SeaWorld Roils The Waters With PR Campaign

Allowing that close contact with killer whales is a highly calculated risk, SeaWorld Entertainment has a lot of hands-on experience in what may be its most daring attempt to control forces whose natural instincts are to swim unfettered and beholden to no outside influences. 

It is trying to shape and contain media coverage -- and, hence, public opinion -- about a highly critical 83-minute documentary focused on Tilikum (aka “Tilly”), a six-ton bull orca whale captured when he was about 2 years old off the coast of Iceland. Tilikum, a crowd favorite in SeaWorld parks in both California and Florida, has been implicated in the deaths of three people over the years, including that of a popular and accomplished trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010

Magnolia Pictures’ “Blackfish,” directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is opening in Los Angeles and New York today to generally favorable reviews. There’s a 96% positive rating so far on Rotten Tomatoes.

“A mesmerizing psychological thriller with a bruised and battered killer whale at its center,” reads the lede to Justin Chang’s piece in Variety. The Los Angeles Times’s Gary Goldstein calls it “stirring” and “a vital, convincing proponent for the greater protection and understanding of such evolved and majestic creatures.” And in the New York Daily News, Joe Neumaier writes that the film is “an extraordinary, must-see examination of what humans do to killer whales so that these amazing creatures can become one more entertainment.” 

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, with 11 theme parks in the U.S. including the SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Sesame Place brands that attracted more than 24 million people last year, is taking a very different, and unusually public, POV about the doc.

“In an unusual pre-emptive strike … SeaWorld Entertainment startled the film world last weekend by sending a detailed critique of the movie to about 50 critics who were presumably about to review it. It was among the first steps in an aggressive public pushback against the film…,” Michael Cieply writes in the New York Times this morning. 

SeaWorld is being advised by the communications firm 42West, “which is better known for promoting films than punching back at them, [and] is taking the opposite approach,” according to Cieply. “By midweek, the company was providing top executives and animal caretakers for interviews about the movie and its purported flaws.”

Among other rejoinders, the statement flat-out claims that the film is “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate,” according to multiple reports. SeaWorld executives had declined to be interviewed for the film itself, reportedly on the grounds that whatever they said would be distorted.

“It’s rare that corporations targeted in documentaries hire a film publicist to make sure that critics and journalists are informed of the company’s response to a film,” IndieWire’s Bryce J. Renninger writes, pointing out that McDonald’s chose to not stir up the pot about “Super Size Me,” although there were rumors that it might.  

I could not locate SeaWorld’s critique of “Blackfish” on its website but Renninger breaks out all eight of its assertions, along with responses from the filmmakers.

In an interview with NPR’s Barbara J. King, David Kirby, author of the book Death at SeaWorld, calls the SeaWorld counter-campaign “one of the clumsiest, most ill-advised acts of corporate crisis-management I’ve seen in decades -- think New Coke -- and it’s driving ticket sales, and sales of my book, so it already backfired.”

In a similar vein, Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles tells the Times’ Cieply that SeaWorld’s response is proving to be a boon to the movie. “From a marketing standpoint, this is turning into the gift that keeps on giving,” Bowles says. “Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Meanwhile, the film itself is getting the sort of exposure that most documentary filmmakers can only  dream about.

“There is no documented case of a killer whale ever killing anybody in the wild. It’s only in captivity where these incidents have happened,” director Cowperthwaite tells ABC News’ Linsey Davis in a report that ran on “Dateline” early this morning. Cowperthwaite wants SeaWorld to implement changes, not shut down, ABC digital producer Lauren Effron reports in a story about the story.

“There is a potentially very heroic role and very forward-thinking role for SeaWorld to take in all this,” Cowperthwaite tells Davis. “I think they have the financial resources to be able to sort of shift this whole marine park, circus-like environment into one of education.”

And although they’d never put it quite that way, that’s pretty much what they are attempting to do with the public through the PR campaign. It’s proving to be a fascinating show to watch.

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