A new documentary, Blackfish, has come out swinging against SeaWorld’s reputation and the practice of training and breeding killer whales in captivity. The film centers on the tragic 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at the hands of Tilikum, a wild-caught killer whale that Blackfish filmmakers present as mistreated and misunderstood.
Blackfish claims that Tilikum has suffered severe stress and trauma during his time at SeaWorld, and his aggression is a response to the conditions in which he lives. The film critically highlights the treatment of Tilikum and other SeaWorld orcas. It also explores the implications of removing wild animals from their natural habitat and placing them in an artificial environment based on education and entertainment.
Much to the dismay of SeaWorld, Blackfish has gained strong traction after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for wider release, and is currently rated 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. Even the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have identified the documentary as a critic’s pick. It’s clear that Blackfish has become a serious threat to SeaWorld’s reputation.
Rather than laying low and waiting for the waters to calm down, SeaWorld has mounted a reputational defense. The entertainment company launched a counterattack, striking down the documentary as dishonest, misleading, and scientifically inaccurate in an eight point response sent to critics awaiting review of the film. SeaWorld even purchased domain names including BlackfishFacts.com and TheTruthAboutBlackfish.com, though there is no current development on either site. Aided by communications firm 42West, these steps appear to be a larger part of SeaWorld’s ongoing reputation strategy against Blackfish.
But is it working? Though SeaWorld’s efforts to refute Blackfish claims were intended to paint the film as baseless, it seems to have only given it more traction and ammunition. After SeaWorld released their list of problems with the film, Blackfish came right back to shut down each and every one of them with their own counter claims, taking the opportunity to publicly attack the marine parks.
No one is more pleased by SeaWorld’s response than Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles, who sees the struggle as an opportunity for publicity.
“From a marketing standpoint, this is turning into the gift that keeps on giving,” Bowles says. “Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
For SeaWorld, Blackfish seems to be a leak that just can’t be contained, with potential effects on ticket sales, stock prices, and even the depiction of marine parks in major motion pictures.
After viewing the documentary, Pixar executives John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton spoke with Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, ultimately deciding to change the ending of the upcoming movie Finding Dory. Instead of sending marine mammals to an aquatic park for rehabilitation, Finding Dory will now depict the animals in a sort of marine hotel where they’re able to come and go as they please.
Hitting closer to home, attendance at SeaWorld parks nationwide has declined by 6%, with 10.1 million visitors in the first half of the year, down from 10.7 million in the first half of 2012. But representatives insist that the release of Blackfish is not to blame for lowered attendance, pointing to bad weather at parks in Florida and Virginia. The parks have also instituted higher prices this year.
SeaWorld’s stock has also seen a significant decline, dropping 6.5% this week. Investors are becoming increasingly cautious about SeaWorld as the fallout from the Blackfish scandal plays out. Whatever the reason, it seems that SeaWorld’s reputation and finances have taken a hit while publicity for Blackfish continues to grow.
For now, Blackfish seems to have won the battle, but, who will ultimately win the war? The saga continues, as the film will air on CNN in October. We’ll be watching to see how this battle of reputational wits plays out.