The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A world of trouble for SeaWorld

A 9-year-old orca named Kalia swims at the SeaWorld San Diego park. (AP Photo/SeaWorld San Diego)

Under normal circumstances, an institution as big and famous as SeaWorld would be impervious to any number of public assaults on its standing. Like Wal-Mart or Comcast or Disneyland, one would assume it could bear any bad press and keep chugging. But after the release of the documentary “Blackfish” in the summer of 2013, it became clear to onlookers that these were not normal circumstances and not the usual bad press. That became dramatically clear Thursday, when the company’s CEO, Jim Atchison, resigned in a departure many link to the fallout.

“Blackfish” was inspired by the deaths of two trainers who were working with the same killer whale, named Tilikum. It portrayed the tragedies as the result of what it called cruel treatment of the animals in captivity, a charge vehemently denied by SeaWorld, and used striking footage and emotional interviews to illustrate what its producers called the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry.”

In response, SeaWorld dispatched a detailed, preemptive critique to 50 movie critics lambasting “Blackfish” in granular detail. Other companies might have tried to keep a low profile. After all, the New York Times noted at the time, documentaries “generally have small audiences.” Rather than calling attention to the film, why not let the squall pass?

This one, however, would not, and in the annals of documentary work, it’s difficult to come up with another movie that has so damaged a giant corporation.

Before the release of “Blackfish,” which SeaWorld called “shamefully dishonest” and “scientifically inaccurate,” the theme park was flying high with attendance at about 10 million annually. Then the numbers began to decline. For the nine months ended September 30, 2014, the company reported, revenue decreased 7.3%, “a result of a 4.7% decrease in attendance.”

“This has happened during a five-year period that’s brought significant growth to the other major parks in the theme park industry,” according to The Theme Park Insider.

SeaWorld Entertainment’s share price has dropped nearly 44 percent to $16 per share since “Blackfish.” And on top of that, it now has to deal with a deluge of animal activism, spearheaded by the Oceanic Preservation Society, several petitions and a slew of antiSeaWorld websites. Consumerist, which every year ranks the 32 most despised American companies, put SeaWorld in its final four this year – beside the likes of Wal-Mart, Comcast and Monsanto.

The company blamed a variety of factors, including weather and the competitive environment. And while never mentioning the documentary by name, it acknowledged that negative publicity, amplified by social media and by a move in the California legislature to “restrict our ability to display certain animals” had hurt it.

The backlash was in some ways ironic. As Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak pointed out, SeaWorld was the one to first introduce the greater public to a species that until then had been hunted, feared and misunderstood as bloodthirsty killers. By presenting the animal as something very different, SeaWorld may have contributed to its own later troubles: people began to sympathize with the whales.

Protests have swept SeaWorld in California. School children have journeyed to the state capital to castigate it. It’s become object of disdain at the state capital among some lawmakers. “There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment,” Santa Monica assemblyman Richard Bloom (D) said in statement. “These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete tanks for their entire lives.”

Even shareholders are pushing back. In September, they sued SeaWorld Entertainment for misleading investors on how badly “Blackfish” had tarnished the company’s image and hurt its attendance and revenues. The suit, about which SeaWorld officials declined to comment when queried by the Los Angeles Times, claimed SeaWorld never disclosed vital information on the alleged mistreatment of its animals.

But SeaWorld, at least, saw the storm coming. In a February 2013 corporate filing reported by an Orlando local media, months before the film’s release and before it launched its anti-“Blackfish” campaign, it conceded that the movie would “harm our reputation, reduce attendance and negatively impact our business.”