Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates envisioned Winter as 'Dolphin Tale' star

David Yates strode through the rain outside the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, pausing at the ramshackle houseboat of a man who wasn't real.

A sign labeled the houseboat as the home of Clay Haskett, fictional director of the "Clearwater Marine Hospital" in the movie Dolphin Tale. It was filmed here last year and premiered Friday. The sign and a dozen others were installed around the aquarium to show where Hollywood had left its mark.

Yet Yates, the aquarium's CEO, decided the signs needed to be bigger, more colorful. A designer trailed him as he sped along, laying out his vision.

Yates is readying the aquarium for a flood of attention. He predicts Dolphin Tale will be the best-selling movie in Tampa Bay history, better known worldwide than the Tampa Bay Rays and Buccaneers. He says Winter, the dolphin star of the film, will be this area's Elvis.

If you know the story of Winter, of her rescue and prosthetic tail, you can thank Yates. Through near-constant promotion, he has sent Winter's saga rippling across the country, luring crowds to the low-profile aquarium months before Hollywood took notice.

During Yates' first five years as CEO, the nonprofit aquarium known for its rehabilitation of rescued marine animals has boomed. Tax records show revenue and animal-care spending have doubled. Salaries and education expenses have tripled. The volunteer pool has quintupled to 1,000 strong.

But nothing matches the jump in annual advertising spending, which has multiplied 13 times over, to more than $500,000. The aquarium, more than ever, intends to build a brand.

In the film, aquarium director Haskett is a widower and down-on-his-luck veterinarian played by jazz heartthrob Harry Connick Jr. There's little resemblance to reality: Yates, 51, is a former accountant with slicked-back hair who lives with his wife on a North Pinellas golf course.

Yet in other ways, the line between film and reality has blurred. Yates' aquarium office is covered in Haskett's Old Florida kitsch and fake news clippings — movie props never removed. On his desk Yates keeps Winter's real prosthetic tail and a fake metal version built for the movie.

Even the aquarium's outer walls are lined with fake pipes and rust slapped on by movie crews to make it look dilapidated. Yates doesn't want to take them down. The rust, he said, has become prime real estate.

The aquarium at times appears caught between film and reality. It is a place based on a movie based on a place.

• • •

Residents formed the Clearwater Marine Science Center in 1972, after the closing of a '50s fish exhibit called the Sea-Orama. In 1978, leaders moved the aquarium into a closed sewage treatment plant, repurposing waste tanks as pools.

By 2005 the aquarium was on the brink of bankruptcy. Employees worried about payroll. Volunteers and donors were fleeing. Dennis Kellenberger, a marine biologist who headed the aquarium for 25 years, had resigned two years earlier amid criticism over his business skills, and his successors were quickly jettisoned by an unhappy board of directors.

Hoping for a turnaround, the board hired Yates. The former CEO of the company that organized the Ironman competition, he had helped recast the grueling mega-triathlon into an everyman inspiration. Stories of ordinary people training helped sell licensed "Ironstuff" like watches, T-shirts and socks.

Yates had experience as an accountant, auditor and producer comfortable dealing with TV networks. But he had never worked with animals. His knowledge of the aquarium was limited to what he had seen touring it with his four children.

He was drawn to the challenge. An Ironman finisher, he's a Type A workaholic with seemingly boundless energy. He does not suffer happily the slow or grumbling. "If my staff sees me with a Red Bull," he said, "they run."

He began restructuring the aquarium as a business, a revolution that met swift resistance. Half the staff, he said, resigned or was fired. "We had to tear down a lot of kingdoms," he said.

Two weeks after Yates' hire, trainers told him about Winter, rescued three months earlier from Florida's east coast, her tail destroyed by a crab trap line, and about the aquarium's search for a prosthetic tail. Yates saw gold. "Crap, guys," he recalled saying. "This is a really amazing story."

