Netflix Is SeaWorld's New Enemy


SeaWorld has had a rough year, and Netflix is about to make things even rougher.

Blackfish -- the scathing anti-SeaWorld documentary that's being distributed by Time Warner's CNN Films -- has created rough waters for the operator of marine life theme parks. Attendance has been dropping at SeaWorld's gated attractions, and musical acts are canceling shows at the venue.

The ripple effect is building, and it may turn into a tsunami now that Netflix has made the movie available to its streaming subscribers.

Blackfish was added to the service's growing digital library on Thursday, and SeaWorld isn't going to like it. Netflix's more than 31 million domestic streaming accounts will now have access to the 80-minute documentary, which takes SeaWorld to task for keeping killer whales in captivity and exposes the dangers posed to the mammals' trainers.

Blackfish got off to a slow start when it debuted in theaters this summer. It grossed just $2.1 million in ticket sales during its cinematic run, never playing on more than 99 screens in any given week along the way. But then Time Warner turned to its own CNN to begin screening the documentary in October. This helped increase awareness of the movie, but not a lot of people are watching CNN these days.

Netflix is different. It has helped amplify the success of TV shows by streaming earlier seasons. Now it has the chance to turn up the volume on a social message that may resonate with some consumers in this age of information dissemination. There has never been a better time for a cause to go viral, and now the producers of Blackfish can lean on Netflix viewers to potentially get incensed about killer-whale shows in general.

SeaWorld was already vulnerable. Attendance slipped 3.6% during the summer quarter. It blamed rainy weather and higher ticket prices, but one can't ignore the backlash that was starting to build as the documentary began screening. The holiday quarter will be even more telling now that we have CNN and Netflix making Blackfish available at no additional cost.

Is SeaWorld at fault or is it the subject of a smear campaign? Should we be holding killer whales in higher regard than other marine life? If not, does that mean that seafood will also come under fire as animal protection groups go from talking about Blackfish to blackened fish? That's a stretch -- of course -- but Netflix is about to give the Blackfish movement more visibility.

SeaWorld can't afford to be passive. It's already seen more than six dozen famous recording acts bow out of festival gigs in recent weeks, and park guests seem to be bowing out as well. It can't just passively watch this, hoping that it will go away. The wave is coming, and if SeaWorld isn't careful, it's going to crash its world.

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Originally published