SAN DIEGO » Hollywood has just cast SeaWorld as a bad guy. But SeaWorld has decided to diverge from the story line.
In an unusual pre-emptive strike on the documentary "Blackfish," set for release Friday in New York and Los Angeles by Magnolia Pictures, 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, which makes the case, sometimes with disturbing footage, that orca whales in captivity suffer physical and mental distress because of their confinement. Magnolia and the film’s director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, shot back with a point-by-point rebuttal in defense of the movie.
The exchange is now promising to test just how far a business can, or should, go in trying to disrupt the powerful negative imagery that comes with the rollout of documentary exposis. That kind of dilemma has surfaced with previous documentaries like "The Queen of Versailles," which last year portrayed the lavish lifestyle of real estate moguls Jackie and David Siegel, and even with narrative films like "The Social Network," which took an unflattering look at Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in 2010.
Businesses accused of wrongdoing in films often choose to lie low, hoping the issues will remain out of the public mainstream and eventually fade away without much fuss. That’s especially true of documentaries, which generally have small audiences.
SeaWorld, advised by the communications firm 42West, which is better known for promoting films than punching back at them, is taking the opposite approach. By midweek, the company was providing top executives and animal caretakers for interviews about the movie and its purported flaws.
It was also deliberating possible further moves, which might conceivably include informational advertising, a Web-based countercampaign or perhaps a request for some sort of access to CNN, which picked up television rights to "Blackfish" through its CNN Films unit and plans to broadcast the movie on Oct. 24.
Among other things, SeaWorld claims that "Blackfish," which focuses on the orca Tilikum’s fatal 2010 attack on a trainer, Dawn Brancheau, exceeded the bounds of fair use by incorporating training film and other footage shot by the company. The company also contends that Cowperthwaite positioned some scenes to create what SeaWorld executives see as a false implication of trouble or wrongdoing.
Asked whether SeaWorld was contemplating legal action against the film, G. Anthony Taylor, the general counsel, said decisions about any such step would have to wait until executives were able to more closely assess the movie. "Blackfish" made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has since screened at other festivals in the United States and abroad.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Cowperthwaite said she stood by the film and described any quarrel with its construction as an evasion of her inescapable conclusion: "Killer whales are 100 percent not suitable to captivity."
"For 40 years, they were the message," she said, referring to SeaWorld. "I think it’s OK to let an 80-minute movie" have its moment.
Since 1965, SeaWorld has kept and displayed dozens of orcas in parks here, in Orlando, Fla., and elsewhere. According to Taylor and other executives, at least 10 million people a year view some of the 29 whales now held. SeaWorld executives say that without access to the whales — which are now bred at the parks, rather than captured wild — humans would be denied a connection to large, intelligent animals with which many feel a bond.
"We’re deeply transformed by them, the killer whale is an animal that does that," said Dr. Christopher Dold, SeaWorld’s vice president of veterinary services, who spoke at the company’s San Diego park Wednesday.
Dold, Taylor and others point out that only one trainer has died in a whale encounter at SeaWorld parks, though Tilikum has been associated with three deaths. One of those was at another park, and one involved a man who somehow wound up in his tank at night.
On watching "Blackfish," Kelly Flaherty Clark, who works with Tilikum as the curator of trainers at SeaWorld’s Orlando park, said she was stunned by the presentation of her testimony at an Occupational Safety and Health Administration hearing, at which SeaWorld was cited for violating trainer safety — claiming it was selective in a way that did not accurately represent her views.
"We sleep and breathe care of animals," Clark said.
(The company is appealing a ruling that bars in-water contact between trainers and orcas. Such contact was voluntarily suspended before the ruling. Taylor said it is unclear how such training would be revived should SeaWorld win an appeal of the ruling, but new procedures and technology would be used, he said.)
Clark said she was also bothered by the movie’s reliance on interviews with a number of former trainers, whose experience with Tilikum was either nonexistent or largely confined to the distant past.
Cowperthwaite, however, said she was very much a journalist in making "Blackfish." She said she initiated the project, shortly after Brancheau’s death, with an open mind. Only slowly, she said, did she conclude that orcas like Tilikum may be driven to aberrational — or, in the words of one the film’s interviewees, "psychotic" — behavior by their captivity.
Cowperthwaite also said she was shocked that SeaWorld executives resisted her repeated pleas for interviews.
"I guess I naively expected them to say yes," she said.
Taylor said executives had avoided interviews because they doubted the material would be used in good faith.
But the question now becomes whether fighting back against "Blackfish" will actually help to promote a film that might normally be seen by only a small fraction of those who regularly show up at SeaWorld parks.
"It is hard to see this public relations attack as a good strategy," said Martin Garbus, a lawyer who represents director Lauren Greenfield in an arbitration dispute being pressed against her by the Siegels and their company over "The Queen of Versailles."
Taylor and his associates, speaking jointly Wednesday, said they recognized the risks but were motivated by a sense of outrage at a film that they said belittled their mission. They also say they feel a responsibility both to their workers and to the animals that often come through the SeaWorld parks as part of rescues that eventually return them to the wild.
"I don’t know if ‘reputation’ is the right word," Taylor said when asked if that’s what SeaWorld was defending. "We need to protect our people."
Eamonn Bowles, Magnolia’s president, said he was not unhappy that SeaWorld’s challenge — and particularly the letter to reviewers — was bringing attention to "Blackfish."
"From a marketing standpoint, this is turning into the gift that keeps on giving," Bowles said. "Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it."
Still, Bowles said the studio worried the controversy would overwhelm "the actual qualities of the film."
"We don’t want the elemental nature of the film to be subservient to advocacy about SeaWorld," he wrote in an email, "although they are intertwined."