Dolphin Tale 2 features a new aquatic star named Hope, and a box office future banking on faith.
Not that the story of tailless Winter and her bottlenose friend Hope takes an overtly Christian turn. But the Clearwater-based sequel's marketing strategy includes courting that segment of moviegoers, who in recent years have proven their box office worth.
Last month's Dolphin Tale 2 media weekend in Clearwater included 15 Christian news outlets, spreading the promotional gospel of stars including Harry Connick Jr. and Morgan Freeman. "The largest, most influential Christian press in the country," according to Gary Schneeberger, who made sure they got there.
Schneeberger runs the publicity branch of Grace Hill Media, Hollywood's go-to firm since 2000 for marketing to faith-based audiences. Alcon Entertainment and Warner Bros. used them on The Blind Side, then the first Dolphin Tale movie in 2011, contributing to its $95 million worldwide gross and home video success.
"I've never had to shepherd as many people at a junket as I do on this trip," said Schneeberger, in a Sand Key hotel room. "There are so many people across the faith spectrum who want to know about this film.
"Fifteen outlets. That's more than we get on your, quote-unquote, faith-specific film."
For their Christian readers, viewers and listeners, Dolphin Tale 2's appeal is simple; it's secular but sweet, an inspiring true story that isn't holy but is wholly inoffensive. The most noticeable nod to Christianity is a T-shirt reading "Winter + Hope" with the plus sign resembling a cross.
"A movie doesn't have to be about God, and it doesn't necessarily have to be about faith," said Alcon's president of worldwide marketing and Dolphin Tale 2 producer Richard Ingber. "The faith-based audience is looking for movies with good values, first and foremost, and movies they can relate to, that don't have things that are offensive to them."
Dolphin Tale 2 writer-director Charles Martin Smith is happy to oblige and even toss in religious bits, like a character's prayer for her dead mother in 2011's Dolphin Tale.
"There's an undertone that I really worked for, intentionally, in the first movie and maybe a little more in this one," he said, "a kind of spirituality and an inspiring sense. I've spent a lot of time at (Clearwater Marine Aquarium) over the years, and it's a spiritual experience.
"I think that's an idea that has to do with a higher power, that we have this responsibility. It's kind of woven into the fabric of this (story), that I thought about while writing it and shooting it, too. There are moral things in this world that we must pay attention to."
Asked about that T-shirt, Smith said it was "absolutely" intended to depict a cross. He pointed out another reverent touch that had passed unnoticed, in a crowd vigil outside the aquarium where Winter and Hope are tenuously bonding.
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"I had people praying for this to work," Smith said, demonstrating the pose. "Maybe you don't see it quite as much on the screen. . . . I said go ahead, let's do that because Winter means that much to this community."
Schneeberger believes his Christian demographic will connect with Dolphin Tale 2's family dynamics subtext, and a home schooling curriculum created as part of the marketing campaign.
"There's a lot of talk about the aquarium's mission of rescue, rehab and release," he said. "But if you watch the way the parents interact with their children in this movie, there's a little of that going on there, as well.
"For Christian parents, the idea of how you let your children grow up and move out of the nest with grace is a real topic they're facing. This movie does a very solid job of addressing that in a way that's respectful to both kids and parents."
Religion has been a recurring theme in movies, from D.W. Griffith's silent era through Cecil B. DeMille's biblical epics and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Marketing directly to the faithful gained momentum in 2006 when Facing the Giants, a $100,000 production produced by a Georgia church, grossed $10 million through grass roots awareness.
Similar low-budget successes like Fireproof ($33 million) and Courageous ($34 million) eventually led to mainstream studios tapping into the Christian market. This year so far, Paramount Pictures topped the $100 million box office mark with Russell Crowe as Noah, and Sony had a hit with Heaven is for Real ($91 million). Twentieth Century Fox has Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale as Moses due in December.
Pitching such movies to Christians is a smart, obvious move. What is interesting on Grace Hill Media's website is the amount of secular cinema the agency markets to the faithful, movies like Walk the Line, The Notebook and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, containing what is construed as inspirational meaning.
Ingber said the fact that Dolphin Tale 2 isn't overtly religious is exactly why the movie needs Grace Hill Media's services.
"The picture isn't blatantly about faith and Jesus, like some other movies that have been out recently," he said. "It's just a good family values movie. We've got to get that message out, in case someone doesn't know it."
Schneeberger knows how to reach an audience not interested in Hollywood's secular sense of celebrity.
"They may not be watching Entertainment Tonight but they're watching The 700 Club," he said, "so a story on that (show) about Dolphin Tale 2 lets them know about it."
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.