CLEARWATER – To marine biologists, Winter is an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. But for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and nearby businesses, she’s now a cash cow.
Winter, the star of the CMA dolphin show, is also the star of the hit movie Dolphin Tale, which is loosely based on the true story of how Winter lost her tail to a crab trap line and learned to swim with a prosthetic tail. It was known all along that the movie would have a big impact on the local economy, but nobody knew how big until the College of Business at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg undertook a study to measure the financial windfall the movie is bringing to Clearwater and the surrounding area. The results of that study were released at an Aug. 16 press conference in the CMA auditorium.
“Tourism is a top industry in Florida, and within the state, the Clearwater/St. Petersburg area is identified as an important cluster, which makes the measuring of the economic impact of the Dolphin Tale-induced tourism a challenging exercise,” the study report states. But David Yates, the aquarium’s CEO doesn’t need a study to tell him how much the movie has boosted his bottom line; he just has to look at the gate receipts.
“Clearwater was branded all around the world, so was (Pinellas) County,” Yates said. “We used to get about 500 people per day, and now we’re at 5,000 people many days.”
The increase is attributable to a phenomenon called film-induced tourism. That’s when people see a movie and want to visit the location where it was filmed. And Dolphin Tale, which was released at 5,500 theaters nationwide in September 2011, couldn’t have come at a better time for the Suncoast, which was suffering a downturn in tourism due to the BP oil spill.
Film-induced tourism doesn’t fade when the movie stops playing in the theaters; it goes on for years. Yates said that 70,000 people a year visit the Iowa cornfield where the movie Field of Dreams was filmed two decades ago, and with modern outlets such as HBO, the ABC Family Network and DVDs, Dolphin Tale is likely to have an even longer afterlife than that.
“This (movie) is one of the greatest tourism promoters of all times,” Yates said of Dolphin Tale. “I believe it will be the No. 1 movie of all times for tourism promotion.”
Andrew Kosove, who directed Dolphin Tale and is co-CEO of Alcon Entertainment, the company that produced it, said that film-induced tourism will draw visitors to an area once, but the area must have something to offer them if they are to keep coming back. He added that Pinellas County, with its pleasant weather, world-class beaches, many art museums and easy access to is likely to make repeat visitors out of people whom initially came just to see Winter.
Although movie stars make huge salaries, for the producers, “the film industry is a small-margin business,” Yates said, and movies can’t be made in states that don’t give financial incentives to production companies. He added that without a $5 million tax break from the State of Florida, Dolphin Tale, which cost $42 million to produce and $60 million to market worldwide, would not have been made.
The USF study used two methods to calculate the impact of Dolphin Tale on the local economy over the next five years. They both agreed that the impact would be about $330 million this year, but their estimates vary widely from there. One predicts that the impact will be $482 million in 2016, while the other one estimates that it will be a whopping $1.7 billion. But those figures where brought down to a more human level when local business people explained how Dolphin Tale has affected them.
Bob Longenecker, president of the Jolley Trolley transit line, said that since Dolphin Tale opened, he has bought more trolleys and hired 11 new drivers, a mechanic and a trolley washer. Downtown pizzeria owner Tony Starova reported that his business is up 75 percent and he has hired five new employees. And Nancy Cimney, spokeswoman for the Sandpearl Resort, said that www.seewinter.com is their top business-producing website, and all Sandpearl employees are now required to take a “behind the scenes tour” of the CMA so they can intelligently answer guests’ questions about the aquarium and its most famous resident, Winter.