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Blue Ocean Film Fest mixes Hollywood, marine science in St. Petersburg

Jeremy Irons will screen his documentary, Trashed, about ocean pollution. [Getty Images]
Published Oct. 14, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — The Blue Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit is set to debut Nov. 2 in its new U.S. host city: downtown St. Petersburg.

Think of it as Comic-Con for underwater educators, filmmakers and scientists.

There will be Hollywood stars, such as Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, who will screen his ocean pollution documentary Trashed, and star scientists, including legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle, whose work to save the oceans is the subject of the film Mission Blue.

There will be lectures by leading lights of marine and ocean science education, and seminars for budding environmental filmmakers, photographers and writers.

And there will be parties: everything from happy hours to a "blue carpet" awards gala at the Mahaffey Theater to a "blue tie" affair for VIPs at the Dalí Museum.

"This is a huge deal," said Jacqueline Dixon, dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. "It's a great meeting of people in film, in technology, in education, science and conservation.

"It's primarily a film festival but it has a much broader impact, including an educational component," Dixon said.

Blue Ocean's organizers have committed to returning to St. Petersburg in 2016 and 2018 while alternating with the festival's international host, Monaco. Last year, festival founders Debbie and Charlie Kinder landed a big donor in Prince Albert II of Monaco.

At the moment, Blue Ocean's appeal seems aimed more at a select and influential group of activists and thinkers in ocean conservation, marine science and environmental filmmaking than attracting thousands from the public at large. But organizers hope that will change.

"Our international attendees and our ocean community and conservation community are all very interested," Debbie Kinder said. "Locally I would love to be a household name. I realize we're not that, yet."

It's hard to gauge what attendance will be for the eight-day festival, because most tickets are typically bought 10 days before it starts. Attendance for the 2012 Blue Ocean in Monterey, Calif., was about 20,000.

That's less than the 30,000 who attended April's four-day 15th annual International Indian Film Academy's Weekend & Awards, or "Bollywood Oscars," in Tampa. Instead, the Monterey figure is an aggregate of the total number of attendees. The same people likely attended several events over several days.

St. Petersburg is honoring a $25,000 pledge former Mayor Bill Foster made to the event. The city is preparing for up to 20,000 attendees. But Mayor Rick Kriseman's chief of staff, Kevin King, realizes that's a loose estimate for the festival's first time here.

"The (number of) visitors and economic impact we're optimistic about," King said, "but we don't have a real good feel right now for what that will be."

Pinellas County tourism chief David Downing thinks that Blue Ocean's real value is in attaching the bay area's brand to a prestigious event that has the potential to keep drawing Hollywood stars and keep building its audience.

"This is a growth event," Downing said, "and the exposure that the destination is going to receive for this and the attention brought to the area was the driving force for support in the first year."

Downing's agency, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, is spending $150,000 from BP to promote the event. That's part of a $500,000 grant the company gave Pinellas to promote tourism after the 2010 oil spill. BP approved the grant for Blue Ocean.

Though the event had strong attendance in Monterey, the festival board thought St. Petersburg's downtown footprint would make it easier for festivalgoers to walk from hotels to theaters and then to bars and restaurants.

Events will be held at the Poynter Institute, USF St. Petersburg, the Mahaffey and the Dalí. Luncheons are scheduled for the Birchwood Hotel, the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort, and the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

Movies will be screened most nights at the Mahaffey, and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Sundial's Carmike Cinemas. The theater is adding extra employees for the week and expecting 2,000 to 3,000 moviegoers based on its experience with other film festivals, such as Sunscreen and the Jewish Film Festival, according to Lisa Parra, general manager.

"This is a very positive thing," Parra said. "Butts in seats. That's what we like."

Several events will be free, a condition of the city's $25,000 donation. On Nov. 2, for example, The Island President will be shown free in Straub Park. It's the story of Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, a former president and marine scientist whose island nation faces a grave challenge: Should the sea level rise 3 feet, it would be underwater.

Peter Betzer, founding dean of USF's College of Marine Science and current president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, helped bring the festival to town. He said this event will help give the marine science college worldwide exposure.

Hosting Blue Ocean in 2014, 2016 and 2018, he said, can help the college strike partnerships and raise money with institutions all over the world.

"This will do more to raise our profile internationally than anything that's ever happened here before," Betzer said.

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji. Contact Katherine Snow Smith at kssmith@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8785.

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