Early this morning, actor Chris Hemsworth read out the Oscar nominations in some dimly lit conference hall in Los Angeles. Although Blackfish was featured on the short list of 15 documentaries announced last month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ultimately snubbed it. But the film will live on as one of the most powerful and moving documentaries of our time. And it will continue to haunt SeaWorld's dreams.
Fans and orca advocates are expressing shock and dismay that the documentary about killer whales in captivity—and three-time killer Tilikum in particular—did not make the final cut of five nominees for best documentary feature.
Still, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has given the world an invaluable gift that people will be talking about for years. Watched by more viewers than any other documentary last year and scheduled to air again this month on CNN, Blackfish has turned SeaWorld's world upside down and brought new urgency to the debate over the ethics of keeping large, sentient animals in tiny tanks to do inane tricks for food.
Documentaries are supposed to make us think. The best ones make us change, and that is what Blackfish will continue to do. If awards were based on influence, it would win all of them.
Thanks to the film, an untold number of people will no longer visit SeaWorld or other venues that keep orcas in captivity. The media, once largely indifferent to the issue, except when Tilikum killed Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau almost four years ago, have woken from their stupor to report on the honest (if heated and often vitriolic) debate that is taking place in the country. The fallout will only increase as every detail of SeaWorld's once-shining reputation is reported on in depth.
It is daunting to recount all of the milestones that Blackfish achieved in 2013, but following is a short list:
• Last January, at the Sundance Film Festival, a huge stir and a bidding war broke out for the film's rights, which went to CNN Films.
• A hugely successful run on CNN broke all kinds of viewing records, including among the young demographic of 18–34 year olds, who have devoured the film's message.
• Nine musical acts that were slated to perform in a concert series at SeaWorld in Orlando next month, including Willie Nelson and Barenaked Ladies, canceled.
• There have been widely reported protests over Southwest Airlines' business partnership with SeaWorld.
• High school students in San Diego, SeaWorld's California backyard, produced a stunningly simple, powerful, widely viewed documentary.
• There were protests and arrests at the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York and the Rose Parade in Pasadena over a SeaWorld float celebrating whales in tanks.
• In December, park staff stuffed the electronic ballot box of an online poll sponsored by the Orlando Business Journal asking if Blackfish had changed people's mind about SeaWorld. In a subsequent investigation of the poll, journalist Richard Bilbao discovered that 54 percent of the votes came from one IP address, which was located inside SeaWorld.
The film continues to inspire and rattle in the New Year. The documentary not only was nominated for a BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Oscars, but also was the impetus for a last-minute cancellation of the entertainment company’s 50th birthday party this week by a trendy Manhattan restaurant.
Blackfish is neither gone nor forgotten, even without an Academy Award nomination. As Kimberly Ventre, an anti-captivity advocate and sister of former SeaWorld trainer and Blackfish cast member Jeffrey Ventre, put it in an email to me this morning:
“This is a documentary that has...contributed greatly to a worldwide movement. The movie wasn't made for awards...it was made to tell the truth. The truth is what is moving people across the globe.”
“And now the big winner is the planet and cetaceans everywhere,” she continued, “thanks to Gabriela and all of the truth tellers.”