'Blackfish' Director Talks SeaWorld Revenue Drop: "People Are Truly Willing to Change Ethically"

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Last summer's controversial documentary centered on killer whales in captivity

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

SeaWorld's second-quarter earnings continued a recent dive, but whether the decline is due to Blackfish -- last summer's controversial documentary about killer whales in captivity -- has become its own controversy.

On Aug. 13, SeaWorld Entertainment reported year-to-date losses of 5 percent in revenue and a 4.3 percent slide in attendance, with second-quarter revenue down 1 percent and attendance up 0.3 percent. (The first-quarter figures were worse, an 11 percent revenue plunge driven by 13 percent fewer visitors.) The company for the first time indicated that Blackfish has hurt its business — the Q2 report referred to a California bill prompted by the documentary that would ban keeping orcas in captivity for entertainment. "Attendance in the quarter was impacted by demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California," the company said.

"I don't need them to acknowledge us," says Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. She notes that SeaWorld hasn't specifically tied its declining revenue to the film. But, she adds, "What I really think is cool about this revenue drop is that [it shows] people are truly willing to change ethically."

The company has attributed the decline in part to expansions at competing parks, which theme park business consultant John Gerner says is not an insubstantial excuse. "I will tell you, as someone who’s watched the industry for decades, that expansions on a regular basis are what keeps attendance up," Gerner says. In particular, SeaWorld Orlando's new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin expansion went head-to-head with Disney World's New Fantasyland in 2013 and — competing for summer 2014 tourism — Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter's Diagon Alley expansion, which opened in July. The attendance dips in 2013 (4.1 percent) and this year were "not unexpected," Gerner says, "because SeaWorld did not have the expansions their competitors had."

The parks have faced other Blackfish backlash, with musicians including Willie Nelson, Heart and Barenaked Ladies withdrawing from performances at the park this year and Southwest Airlines ending a 26-year partnership after receiving a petition that cites the film. Then on Aug. 15, the company announced an expansion that will almost double SeaWorld San Diego’s killer whale enclosure  — which will break ground next year for a 2018 opening — and $10 million in matching funds for killer whale conservation research. Cowperthwaite calls it an "obvious" response to the film, but the company says the initiative — named the Blue World Project — was in the works before Blackfish’s release. “We did not create it or announce it to appease our critics,” the parks’ communications vp Fred Jacobs wrote in an email.

Gerner says it's an indication that the company is concerned with negative publicity over animal welfare — but it "could have an immediate effect” on park attendance. He says it resembles zoos' successful efforts to sell visitors on their conservational efforts and their animals' comfort. "I could imagine that for those that feel that way, they would no longer feel guilty about going to SeaWorld," Gerner says. "The perception can change as soon as people feel SeaWorld is on the right path."

Email: Austin.Siegemund-Broka@THR.com
Twitter: @Asiegemundbroka