SeaWorld, which went public on the stock exchange three months before the film's bow at Sundance, noted in later regulatory filings that any in-park accident that "receives media attention, is the topic of a book, film, documentary or is otherwise the subject of public discussions," could hurt their brand and ultimately, their bottom line.
CNN's first airing of Blackfish on Oct. 24 swept every major demographic under the age of 55 watching TV that night. It also played in theaters across the country beginning in July. And since the film was released on Netflix on Dec. 13, it has been reviewed by nearly 600,000 users, earning a perfect five-star rating and making it one of Netflix's most popular programs.
Now, Blackfish has been shortlisted for an Oscar nomination.
That's a lot of media attention, which has required a lot of public relations pushback.
In addition to the normal rash of press releases (including this open letter published in several major newspapers) and photo opportunities, SeaWorld has allegedly worked to game the system in a more underhanded way.
On Dec. 31, The Orlando Business Journal polled its readers, asking whether "CNN's Blackfish documentary changed [their] perception of SeaWorld?" On Thursday, the returns were quite unusual, with 99% of respondents claiming that the film had done nothing to alter their opinion of the park. The newspaper investigated, and found that a single IP address was responsible for delivering 54% of the votes. The IP, it turned out, belonged to SeaWorld.com and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.
In response, Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for SeaWorld, defended what he said was employees' participation in the poll:
"SeaWorld Entertainment is headquartered in Orlando and we have three parks here," he told BuzzFeed. "We have five parks in Central Florida, which means thousands and thousands of our people live and work here. Yes, a few hundred of our employees voted in the OBJ poll and many did so from computers and other devices that use our servers. I have absolutely no idea why anyone considers this a big deal. When the poll appeared a lot of people got a Google Alert, including me, and a few hundred people voted in support of their company. It is no more mysterious than that."
The same day that the poll results were revealed, an article on Forbes.com that detailed the financial hit the chain has taken since Blackfish's release was taken down (though it's saved in Google cache). Its author, James McWilliams, took to his blog, writing that "management demanded changes that I could not, in good conscience, make."
A spokeswoman for Forbes told BuzzFeed that "the post did not live up to Forbes' editorial standards." McWilliams' emailed response to the site's request to edit the already published post got caught in a spam filter, the spokeswoman said, and so, the publication deleted the post. McWilliams' email, which was found later, contained his resignation.
McWilliams, a published book author who began contributing to Forbes in November, confirmed his position with the publication, which he later wrote was a minor role with little financial compensation. "Whatever heroism narrative you have in mind should be tempered by these facts," he added on his blog.
SeaWorld did not contact Forbes about removing the story, the site's spokeswoman told BuzzFeed.