They're getting ready to shoot a big-time Hollywood movie at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Winter the dolphin is training for it, getting used to having lights and cameras follow her around. They're building an 80,000-gallon pool in the parking lot, courtesy of the filmmakers.
Since the upcoming shooting of Dolphin Tale was announced, the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Film Commission has been saying that a medium-sized feature film production like this one pumps an estimated $125,000 a day into the local economy.
It's a figure that invites skepticism: 125 grand a day? Seriously?
Some economists think that number is a little high.
"It's a lot high," said University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson. Like several other researchers, he also questions the need for tax incentives that Florida and many other states hand out to movie and TV producers to woo their business.
University of South Florida economist Philip Porter says the state uses a figure of $180 per day per person to estimate what visitors to Florida spend on things like meals, hotels and cabs. "So, either these guys brought 700 people with them or they are buying other things," he said.
But the local film commission defends its estimate of Dolphin Tale's economic benefit. They say it attempts to capture the scope of the filmmakers' spending on everything from lodging to transportation, catering, construction supplies and security.
"They drop cash every day on all kinds of things — food, condo rentals, hotel rooms, rental cars, vans, trucks, camera equipment, paint and nails," said Pinellas film commissioner Jennifer Parramore.
The local film office gets the $125,000-a-day spending estimate from a worldwide trade group, the Association of Film Commissioners International. The AFCI says it uses formulas to calculate how much money different kinds of productions are likely to spend on location. It bases its numbers on an analysis of studio accounting records and other reports.
The $125,000-a-day figure represents each day of principal photography, Parramore said. The formula factors in the lesser spending that occurs before and after that period.
The shooting of Dolphin Tale is scheduled to run from Sept. 27 to mid December. Depending on the number of days the crew shoots during that time period, the production might pump about $9 million into the local economy.
Since the film is about the inspirational story of Winter the dolphin, much of the movie shoot will take place at the aquarium itself. But the filmmakers will soon start securing other locations for various scenes in the movie, Parramore said. "We know they need water scenes and a beach scene and a neighborhood scene."
Rod Irwin, Clearwater's assistant city manager for economic development, notes that the film company, Bottlenose Productions, is leasing the city's vacant Harborview Center as well as office space in downtown Clearwater.
"They're going to have upwards of 80 people working downtown, spending money and putting that into the local economy," he said. "It should have a lot of impact."
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium's chief executive, David Yates, thinks Dolphin Tale will serve as a long-term tourism boost for the aquarium and the entire area.
"This is a family film," he said, "and Clearwater is a family vacation."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.