Four investor presentations later, one Wall Street analyst was finally brave enough to ask SeaWorld Entertainment execs about what impact the documentary Blackfish has had on its business.
Their answer: none. In fact, the controversial film might have even helped attendance by raising awareness of marine mammal parks, Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison told analysts on a conference call Thursday, a sentiment he also shared with the Wall Street Journal in November.
"As much as we're asked that, we can see no noticeable impact on our business," he said, calling assertions the company mistreats animals "a fundamental mischaracterization." "The movie in some ways has actually made perhaps more interest in marine mammal parks and actually even about us, so we've seen that reflected through certain visitor profiles and certain guest comments and things we get."
It's difficult to believe that watching Blackfish would make a person want to go to SeaWorld. The damning documentary focuses on the parks' treatment of animals after one of its whales killed a veteran trainer in 2010, and has spurred an outcry from animal activists and regular viewers. It's even caused entertainers such as Heart and Willie Nelson to cancel concerts at the parks. But SeaWorld says its reputation remains intact.
"With respect to national surveys and data that we collect around our reputation efforts and image, there's awareness of the movie that kind of peaks and drops as CNN — whose one of the owners of the movie, by the way — as CNN shows it repeatedly from time to time, so that does spike on occasion, but our surveys don't reflect any shift in sentiment about intent to visit our parks," he said. "The movie did not get an Oscar nomination in January and we continue to take proactive efforts communicating with our guests and partners."
Still, it's hard to gauge what impact, if any, Blackfish had on visitors. While SeaWorld reported record fourth quarter attendance, it still fell 1.4%, and for the year, the number of guests fell 4.1% to 23.4 million.
The company, which went public in April, reported that 2013 revenue rose 3% to $1.46 billion. SeaWorld blamed the decrease in visitors on bad weather, an early Easter and "planned pricing and yield management strategies."
"We're very proud of the work we do and how we do that," Atchison said today. "The animal activist community, they don't necessarily burden themselves with facts, and we have to deal with that from time to time."
While Blackfish premiered in January of 2013, it blew up in the latter half of last year after CNN aired the film. Just last week, a California lawmaker proposed legislation that would ban the use of orcas for entertainment.