Winter the dolphin plush toys (complete with detachable tail) have arrived on movie critics' desks, the Facebook page has been humming for weeks and test screenings have been popping up across the nation.
Now the final wave of preparing Dolphin Tale for worldwide release crashes onto Clearwater Beach this week, more than a year after the announcement of a major motion picture being filmed in Pinellas County, and nine months after completing its shoot.
Nearly 150 print, online and television journalists — several working for faith-based or foreign outlets — will convene at the Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa. They will see the movie, meet its stars including Morgan Freeman and Harry Connick Jr., and begin spreading what Warner Bros. hopes will be positive impressions.
It's a marketing ritual known as the movie junket, and for the first time ever such a gathering is happening in the bay area.
Nearly all major studio releases employ the strategy, usually held in cultural hubs like Los Angeles and New York. Dolphin Tale is different because its title star, Winter the bottlenose dolphin, isn't a typical Hollywood celebrity.
Winter can't book a flight to the Big Apple or La-La Land, so Hollywood's vibe is returning to the Tampa Bay area for an encore before Dolphin Tale's debut on Sept. 23 in theaters.
"(The production company) Alcon Entertainment and I talked and I said: 'Guys, doesn't it make sense to have (the junket) right here?' " said David Yates, president and CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium where Winter has resided since her 2005 rescue, the subsequent loss of her tail and her prosthetic rehabilitation. Yates is also credited as a Dolphin Tale producer.
"The movie was filmed here, Winter is here, and Winter can't swim to L.A.," Yates said. "She's a great swimmer, but she can't go that far. So, why not have it here?"
Gawkers needn't bother to show up. Hotel security will be tighter than usual, and attending stars like Freeman and Connick are routinely sequestered. They're too busy running the interview gantlet and enjoying down time for photos or signing autographs. Hanging around the hotel lobby or poolside likely won't pay off.
This multimedia summit is where most, if not all critics' blurbs used to advertise Dolphin Tale will be generated. When you see a television commercial, Web or newspaper ad touting the movie as "great family fun," "heartwarming" or a likewise succinct cliché, it will probably come from this event. Same goes for those on-camera interviews that aren't obviously live or tape-delayed talk show broadcasts.
While movies are made on sets, making a movie into a hit begins at these junkets. Most of the travel, food and lodging bills for visiting journalists are footed by Hollywood studios. If that seems like buying good publicity, it certainly can be. Some film critics won't offend their hosts, even if a movie stinks, to ensure an invitation to the next free trip.
(The St. Petersburg Times is known by studio publicists as a rare "P.O.W." — pays own way — when attending junkets, to avoid such conflicts of interest.)
The Dolphin Tale junket begins Tuesday with the arrival of print and online reporters, who will view Dolphin Tale that evening. The next day is devoted to roundtable interviews where stars circulate among small groups of journalists posing questions, and one-on-one interviews for select critics. Later on Wednesday, they'll tour the aquarium in small groups and meet Winter face-to-snout.
Domestic television reporters arrive Thursday, with most of them having already seen Dolphin Tale in hometown screenings. Interviews will be videotaped Friday at the aquarium and wrapped up as soon as possible so the stars can fly to Los Angeles for Saturday's world premiere festivities.
To accommodate these visiting journalists, the aquarium will be closed to the public on Thursday and Friday until 1 p.m.
The best evidence of television's superiority over other media in the junket process is Thursday night's cocktail party and dinner at the Sandpearl Resort and Spa, after most print and online reporters have departed.
"The junket is really going to be cool," Yates said. "The media is going to be an enormous part of building interest in this film. It's one of the biggest nonpaid media campaigns of all time.
"All the big media names will be here . . . Entertainment Tonight, you name it. They will create hundreds of millions of impressions around the world for this area, even before the movie hits (theater screens)."
St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner Jennifer Parramore hopes those impressions favor her business of attracting future movie and television productions. Parramore's office is also part of the Clearwater Visitors Bureau developing local tourism, so reactions spread by junketing reporters to their audiences may affect that aspect of local industry.
Meanwhile, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce dumped 75 tons of sand Friday in Pier 60 Park near the Hyatt, for construction of a Dolphin Tale sculpture to impress visiting reporters. Chamber president/CEO Bob Clifford said the sculpture is expected to be completed by Tuesday.
"The movie is such a big deal and it's so intimately tied to (the aquarium), Clearwater and Pinellas County, that the exposure is going to be just immeasurable," Parramore said. "It's kind of staggering, to be honest with you."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.