The now-famous documentary Blackfish made waves when it first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. While the outcry against the amusement park's treatment of their animals could have petered out quickly, SeaWorld has yet to fully recover from Blackfish.
Director and producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite centers her film's story around Tilikum, a performing orca at the Orlando, FL, SeaWorld park. Cowperthwaite tracks Tilikum's fraught history in marine parks, culminating in the 2010 passing of trainer Dawn Brancheau. Rather than painting the picture of an aggressive, dangerous animal, however, Cowperthwaite instead focuses on the environment of the marine park and the effects of the cruel treatment of whales in captivity.
The Blackfish fallout was immediate. Animal lovers denounced SeaWorld en masse, transforming the beloved park into the primary target of critical media coverage for months. But what happened to SeaWorld after Blackfish? Years after the documentary premiered, the parks may finally have a chance to regain their footing as a family-friendly getaway, but not without quite a few changes.
The Blackfish fallout was swift and decisive. Within months of the documentary's release, celebrities and the public alike boycotted SeaWorld parks, citing the disturbing documentary as their primary reason.
Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School in Malibu, California, had a nearly 10-year tradition of taking their fifth graders to SeaWorld for an overnight field trip. When parents and students expressed concerns about the trip after viewing Blackfish, the school canceled.
But the SeaWorld backlash wasn't limited to animal-loving children. Many famous musicians, including Martina McBride, the Barenaked Ladies, and Willie Nelson canceled scheduled performances at SeaWorld, claiming the documentary had completely changed their outlook on the aquatic entertainment giant.
Blackfish included personal accounts and in-depth information from many trainers, but not all of the participants were impressed with the final product. In January 2014, former SeaWorld trainer Bridgette Pirtle came forward to express her disappointment in the film.
Pirtle claimed she thought the film was going to be an ode to Dawn Brancheau's life and a chance to tell her story in a compassionate manner. When she finally viewed the documentary at Sundance, Pirtle felt the film was completely different from the project she was anticipating. She accused the film of taking certain information out of context and sensationalizing untrue material for the sake of the overall story.
However, Pirtle also agreed that using the animals for entertainment should end, and that the conditions in SeaWorld parks weren't ideal for such large animals.
In July 2014, just a little over a year after the premiere of the documentary, Southwest Airlines ended their 26-year marketing relationship with SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. Both Southwest and SeaWorld insisted that both companies mutually decided not to renew their partnership, emphasizing that it was strictly a business decision.
However, the choice followed pressure from animal rights activists for the airline to drop their SeaWorld ties. SeaWorld was a decided outcast among animal lovers everywhere, so Southwest's separation from the marine amusement parks created a convenient divide between the two companies.
The same year that the marine amusement parks lost their marketing partnership with Southwest, the SeaWorld backlash also led to a major dip in their stock. In August 2014, SeaWorld failed to meet analysts' expectations in their company earnings report, leading to a 33% drop in their stock.
While the company tried to attribute their drop in attendance to schedule shifts and rising ticket prices, the harsh public criticism from animal rights activists almost definitely influenced SeaWorld's steadily declining revenue. Activists celebrated the company's losses, while executives announced cost-cutting initiatives in an effort to keep their business afloat.