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Celebs skip SeaWorld, keep orca issue alive
The documentary “Blackfish,” about an orca trainer’s 2010 death at SeaWorld, hasn’t dented profits at the theme-park chain, but recent celebrity entertainer cancellations at Orlando, Fla., citing orca treatment, has kept the issue alive.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Ever since the movie “Blackfish” hit U.S. theaters during the summer, executives at SeaWorld have insisted that the critical documentary, which condemns the company for keeping killer whales in captivity, has had a negligible impact on its business.
But in recent weeks, four musical acts — Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, Heart and Cheap Trick — have canceled concerts that had been scheduled for early next year at SeaWorld Orlando.
The cancellations are helping sustain “Blackfish” in the public consciousness, raising the risk that the film and its criticisms could do lasting damage to SeaWorld’s brand.
“It keeps the candle burning on ‘Blackfish,’ ” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consulting firm in Cincinnati. “It’s kind of like a snowball: It starts to roll, and then it gets bigger.”
SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs on Wednesday characterized the impact of the film as minimal. He said attendance at the company’s three SeaWorld parks — in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio — was “very strong” during the busy summer months and has remained strong since.
“I think most people who are aware of ‘Blackfish’ can see that the film makes no attempt at a fair and complete telling of the SeaWorld story and that it really is something close to animal-rights propaganda,” Jacobs said.
The movie has also not dented SeaWorld’s financial performance. The company says it is on pace to post core earnings of almost $440 million on revenue of nearly $1.5 billion in 2013, both of which would be company records.
At a minimum, the withdrawals threaten to sabotage SeaWorld’s “Bands, Brew and BBQ” program, an annual series that SeaWorld Orlando — SeaWorld Entertainment’s biggest and most profitable park — depends on to drive traffic during the typically slow midwinter months.
Some of the acts have been careful not to take sides in the emotionally charged captivity debate.
But others have publicly condemned SeaWorld.
“I don’t agree with the way they treat their animals. ... What they do at SeaWorld is not OK,” Willie Nelson said in an interview with CNN. (SeaWorld initially said that Nelson canceled because of “scheduling conflicts.”)
“Blackfish” revisits the darkest chapter in SeaWorld’s 50-year history: the February 2010 death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, killed by the 6-ton killer whale Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity and an animal involved in two previous human deaths.
The tragedy spawned a continuing legal war between SeaWorld and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has recommended that SeaWorld trainers never again be allowed to perform in close contact with killer whales, a standard that would prevent SeaWorld trainers from swimming with the animals during shows.
Among other arguments, “Blackfish” suggests that the stress of life in captivity may have caused the animal to lash out.
SeaWorld is seeing smaller crowds this year, as chainwide attendance fell by nearly 1 million visitors, to 18.9 million, through the first nine months of the year. But the company’s attendance trends have actually improved since “Blackfish” entered the marketplace.
For instance, SeaWorld’s attendance sank 9 percent during the April-through-June quarter, before many people had even heard of “Blackfish.” That narrowed to a 5.7 percent drop in July, when the movie arrived in theaters — and when SeaWorld drew extra attention to the film by aggressively attacking it in an unsolicited letter sent to film critics across the country.
The decline shrank to 1.8 percent in August and September. And SeaWorld executives told analysts that year-over-year attendance was flat in October and early November, when “Blackfish” was repeatedly aired on CNN.
“I suspect that SeaWorld has lost more attendance from not having their trainers in the water than they have from people being upset about animal captivity,” said Robert Niles, publisher of ThemeParkInsider.com, a popular industry-news website.
SeaWorld, for its part, blames the smaller crowds on a combination of unusually heavy rains in Florida and a strategic decision to sacrifice some attendance in order to charge higher prices and steer ticket sales through more profitable channels.
Still, “Blackfish” supporters hope the film’s impact will be magnified as more celebrities publicly distance themselves from the company.
Criticism from high-profile figures could ultimately prove very damaging for SeaWorld, said David Kirby, author of the book “Death at SeaWorld,” which, like “Blackfish,” focuses on Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau’s death.
“I think the ripple effect is even greater. Only so many people are going to see a documentary or read a book. But everybody knows who Willie Nelson is,” Kirby said.
The history of theme-park boycotts is not a strong one. The Southern Baptist Convention, a national network of more than 45,000 churches, spent eight years boycotting Walt Disney World in protest of Disney’s allowing the annual “Gay Days” gathering and its policy of offering health benefits to same-sex partners. The boycott had little or no apparent impact on Disney’s business, and the Baptists dropped it in 2005.
“Blackfish” may stay in the public spotlight longer. The film last week was among 15 documentaries to be shortlisted for an Academy Award. The award — which can produce an important marketing jolt for small-budget films — will be presented on national television March 2.
Meanwhile, SeaWorld spokesman Jacobs said bookings for “Bands, Brew and BBQ” continue.
“We anticipate the event will be just as popular as it’s been in the past and that all the dates will be filled,” he said.