First Person: How Far Will the Blackfish Effect Go?

Can a film change the way a corporate icon does business?

The entrance to SeaWorld Orlando on February 24, 2010 after a female trainer was fatally attacked by an orca.

When director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (with my help, as an associate producer and co-writer) set out to make the documentary Blackfish, neither she (nor I) were setting out to change SeaWorld. Instead, we wanted to craft a factual, compelling film that tried to explain why SeaWorld's largest killer whale, Tilikum, killed his highly experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in February 2010.

We were working so hard to pull together the footage, interviews, and research needed to tell a complicated story that we had little time to think about what would happen after the film was finished. Now that the film is in circulation, everyone involved in the production has been both impressed and surprised by the degree to which it has has inspired viewers to speak up about killer whale captivity and take action, in what has informally been dubbed the "Blackfish effect."

"I don't even think I've had time to process it entirely," Cowperthwaite told me recently. Coming from the world of documentary, you're not always sure people will even see your film voluntarily," she said. "So the fact that the film has not only been well received but is also managing to do some work in the world is extraordinary."

Blackfish tells the story of how Tilikum's life tragically intersected with Dawn Brancheau's. Along the way, it goes behind the scenes of SeaWorld's killer whale Shamu shows, offering insights into what killer whale entertainment means for both killer whales and the trainers who work with them. SeaWorld has called the film "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate," and pushed back against the revelations in Blackfish in e-mails to film critics, op-eds lauding SeaWorld's rescue and conservation work, and full-page newspaper advertisements.

Despite this counter-offensive, the Blackfish effect could get a major boost this week, on January 16, when Academy Award nominations will be announced. The film has been shortlisted for a Best Documentary nomination and a formal nomination would bring it another blast of publicity. Already, Blackfish has been viewed by millions of people in theaters, on CNN, and streaming via iTunes and Netflix. And the images and information in Blackfish (the live captures which started the industry; the physical and social stresses the animals, especially Tilikum, endure; the separation of calves from their mothers; and the aggression that occurs between killer whales and between killer whales and trainers) have surprised and shocked many viewers who have mostly thought of the Shamu show as lighthearted entertainment.

That was enough to start grassroots action against SeaWorld and the killer whale entertainment business, an outburst of public energy that has been extremely gratifying for everyone involved with Blackfish. A film that resonates broadly with the public is the highest sort of honor. But the most important question is: Will the Blackfish effect have a real and long-lasting impact on SeaWorld and the killer whale entertainment business?

Here's what we know so far. The Blackfish effect started with dozens of celebrities tweeting about how Blackfish changed their view of SeaWorld. It includes high school students making videos and raising awareness. And it inspired PETA campaigns against the inclusion of SeaWorld floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the New Year's Day Rose Parade.

Most notable, the Blackfish effect took off on social media, especially through the use of petitions. Late last year, a Blackfish supporter and animal advocate launched a petition asking the Barenaked Ladies to reconsider a planned February 2014 SeaWorld gig in light of the revelations in Blackfish. The petition quickly hit 10,000 signatures and, after considering the issue, the band canceled, saying, "This is a complicated issue, and we don't claim to understand all of it, but we don't feel comfortable proceeding with the gig at this time."

A barrage of additional petitions asking other musical acts to cancel concert performances at SeaWorld followed. To date, nine scheduled acts, including Willie Nelson, Tricia Yearwood, Heart, and Cheap Trick have pulled out.

Campaigns targeting SeaWorld's corporate relationships are also an important part of the Blackfish effect. Robin Merritt, a 24-year-old marketing and social media professional, launched a petition asking Southwest Airlines to end its decades-old partnership with SeaWorld. Last week that petition, signed by more than 27,000 people and accompanied by a protest, was delivered to Southwest at its headquarters in Dallas.

"Southwest has been a cheerleader for SeaWorld for a long time, doing promotions together," Merritt said. "And without partners like Southwest, SeaWorld wouldn't be able to keep separating orca families and using killer whales for entertainment."

Southwest honored Merritt and the petition supporters with a response, saying, "At this time, our partnership will continue." Southwest wasn't unequivocal, however. The statement also said: "We have a longstanding relationship with SeaWorld that is based on travel and bringing families together. We are engaged with SeaWorld related to the recent concerns being raised. We are in a listening and education mode with the goal of upholding our commitments as a good corporate citizen."

Other major SeaWorld corporate partners include Coca-Cola and Hyundai. And according to there are currently more than two dozen Blackfish-related petitions on the site. More than 2,100 people have signed on to ask Groupon not to work with SeaWorld (and more than 26,000 have signed another petition asking the same thing).

Other citizens fired up by Blackfish (so far, more than 3,800 of them) are even asking Toys "R" Us to stop selling its SeaWorld trainer Barbie. "We consider the campaigns inspired by Blackfish to be some of the highest impact campaigns in the last few months on our platform, and certainly among the most effective ever on animal protection issues," said communications manager Mark Anthony Dingbaum.

But, in the end, the real measure of the Blackfish effect is whether it can change the way SeaWorld does business by impacting attendance and revenues. As far as I can tell, on that question, the jury remains out.

For the first nine months of 2013 (just before the Blackfish effect really took off), for example, SeaWorld reported that attendance at its parks declined by 4.7 percent—from 19.9 million to 18.9 million guests—compared to the same period in 2012. (In addition to the three flagship SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio, which feature killer whales, SeaWorld also owns nine other amusement parks.) And after an initial pop following its April 2013 debut as a publicly traded company, SeaWorld’s stock is almost 30 percent off its July high, and has been in the doldrums since October.

At the same time, revenues over the first nine months of 2013 were up 2 percent from 2012, giving SeaWorld hope that 2013 could bring record earnings. SeaWorld has said that Blackfish is having zero impact on its business. "As much data as we have and as much as we look, I can't connect anything really between the attention that the film has gotten and any effect on our business,'' SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison recently told the Orlando Sentinel.

Judging from interviews with SeaWorld Orlando guests, however, the Blackfish effect is present at SeaWorld's gates, albeit to different degrees. "We know that a lot of celebrities are rallying behind it, but that's about it," said Ashley Walter, a New Yorker on vacation with her boyfriend, Ryan Weaver.

But for others Blackfish has been thought-provoking. "It made me sad because I personally think that baby whales and all the other animals should be in their natural habitats," said 13-year-old Valentina Mendez, from Colombia, who watched the film a week earlier with her younger brother. Though her father, George, had only seen a small portion of the film with his children, he decided to leave the park with his family earlier than planned, thanks to his daughter's concerns, after they had hit the park's major thrill rides. "The truth is they didn't want to stay in the park for long," he explained.

Still, today SeaWorld said its marine parks saw record attendance levels for October through December (when the Blackfish effect was at full flood) and SeaWorld will report record revenues for 2013 soon.

Ultimately, the true test of the Blackfish effect is whether over time it has any appreciable impact on SeaWorld's bottom line. SeaWorld is a business, and real change will come if and when SeaWorld concludes it will make more money moving away from the killer whale entertainment business than it will trying to continue it. If that happens, Blackfish will have a life beyond the impact it has had on audiences, and the Blackfish effect will have meaning.

Whatever impact the Blackfish effect does (or does not) have on SeaWorld will tell us a lot about the intersection of filmmaking and real-world business. Cowperthwaite, however, believes the debate transcends SeaWorld and whatever political pressures and financial incentives it has to change. "My real hope is that we're starting to learn what we stand to gain by redefining our relationship with other sentient beings," she said. "If we can relate to them with more respect, decency, and understanding, I think that will be more far-reaching and more long lasting than anything SeaWorld does or doesn't do."