CLEARWATER — Winter the dolphin might be poised to wiggle her way into moviegoers' hearts again while raking in more cash for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Tampa Bay area.
At least that's the hope of aquarium officials, state Sen. Jack Latvala and state Rep. Ed Hooper, the political forces behind an allocation of $5 million in the new state budget to speed production of a sequel to Dolphin Tale.
"This is a proven project. It's put heads in the beds in our hotels here," said Latvala, R-Clearwater.
Latvala was responsible for getting $4 million in one-time general revenue funds allocated for the sequel. Hooper, R-Clearwater, arranged for $1 million that the aquarium could use for other things if the movie never gets made, he said.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium officials lobbied for the tax dollars to entice Alcon Entertainment, the Los Angeles-based production company, to make another movie based on the story of Winter, the aquarium's dolphin with a prosthetic tail. Dolphin Tale, which debuted in 2011, has grossed more than $70 million, according to the Internet Movie Database.
The sequel isn't a done deal yet. A script is being polished by Charles Martin Smith, who directed the first film, but it's yet to receive the green light, said David Yates, the aquarium's CEO.
"It's still in development, but we've had a great partnership with Alcon," Yates said.
The aquarium will try to raise even more money for the project on its own, perhaps approaching foundations and other entities with branding opportunities, he said. But ticket prices and other customer prices at aquarium venues won't go up to put Winter back on the big screen, Yates said.
"Absolutely zero chance," he said.
Yates sent a "four- or five-page" proposal to Alcon last summer outlining how Winter's story could support a sequel.
"Usually, in a real-life movie, you tell the story in one movie," he said. "There's never been a sequel about a movie set in real life."
Alcon didn't return a phone call requesting comments Tuesday. Yates said company executives were on the set of a Johnny Depp production.
The first Dolphin Tale received about $5 million in state film tax credits, but those credits were all spoken for this year, Latvala said, so he had to improvise.
"It wouldn't really be practical to do another pot of film money because everyone would have got to it before I got to it," he said.
Non-recurring general revenue is often used for capital projects, state employee bonuses and other one-time uses, he said.
For years a tough economy squelched projects from individual lawmakers using one-time money, Latvala said. Now, that opportunity is back.
Taxpayers doling out cash for Hollywood movie-maybes might raise some eyebrows, Hooper acknowledged, but he said it's no different from "incentivizing" other types of businesses to invest in Florida.
"You hope to recover more money than you laid out," he said. "They came to us emphasizing that it would really showcase the Clearwater-Tampa-St. Pete area. It would be almost entirely filmed here."
The real money would come from extending the steady stream of visitors to the aquarium, many of whom come from out-of-state and other countries, Yates said.
Since the movie's release, attendance at the aquarium, located near Clearwater Beach in a former sewage treatment plant, has nearly quadrupled to about 750,000 annual visitors last year. Earlier this year, the aquarium announced plans to build a $160 million, 200,000-square-foot aquarium in downtown Clearwater where City Hall now stands.
A 2012 study by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg College of Business forecast billions in economic benefits from the Dolphin Tale movie. The study found nearly 73 percent of visitors to the aquarium came because of the film.
That study helped persuade Latvala. Yates said it is evidence that another movie will just sweeten the movie-driven tourism money pot.
Gov. Rick Scott is reviewing the $4 million specifically designated for the film, which was not in his proposed budget, said Monica Russell, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Latvala and Hooper said that Scott's office has asked about the money and they plan to meet with him soon. Scott has the power to veto the allocation.
Movie sequels sometimes bomb at the box office, but Yates said the real-life twist is unique. He hopes the novelty will keep the turnstiles clicking at the cineplexes as well as his aquarium.
"There's no question that if there's a sequel it will raise the bar and lengthen the process," he said, describing his facility's recent run of success. "People love to come see what they see in real-life movies."
Times staff writer and movie critic Steve Persall contributed to this report. Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago
Editor's note: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction: The University of South Florida St. Petersburg College of Business conducted a study last year of the economic impact of the movie Dolphin Tale. A story Wednesday incorrectly identified the university.