By Tim Zimmermann
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 Change.org petitions. Late last year, a Blackfish supporter and animal advocate launched a Change.org 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 Change.org 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 Change.org 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 Change.org 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 Change.org 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 Change.org 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. More....