Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Gabriela Cowperthwaite|
|Produced by||Manuel V. Oteyza
|Written by||Gabriela Cowperthwaite
|Music by||Jeff Beal|
|Edited by||Eli Despres|
Manny O. Productions
|Distributed by||Magnolia Pictures|
|Running time||83 minutes|
Blackfish is a 2013 documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2013, and was picked up by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films for wider release.
The documentary focuses on the captivity of Tilikum, an orca involved in the deaths of three individuals, and the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity. The coverage of Tilikum includes his capture in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, purported harassment by fellow captive orcas at Sealand of the Pacific, incidents that Cowperthwaite argues contributed to the orca's aggression and includes testimonial from Lori Marino, Director of Science with Nonhuman Rights Project. Cowperthwaite also focuses on SeaWorld's claims that lifespans of orcas in captivity are comparable to those in the wild, typically 30 years for males and 50 years for females, a claim the film argues is false. Interview subjects also include former SeaWorld trainers, such as John Hargrove, who describe their experiences with Tilikum and other captive whales.
Cowperthwaite began work on the film after the 2010 death of Tilikum's trainer Dawn Brancheau and in response to the claim that the orca had targeted the trainer because she had worn her hair in a ponytail. Cowperthwaite argued that this claim had been conjecture and that "there had to be more to this story".
The review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes said 98% of 94 critics gave the film a positive review, with the site's consensus stating, "Blackfish is an aggressive, impassioned documentary that will change the way you look at performance killer whales." The Deseret News called it "a gripping example of documentary filmmaking at its finest". At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 83 based on 33 reviews.
In release for 14 weeks, the film earned $2,073,582 at the North American domestic box office.
Response from trainers
After the film's release, former SeaWorld trainer Bridgette Pirtle said the final film was "a complete ‘180’ from what was originally presented to me." In earlier statements, Pirtle praised the film's direction and supported its message. Mark Simmons, one of Tilikum's first trainers, believed few of his interview comments were used "[b]ecause the things I said flew in the face of the movie’s clear agenda. What I contributed did not support Gabriela or Tim Zimmerman’s intent with the film."
In January 2014, the family of the late trainer Dawn Brancheau said neither it nor the foundation named after her were affiliated with the film, and that they did not believe it accurately reflected Brancheau or her experiences.
Response from SeaWorld
Blackfish ... is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy .... [T]he film paints a distorted picture that withholds ...key facts about SeaWorld—among them...that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research.
SeaWorld responded further with an open letter rebutting the claims. The Oceanic Preservation Society and The Orca Project, a non-profit focusing on orca in captivity, responded with open letters criticizing SeaWorld's claims. Marine researcher Debbie Giles also offered rebuttals to SeaWorld, finding its assertions inaccurate.
On December 31, the Orlando Business Journal posted a poll, asking if Blackfish had changed readers' opinions on SeaWorld. The majority of votes stated that the film had not. It was later found that 180 of the votes originated from a SeaWorld-hosted IP address. SeaWorld defended the voting, stating that "each of the votes that came from a SeaWorld domain were cast by team members who are passionate about the incredible work SeaWorld does and the experiences our parks provide."
On February 27, 2014, SeaWorld filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, claiming the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigator who investigated Brancheau's death had behaved unethically by aiding the filmmakers. Cowperthwaite denied claims of improper collaboration.
In March 2014, Cowperthwaite rebutted a number of claims on SeaWorld's website and challenged SeaWorld officials to a public debate.
The ending to the upcoming animated film Finding Dory was revised after Pixar's John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton saw the film and spoke with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. The depiction of a marine park in the film was altered.
Reaction to the documentary prompted the bands and singers Heart, Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, .38 Special, Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, The Beach Boys, Trace Adkins and Trisha Yearwood to cancel their concerts at the "Bands, Brew & BBQ" event at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa in 2014.
SeaWorld announced afterward it had suffered a $15.9 million loss, which CEO James Atchison attributed in part to high ticket prices and poor weather.
Overall attendance at SeaWorld parks and Busch Gardens declined by 5% in the first nine months of 2013, though it was unclear if the drop in attendance was due to the influence of the film. SeaWorld claimed attendance figures for its three marine parks — Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio — in the last three months of 2013 were at record levels for that quarter.
In response to the film, New York State Senator Greg Ball proposed legislation in New York that bans keeping orcas in captivity. In March 2014, California State Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, a bill in California that would ban entertainment-driven killer whale captivity and retire all current whales. In June 2014, US Congressmen Adam Schiff and Jared Huffman attached an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations Act, requiring the USDA to update the Animal Welfare Act in regards to cetacean captivity. It passed with "unanimous bipartisan support." The bill allocates 1 million USD to studying the impacts of captivity on marine mammals. Schiff cited Blackfish as raising public concern.
After the release of Blackfish, Southwest Airlines came under increased pressure to end its 26-year relationship with SeaWorld. Southwest responded that they were aware of concerns and were "engaged" with SeaWorld over them, but that the partnership would continue. In July 2014, it was announced that the partnership would not be renewed. A press released stated that the break was mutual and based on "shifting priorities". The petitioning by activists was cited as a possible factor for the split.
In August 2014 the company announced that attendance and revenue were down about 1-2% for the second quarter of 2014 compared with the second quarter of 2013. Additionally, SeaWorld stock prices dropped by 33%. The company attributed the decline to the proposed government legislation related to the documentary. Later that month, the Rosen Law Firm PA announced an investigation into "potential securities claim" on behalf of SeaWorld investors. According to the firm, SeaWorld "acknowledged for the first time the negative publicity may have had a hit and may have been why the attendance has been flat for now and the past quarters." The firm will investigate if SeaWorld was aware of the impact and "chose to downplay that as a reason for its performance results."
The documentary was broadcast on CNN on October 24, 2013. After the broadcast, CNN aired an Anderson Cooper special with Jack Hanna, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Naomi Rose and Jack Hurley. This was followed by a special edition of Crossfire with Blackfish associate producer Tim Zimmermann debating Grey Stafford, a conservationist, zoologist, and member of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association.
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