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Originally published Saturday, December 21, 2013 at 5:25 PM

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SeaWorld launches ‘Blackfish’ counterattack in ads

After months of dismissing “Blackfish” as activist propaganda, SeaWorld Entertainment has launched a more aggressive counterattack with full page newspaper ads and an online campaign contradicting the critical whale documentary.

Orlando Sentinel

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After months of dismissing “Blackfish” as activist propaganda, SeaWorld Entertainment has launched a more aggressive counterattack on the critical documentary.

The Orlando, Fla.-based theme-park company has placed full-page ads in eight of the country’s largest newspapers, making a passionate case for the importance of displaying killer whales in captivity.

The “Open Letter from SeaWorld’s Animal Advocates” — which appeared in Friday’s Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, among other papers — defends the way SeaWorld cares for the 29 whales in its corporate collection. Although it never identifies “Blackfish” by name, the ad is the first step in a campaign to rebut criticisms raised by the film and the animal-rights activists promoting it.

SeaWorld President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison said in an interview Thursday that the company decided to respond after several well-known performers backed out of concerts that had been scheduled for early next year at SeaWorld Orlando, most of them citing the “Blackfish” controversy.

Eight of the 10 acts SeaWorld had been counting on to headline its annual “Bands, Brew & BBQ” concert series — including Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson and Trisha Yearwood — have canceled, an episode that has drawn international attention.

“That ended up getting more coverage and became a story of its own, and, accordingly, what we wanted to do is to make sure that some of the misconceptions that were floating around related to that coverage were put to bed,” Atchison said.

SeaWorld would not say how much it spent on the newspaper ads, which could soon be followed by an online campaign. But the move suggests that the company, whose 11 theme parks drew a combined 24.4 million visitors last year, is concerned about potential long-term brand damage from “Blackfish,” a small-budget film that began as an entrant to the Sundance Film Festival in January and was just shortlisted for an Academy Award.

The film chronicles the capture and captivity of Tilikum, the 6-ton killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010. Although “Blackfish” grossed only about $2.1 million during limited theatrical release this summer, it has repeatedly aired on CNN and this week debuted on Netflix’s popular streaming-video service.

A representative for “Blackfish” distributor Magnolia Pictures said Thursday that the film’s performance on Apple’s iTunes and video-on-demand channels has been “through the roof,” though the company would not provide figures. Netflix also would not disclose viewership data for the film.

In its open letter, SeaWorld says it has invested $70 million improving its killer-whale habitats in the past three years. Much of that has been spent on safety upgrades implemented after Brancheau’s death, which remains the subject of a legal battle between SeaWorld and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Some of the company’s claims are certain to spark an equally aggressive response from animal-rights groups.

For example, SeaWorld says in its ad that the life spans of its killer whales are equivalent to those living in the wild, which contradicts claims by animal-rights groups. A widely cited 1995 study found that the mortality rate of killer whales in captivity was about 2 ½ times that of killer whales in the wild. Naomi Rose, a marine-mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, said Thursday that more recent research suggests the difference is closer to three times.

But Christopher Dold, SeaWorld Entertainment’s vice president of veterinary services, said the rate of survival for SeaWorld’s whales is just as high as that of whales in the wild.

Despite its high-profile response today, Atchison insisted that “Blackfish” and the negative publicity it has spawned have not hurt SeaWorld’s business. The company says it is on track to post core earnings of almost $440 million on sales of nearly $1.5 billion, both of which would be company records.

“As much data as we have and as much as we look, I can’t connect anything really between the attention that the film has gotten and any effect on our business,” he said.

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