Documentary filmmaking can be a thankless job. Other than those rare exceptions such as “Bowling for Columbine” or “Super Size Me,” feature-length non-fiction films hardly ever cause more than a ripple when they’re released. Instead, most quietly make their way to Netflix or else just disappear into the ether, no matter how timely or well made they are.
But “Blackfish,” the recently released documentary about captive killer whales and the 2010 death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, is looking like one of those exceptions.
Since it premiered one year ago at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (where it was acquired by CNN Films), “Blackfish” has been seen by tens of millions of people, become a trending topic on Twitter and sparked a heated public debate (online and off) about the ethics of maintaining orcas in marine parks.
It's also put SeaWorld — a publicly traded company valued at $2.5 billion, according to the New York Times — on the defensive.
Last summer, the company hired a PR firm to write a multi-part rebuttal of some of the claims made in the film by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, according to the New York Times. The rebuttal was sent to a handpicked list of critics prior to the film’s New York premiere, the Times reported.
The filmmakers, in turn, issued their own rebuttal, which they posted to the film's website.
In August, Bloomberg reported dwindling park attendance and falling stock prices.
SeaWorld again spoke up in December, this time by taking out full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers to “set the record straight” and correct “inaccurate reports,” according to CNN. The ad, which is also posted on the SeaWorld website, avoids naming "Blackfish," instead focusing on SeaWorld's history of contributions to marine biology and conservation.
SeaWorld has denied any link between the film and park attendance. On Monday, the company announced that the parks actually managed to set a new fourth-quarter attendance record in 2013, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Despite this, "Blackfish" is having a significant impact. The film’s television premiere on CNN in October became the channel’s highest-rated movie of the year, according to CNN. While it aired, celebrities like Russell Brand, Dane Cook, Zach Braff and Josh Groban all took to social media sites to plug the film, which became the No. 2 trending hashtag on Twitter.
Even Disney-owned Pixar was impacted by the film, according to the Los Angeles Times' Amy Kaufman, who wrote that Cowperthwaite met with Pixar head John Lasseter and "Finding Nemo" director Andrew Stanton to discuss the documentary, causing them to tweak part of the upcoming "Nemo" sequel, "Finding Dory."
Conservation groups, including the Oceanic Preservation Society, which produced 2009’s Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” have also rallied to Cowperthwaite’s side, and musicians previously scheduled to perform at the park’s Bands, Brew & BBQ event in March have been dropping out since last month, according to National Geographic. They include big-name acts such as Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, REO Speedwagon, Heart, Cheap Trick and, most recently, Trace Adkins.
SeaWorld spokesman Nick Gollattscheck emailed CNN, saying, “While we’re disappointed a small group of misinformed individuals was able to deny fans what would have been great concerts at SeaWorld, we respect the artists' decisions. We expect that other artists will be targeted in this campaign."
"Blackfish" has also started to have an effect on some of SeaWorld’s most valued customers: children.
CNN reported last month that a California elementary school canceled an annual field trip to SeaWorld at the behest of the students.
Similarly, a YouTube video by a 6-year-old activist named Cash asking people not to go to SeaWorld on his birthday (Dec. 22) led to protests outside all three SeaWorld locations, according to Seattle PI.
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In an interview with Indiewire, Cowperthwaite, whose background is not in animal rights activism, said she has been surprised by the reaction to her film. “As a documentary filmmaker you come from humble pie so you don't imagine that all that many people will lay their eyes on your film and you don't imagine (it’s) necessarily going to change things, but that's the whole point of why you do what you do. Which makes it kind of a hard career choice, because it doesn't always work.”
Cowperthwaite’s film looked like a strong contender for this year’s Academy Awards. It made the documentary shortlist, but did not make the final list of nominated films.
“Blackfish” is available to stream on Netflix Instant.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.