As “Blackfish” Soars, Will SeaWorld Sink?

<p>Flickr, </p><h2>Thomas Kitchin and Victoria Hurst, Getty</h2>
<p>Flickr, </p><h2>Thomas Kitchin and Victoria Hurst, Getty</h2>

As the documentary "Blackfish" emerges as a darling of the film contest circuit -- it scored a best documentary nod last week by the BAFTA's (the British Oscars) and is expected to be up for an Academy Award when nominations are released on Thursday -- its subject, SeaWorld, finds itself swimming against an increasingly stronger current of public outrage. Will the amusement park be able to keep its head above water?

"I think there's been permanent damage," says Tina Cassidy, a crisis manager at the Boston-based Inkhouse publicity firm. "When the story has had legs like this for a year, simply trying to defend yourself isn't going to help."

And yet, that's the precisely what SeaWorld has continued, relentlessly, to do. It notoriously took out a full-page (and fact-challenged) ad in newspapers across the country in December, addressing some of the film's greatest criticisms. And while it carefully didn't mention "Blackfish" in the ad, SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison blasted the movie as a "misleading bit of animal rights propaganda." This has been SeaWorld's refrain since last summer, when it preemptively sent 50 film reviewers a critique that often devolved into pedantry (complaining that SeaWorld training videos shouldn't qualify as "fair use," for example).

Other branding experts say SeaWorld's handling of the situation has gone against just about every tried-and-tested rule of handling a crisis. Karen Post, author of "Brand Turnaround," a book examining how brands with tarnished reputations can improve their image, says that SeaWorld has done a poor job of "staying ahead of the story."

"Once you know there's a situation, you can't just wait and respond defensively, you need to do proactive things to remedy the issue," she says. "They don't have to admit they're guilty, but they have to let the public know that, yes, we're the company behind the brand and we're doing things to respond to the situation."

Along the way, though, SeaWorld has yet to be able to point to any inaccuracies in the film. As "Blackfish" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite maintained to the Wall Street Journal: "It's an air-tight document and anybody can look up the information in the film at any time and find out on their own."

And there have been other, smaller stumbles, like the apparent rigging of a web poll for the Orlando Business Journal. And the unfortunate promotion of a SeaWorld Trainer Barbie as holiday stocking-stuffer fare. That was a particularly tin-eared move, considering the tragic 2010 death of blonde, pony-tailed trainer Dawn Brancheau is the central event of "Blackfish."

Then, after CNN began airing broadcasts of "Blackfish" with record ratings in October -- they estimate nearly 20 million have now watched the documentary -- it has been met by an almost daily surge of protests:

  • When Trace Adkins announced Friday that he wouldn't play SeaWorld's annual "Bands, Brews & BBQ" concert series, it made him the ninth artist to do so, following others like Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, Barenaked Ladies, Cheap Trick, Heart and Trisha Yearwood. Only two musicians remaining on the docket for the concert series -- American Idol contestant Scott McCreery and country singer Justin Moore -- and both of have petitions targeted at them, here and here.
  • Protests of its float at both the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and again during the Rose Parade, which turned 12-year-old Rose McCoy into a media sensation and an activist (you can read her own piece for The Dodo here).
  • A major social media campaign of celebrities arrayed for "Blackfish," and against SeaWorld, from Aaron Paul to Paris Hilton.
  • Other companies, like, Southwest Airlines are being targeted by activists simply for partnering with SeaWorld.
  • Even a California elementary school canceled its trip to SeaWorld, over the depiction of its treatment of orcas.

The company, which went public earlier this year, claims to still be bullish on its prospects -- and even claims that it likely broke revenue records in 2013. SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs says "there is no truth to the suggestion that SeaWorld's reputation or business has been harmed by 'Blackfish.'" SeaWorld says it has posted new records for revenue all year, and that its revenue rose 3 percent in the third quarter of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012, due to higher ticket prices and higher average spending per guest.

The situation at the gate tells a different story: Attendance for the first nine months of 2013 was down 4.7 percent compared with the first nine months of 2012, from 19.8 million people to 18.9 million. In a conference call with shareholders in November, Atchison, SeaWorld's CEO, said the company was planning on a slight fall in attendance due to ticket price increases, and that bad weather in July drove the numbers down. He said the company drove "higher quality attendance," meaning guests were willing to spend more, attendance took a hit down even considering SeaWorld Orlando, the company's signature park, opened a brand new Antarctica-themed area in May that had been in the works for nearly two years. Atchison declined an interview with The Dodo.

The question about whether SeaWorld has taken a financial hit from Blackfish won't truly be answered until March, when the company plans to release its fourth quarter earnings -- a quarter that was subject to the post-CNN Blackfish frenzy, not the relatively calm days of the festival circuit.

But for those paying attention, there are external signs that all may not be well at the company. The Blackstone Group, the massive New York-based investment firm that bought SeaWorld in 2009, first took the company public in April and in December sold off enough shares to lose a majority stake in the company. Other major shareholders are jumping ship, too: In December, Delaware L.P., sold off 18,000,000 of its shares. The company also started offering tickets through Groupon at a 40 percent discount. And, as a MarketWatch column observed in November, "The more people see the film "Blackfish," the deeper stock of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. dives." (Its stock has dropped from a just post-IPO launch high of $38 to $28 over the past six months.)

Should SeaWorld take a severe attendance hit at its American parks, the company isn't necessarily doomed -- its business might just shift internationally. Atchison has shown interest in opening new parks overseas, and sees the Asian market -- one notoriously less concerned about animal welfare issues -- as one particularly primed for growth. In April, he told the New York Times that "there's a lot of interest in our brands from overseas."

"We could take our Shamu show in Orlando and probably show it in Malaysia or Abu Dhabi or Dubai," he said.

That's something that those involved with the movie fear as they push for more government oversight into illegal whaling and closer regulation of the way captive animals are treated. Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer who is heavily featured in "Blackfish," says orcas are likely to feature heavily overseas.

"Even if it becomes unpalatable for SeaWorld to house these animals in the United States, there is a growing market in Russia, Japan, the Middle East, and China that would pay the company millions to house orcas," Ventre said. "Their business model will continue to work for decades, especially outside of the United States."

As bad as the last few months have been for SeaWorld, press wise, it's exactly what those who worked on the film were hoping for. Ventre says the film now has the "deep penetration into popular culture" the filmmakers were going for. But even he says that protests alone aren't likely to have much of an impact on the long-term health of the company.

"Unless we can transform the energy from the movie into political action, we have accomplished very little. Laws need to be changed and enforced," he says. "‘Blackfish' is the beginning, not the end."