Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry. This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals.
The film has generated significant coverage about issues related to keeping killer whales in captivity, and opened this debate up beyond the spheres of animal activism and academia. The film has moved elementary school students to protest field trips to Seaworld, rock bands to cancel their Seaworld performances, and state legislators to propose bills banning the use of whales in theme parks. Seaworld attendance is down 13 percent in the first three months of 2014.
- Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
- Producer: Manny Oteyza
- Executive Producers: Judy Bart, Erica Kahn
The Blackfish team notes that their production was funded by an investor — Our Turn Productions Executive Producers Judy Bart and Erica Kahn — with outreach costs picked up by distributors.
- Bring awareness of killer whales in captivity to a wide audience beyond academia and animal activist groups.
- Create conversation around animals in captivity and entertainment.
- Improve living conditions for killer whales in aquatic entertainment park.
Producer Manny Oteyza writes: “We did not aim for any particular region, country and the idea of reaching the world was not even in our mind. We just wanted to people to see our little movie—it didn’t matter where.”
How the Campaign Works
The production team’s primary focus was on distribution. Producer Manny Oteyza writes: “Our bar was set pretty low. I think being a documentary filmmaker, you’re excited by the prospect that people might see your film on purpose — actually go to a theater, pay and see it. As a documentary filmmaker you come from humble pie so you don’t imagine that all that many people will lay their eyes on your film and you don’t imagine necessarily going to change things, but that’s the whole point of why you do what you do.
After premiering at Sundance we were able to get theatrical distribution by Magnolia Pictures where we reached over 100 theaters around the US and Canada achieving over 2 million in US Box office alone. CNN Films owed TV Cable rights were during our premiere week of 19 airings we had over 21 million viewers. Our dream was to have both a theatrical and TV broadcast and we achieved both and the audience viewership was beyond our expectations and continues to still grow.”
The filmmakers note that targeted campaigns directed at the whale and animal rights communities helped to move the campaign forward, but that they did not partner directly with activist groups.
- The team did not do any sort of polling but various media outlets had done their own polls to ask if Blackfish has done anything to change viewers’ attitudes about Seaworld. One story noted that Seaworld was accused of “stuffing ballots” for a CNN poll, based on votes coming from a Seaworld protocol address.
- A Google Trend analysis of the term “Blackfish” shows a strong spike in interest starting in mid-2013.
- An analysis of CNN Films strategy around the airing of Blackfish shows a strong spike in Tweets about the film.
- IndieWire also reported on the success of CNN’s Twitter strategy, and visualized the network of those tweeting about the film.
The team is still considering next steps.
Change in Awareness
Oreyza writes: “The subject of killer whales was a topic for only those involved in cetacean studies and animal activists groups. Our film, based on the numbers, reached the regular public and the controversial topic of animals in captivity and animals used in entertainment, especially Killer Whales, became an everyday topic discussed in newspapers, TV news, magazine articles all over the world.” Recently, Scholastic Magazine had an issue that focused on the topic of whales in captivity, reaching millions of elementary students.
- The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, January 2013
- The film has had over 24 million viewers in the USA on CNN as of February 2014.
- Via the UK’s BBC, 1 million viewers have seen the film. Additional viewing numbers from across Europe are still pending.
- At domestic box office, the film made $2,073,582.
- The film has been made available for download on iTunes and streaming via Netflix.
Academy Awards 2014 Short List for Best Documentary Feature, BAFTA (British Academy Awards) — Nominated for Best Feature Documentary, Sundance Film Festival— Nominated Feature Documentary In-Competition, Green Film Festival Seoul — Winner Audience Award, Sheffield Doc/Fest — Nominated for Special Jury Award.
The team did not provide information on targeted screenings, which were managed by partner organizations as noted above.
- Primary site: http://blackfishmovie.com—126,000 unique visitors
- Social media platforms:
- Facebook— 359,904 likes as of early May
- Twitter— 37,900 followers as of early May
- Online distribution platforms: iTunes, Netflix
Notable online responses:
- Oteyza writes: “We had great supporters in the whale and animal rights community that helped spread the word about the film. Social media played a major part in letting people know about Blackfish via Facebook and Twitter.
- Over 100 celebrities have posted about the film on Twitter, including Russell Brand, Miley Cyrus, and Rosie O’Donnell.
- The Ex-Seaworld trainers in the film and other whale organizations saw their websites receive major increases in traffic.
- A New York state petition supporting the “Blackfish” Bill to ban Orca captivity attracted over 1 million signatures
Key Press Mentions:
USA Today, LA Times, CBS, other widespread coverage.
Change in Behavior
- Screening attendees who asked what they could do to help were advised to abstain from purchasing Seaworld tickets.
Response has been significant. Audience attendance is down 13 percent in the first three months of 2014 at Seaworld. Rock bands that were planning to perform at Seaworld’s “Bands Brew & BBQ” event canceled their performances, including Heart and Willie Nelson. Elementary students protested to their principals that they no longer wanted school field trips to Seaworld San Diego.
For the most part, the film was created to increase awareness, not to have a specific political impact. However, Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, proposed legislation banning the use of orcas for performance purposes at California aquatic theme parks as a result of Blackfish, and New York Senator Greg Ball proposed a bill to prohibit “the possession and harboring of killer whales in aquariums and sea parks.” While the Sacramento bill was tabled for a revised proposal next year, in New York the bill has just recently passed the state’s Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation.
Bloom said there was no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes. “These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete tanks for their entire lives,” Bloom said. “It is time to end the practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement…. in captivity, they have shorter lifespans, show increased health problems, live in swimming pool sized habitat that are approximately one ten-thousandth the required size and demonstrate aggressive behavior towards one another and towards humans that has never been documented in the wild,”
- The filmmakers suggested Seaworld could stop whale breeding, or construct Seapens for the whales they currently own.
- Seaworld has responded to the film with a vigorous negative PR campaign including Twitter and newspaper ads. The production team has responded with their own evidence to refute Seaworld’s critique.
- Since the release of the film, as noted above, park attendance has dropped significantly at Seaworld locations.
- Blackstone, a major stockholder in Seaworld Parks, recently sold 15 million of their shares, and Seaworld corp
While the team has not directly engaged partner organizations, Blackfish has served as a resource for animal rights groups to rally supporters against whale captivity.