Six months later, Yates began pitching Winter to the media. With its mix of cuteness and tragedy, the story seemed made for mass consumption. NBC's Today Show and newspapers ran stories. A documentary film and children's books hit shelves. In 2007, producers from Alcon Entertainment, the studio behind The Blind Side, called to pitch a feature film.

Filming took three months in late 2010 across Pinellas County. Stars Connick, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd acted out scenes with the aquarium as backdrop. Aquarium trainers coached Winter for her star turn in front of the 3-D camera. Other scenes used an animatronic dolphin, cast in Winter's image.

Meanwhile, Yates worked to ready the "Official Home of Winter" for national exposure. An online gift shop offering tailless Winter plush toys and $100 Winter paintings was created to ship, as Yates likes to say, "from Boston to Zimbabwe." The aquarium's longtime mission of education, outreach, rescue and rehabilitation was expanded to include "global media initiatives."

Some supporters feared the aquarium's wildlife mission would become an afterthought. Charlotte Endler, a 10-year board member who left a year after Yates was hired, worried the aquarium's drive for popularity would turn it into SeaWorld. "Whenever they use the word 'show,' " she said, "the hair on the back of my neck stands up."

Dana Zucker, who served as chief operating officer during Winter's rescue but left after Yates was hired, said the CEO's background made him focus less on education and more on "selling things." Winter, she said, became a key to his brand.

"For those of us who brought (Winter) in when no one else wanted her, she was not a golden ticket," Zucker said. "I wonder whether or not David Yates would be there if Winter wasn't."

Yates defended his marketing push, saying people across the world were learning about marine life due to the publicity. Tickets and trinkets now bought at record rates, he added, pay for the food and medicine the aquarium's animals need to survive.

"Movies are cool. Books are cool. But our mission is first and foremost," he said. "We won't let what the world sees of us change who we are."

• • •

Yates stood in an unmarked strip mall off U.S. 19, surrounded by plastic plants and a shelf of fake sharks. The props would become part of the aquarium's new movie-set tour opening in November. Housed in a former SteinMart 2 miles from the aquarium, the tour was a last-minute attempt to handle the flood of visitors expected after the premiere.

Before the movie opened, the aquarium was already seeing big crowds. That didn't stop Yates from advertising for more. Minutes earlier, he had called a contact at Warner Brothers and insisted that local theaters had not hoisted enough Dolphin Tale banners. "I don't think they understand the magnitude of what's coming," he said. "Tell them to think big."

Yates grew up in Iowa, where the movie Field of Dreams still draws thousands to a rural baseball diamond two decades after its premiere. He believes Dolphin Tale will be even bigger, the most profitable case of "film-induced tourism" in history.

He sees crowds filling the new parking garage and dolphin stadium to be built for $12 million. He predicts blockbuster sales of Winter gear like statuettes and kid's pajamas. He expects the movie to spawn a sequel — maybe even a TV spin-off.

But what if the movie flops? What if, in spite of all its stars and promotions, the story of Winter didn't sell?

Doesn't matter, Yates said. It has already accomplished what he wanted. Exposure. Publicity. An image larger than life.

"There is no losing," he said. "It's only, do we win immensely? Or immensely times four?"

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: The Clearwater Marine Aquarium reported advertising and promotion expenses of more than $500,000 last year, but more than half of that was free advertising not paid for by the aquarium. A story in the Sept. 25 Times was unclear on that point.

Attendance up

at aquarium

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium saw a sixfold increase in ticket sales Saturday, and officials were thanking Winter the dolphin for the box-office splash. About 1,500 people visited the museum Saturday, the day after Dolphin Tale opened in theaters. On the same day last year, 250 people visited, said CEO David Yates. "The movie is making a major impact and it's been doing that for a number of months," Yates said. "This is how we generate revenue for our mission here, it's how we take care of the animals, so it helps us out very much."

Luis Perez, Times staff writer

Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates envisioned Winter as 'Dolphin Tale' star 09/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 26, 2011 8:23pm]

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