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terça-feira, 10 de novembro de 2015
SeaWorld vs Blackfish: the film that saved the whales
How a small documentary brought a $2 billion industry to its knees, forced changes to the law, and influenced the plot of Pixar's Finding Dory
This week SeaWorld announced that it will phase out the orca shows at its San Diego theme park within two years and attempt to rebrand as an animal conservation rather than an entertainment company. It’s a move that comes in response to mounting protests against the holding of orca, and to efforts by California lawmakers to ban breeding in captivity.
More importantly for SeaWorld’s bottom line, it follows a significant drop in visitor numbers and a major hit to their net profits; SeaWorld’s shares have dropped by half since 2013. Incredibly, the downturn in this American insitution's fortunes can almost entirely be ascribed to one film:Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish.
Shot for only $76,000 and initially released in only five cinemas, Blackfish didn’t immediately look like it would change a small corner of the world. Cowperthwaite’s last film as director had been a documentary about lacrosse at inner-city schools, with no hint of animal-welfare crusading.
But the captive mammals caught her interest. At the film’s Sundance debut she told IndieWire, “I was a mom that took her kids to SeaWorld. That's my entry point, unfortunately. I don't come from any past activism or even really controversial filmmaking. My past films are sort of slightly more touchy-feely and inspiring, so I expected [SeaWorld] would look at this as an opportunity to tell me what they do, why so many people are enchanted by these shows, and why they're a $2 billion industry.”
SeaWorld refused to be involved, however, and the story she uncovered suggested that it had huge shortcomings in its practices.
Her film centred around the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, reportedly one of the more safety-conscious animal trainers at the Orlando park. Brancheau was dragged under water by a killer whale called Tilikum and drowned. Crucially, it was not the first violent incident associated with Tilikum. In 1991, along with two other female orca, he held 20 year-old trainer Keltie Byrne under water at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific park in British Columbia. And in 1999, a man called Daniel P. Dukes, who had somehow hidden overnight in SeaWorld where Tilikum was kept, was found dead in his tank.
The film further claimed that whales are basically driven mad by their confined circumstances. These intensely social animals are separated from their families, and held in enclosures not much more than two body-lengths long when they are used to travelling up to 2,000kms. There, the whales are known to violently rake one another, and even assuming they escape aggression a majority of male orca suffer a drooping dorsal fin that is seen in only 1% of wild whales.
The life expectancy of captive whales is also significantly lower than wild whales: males live 17-30 years as opposed to 50 or 60 in the wild, while wild females can live up to 100.) The film painted a compelling picture of an inhumane industry that turned orca into killers.
The film made just over $2m at the US box office, but amid overwhelmingly positive reviews it had a disproportionate effect. Music stars including The Beach Boys and Trisha Yearwood cancelled scheduled appearances at the Bands, Brews & BBQ event at SeaWorld Orland and Busch Gardens Tampa, and a steady stream of celebrities followed suit and spoke out against the parks, including the likes of Harry Styles earlier this summer. Attendance at SeaWorld’s facilities in San Diego CA, Orlando FL and in Texas began to fall.
In August 2013, reports emerged that Pixarhad changed certain plot points in Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, in direct reponse to Blackfish. John Lasseter and director Andrew Stanton saw the film, met with Cowperthwaite and made changes to their animation as a result.
The film sees forgetful fish Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) searching for her family, a search that takes her to a Monterey Marine Life Institute. Lou Psihoyos, director of campaigning dolphin documentary The Cove (who did not have first-hand knowledge of the meeting),told the LA Times in relation to the changes that, “At the end of the [Pixar] movie, some marine mammals are sent to an aquatic park/rehab facility - a SeaWorld-type environment. After seeing Blackfish, they retooled the film so that the sea creatures now have the choice to leave that marine park. They told Gabriela they didn’t want to look back on this film in 50 years and have it be their Song of the South."
Like that famously racist Disney film, the tides of history threaten to drown SeaWorld. As attendance began to drop, SeaWorld tried to hit back. It picked holes in the testimony of the film’s former SeaWorld trainers. When the Orlando Business Journal asked readers if Blackfish had changed their views on SeaWorld in December, 55% of the votes came from a single IP address – belonging to SeaWorld.
The company reportedlyspent $15 million attempting to counter the $76,000 film’s message – but numbers kept falling. In July 2014 Southwest Airlines announced that it would not renew its partnership with SeaWorld, and that December SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison resigned. In April 2013 SeaWorld was valued at $2.5bn, with shares trading at $27. They are now under $18, and visitor numbers in San Diego dropped 17% last year.
The company is now in damage control mode, particularly in California where it is under sustained attack from State lawmakers. Representative Adam Schiff has been campaigning against the parks for some time, and this week introduced the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement Act bill.
This would end all orca display within the lifespan of the animals currently in captivity by preventing capture, breeding or import / export. That prospect may have prompted yesterday’s announcement by SeaWorld that the current shows will be phased out over two years.
Cowperthwaite is understandably sceptical about SeaWorld's promises. "I am always optimistic when I hear that there is some semblance of change,"she said in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter. "But it appears that they are not stopping their orca shows at all. Just repurposing them. I'm afraid this is just the latest attempt to survive the PR nightmare that is SeaWorld."
Blackfish has not ensured the end of life in captivity for orcas, and there is a danger that orca shows will simply expand into China and the Middle East as they’re forced out of the US (the UK no longer has any dolphin or whale shows). But with an 84% year-on-year drop in net income in the second quarter of 2015 and this latest capitulation by SeaWorld to demands that it change its practices, the film has forever changed a major company.
There is, of course, an irony to all this. As good as the film is, it could never have had such a profound effect on viewers if SeaWorld had not done such a good job of making the world fall in love with orcas i