky personality, has saved Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Now it's starring in a family film that could bring millions of tourists and dollars to this Gulf Coast community.
Expecting "Dolphin Tale" to make a big splash on the big screen, the aquarium, the city of Clearwater and Pinellas County tourism officials are gearing up to ride a tidal wave of interest after the film opens Friday.
No one can say how much money the movie-related tourism might generate, but for months -- possibly years -- Clearwater plans to proclaim itself the home of Winter, the dolphin from "Dolphin Tale."
Clearwater Marine Aquarium is launching a $12.5 million expansion and opening a "Dolphin Tale" exhibit in downtown Clearwater. Also, area hotels and restaurants are offering promotions tied to visiting the home of Winter.
"We expect a tremendous impact from the movie -- we're already feeling it with record attendance this summer, and the film hasn't opened yet," says David Yates, CEO of the aquarium and an executive producer on the movie.
"I've seen the movie several times, and we look just great. The whole area looks great on film. It's a good story, and Winter is wonderful, so people are going to be coming here," Yates says. He estimates that attendance at the small marine rescue and rehabilitation center might easily top a half-million by next summer.
Filmed in Clearwater last fall, the 3-D movie was inspired by the story of a now 6-year-old bottlenose dolphin that lost its tail after being tangled in a crab trap in the Atlantic when it was a few months old. It survived to become a star attraction, thanks to a series of prosthetic tails.
"Dolphin Tale" was produced by Alcon Entertainment, the makers of the Oscar-winning "The Blind Side," and is being distributed by Warner Bros. It stars Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Winter.
The fictional part of the story has a troubled 11-year-old boy (Nathan Gamble) helping the injured dolphin and an eccentric doctor (Freeman) developing the artificial tale. Connick plays the dedicated head of the scruffy and financially strapped Clearwater Marine Hospital. Judd plays the boy's mother.
Favorable buzz from recent early screenings is encouraging to Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who says the city is going to ride along on Winter's fame.
"We hope that the film is successful and brings people here, so we're going to promote Clearwater in connection with 'Dolphin Tale,' " he says.
He says the city has leased a floor of the abandoned three-story Harborview Civic Center to the aquarium for a "Dolphin Tale" movie prop and set exhibit to open in November.
Harborview, which was slated to be demolished, was rented by Alcon and was used as an interior set (for the home of Judd's character) during filming.
Yates says the film company was gracious to donate props such as the Clearwater Marine Hospital sign attached to the houseboat of Connick's character.
"Some of the props will be at the aquarium, and others at the exhibit downtown," he says.
David Downing, deputy director at Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, says that rarely has a movie been so hardwired to a locale.
"The film screams 'Clearwater,' so we're going to make the most of it," he says, noting that Warner Bros. is spending $50 million to promote the film.
The tourism agency has invested $250,000 on promotions, such as buying a full-page ad in USA Today for the film's opening day, putting up banners on Clearwater Memorial Causeway and having Winter "hang tags" in rental cars at airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando.
Also, hotels such as the Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach are offering a chance to "meet a movie star" with a Winter the Dolphin family package that includes tickets to the aquarium and a Winter storybook.
Yates expects attendance to skyrocket in November, when the winter tourist season begins. When Winter arrived, annual attendance was slightly more than 9,000, and the aquarium, in a former sewage treatment plant, was struggling for survival. This past year, attendance was more than 32,000.
Yates says successful movies can feed tourism for years. For example, he notes that people still visit the "Field of Dreams" baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield. And Savannah, Ga., still has successful tours based on the 1997 movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
Some special visitors who have learned the Winter story have been seeking her out. Amputees, wounded soldiers, handicapped children and others make pilgrimages to see Winter, who performs at demonstrations a few times each day as part of her physical therapy.
Winter's prosthetic tail and a silicone gel sleeve that protects her skin from chafing were developed by Dan Strzempka and Kevin Carroll of Florida's Hanger Orthopedic Group.
Alcon has not released a budget for the film, and Yates says he cannot disclose the financial arrangements the nonprofit aquarium has with the company.
"All I can say is that Alcon has been very generous," he says. "We share in the merchandising, and there are new items such as Winter and 'Dolphin Tale' toys, books and T-shirts."
He says the Applebee's restaurant chain is adding a "Dolphin Tale" kids menu this fall. Tropical Smoothie Cafe, Wenger Swiss Army Knives and the online movie ticket handler Fandango are offering promotional sweepstakes to win trips to Clearwater Beach.
Jennifer Parramore, Pinellas film commissioner, says the film has had an estimated $16 million impact from more than three months of filming last year. That's from spending on the crew and actors, food, condominium rentals, hotel rooms, rental cars, vans, trucks, camera equipment and supplies.
"The movie also provided some much-needed work for local actors during a time when the economy was tough," says Jimmy Fitzpatrick, a Pinellas-based filmmaker and actor who plays a supporting role as the father of a champion-swimmer-turned-soldier (Austin Stowell) who is injured in Iraq and gets inspiration from Winter.
At least two of the local actors were inspired to relocate to Los Angeles to seek work, says the film's director, Charles Martin Smith, who hired 2010 University of Tampa graduate Kelsey Stroop as his full-time assistant.
"She did such a good job on 'Dolphin Tale' that I offered her a job to remain as my assistant," he says.
Yates says the filming also had immediate rewards, such as a new 80,000-gallon dolphin pool that Smith built at the aquarium for the film. "That was worth about $200,000," he says.
Money generated by the film goes into the aquarium's rescue and rehabilitation mission, Yates says. In addition to Winter, the facility is home to a small collection of animals that can't be released into the wild, including Panama, a 40-year-old deaf dolphin; Max, a blind Kemp's Ridley sea turtle; and Bailey, a green sea turtle with paralyzed back flippers.
Yates says other expansion plans include a new three-story garage, a new lobby and guest entrance, an outdoor dolphin-viewing area, a boardwalk and an expansion of the turtle rehabilitation area.
"The most important thing is that we will have more room to care for more animals," Yates says. "We exist to educate people, especially children, about protecting the environment and helping injured animals."
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