Gabriela Cowperthwaite was just another mum who took her twin sons to SeaWorld, before the death of a killer whale trainer prompted her to make the 2013 documentary Blackfish.
She never expected it to help persuade the US theme park operator to stop breeding killer whales and end its signature “Shamu” orca entertainment shows.
Orlando-based SeaWorld said it would stop breeding killer whales and those currently at its parks would be the past, citing “times have changed”.
“I think Blackfish struck a nerve,” the Los Angeles-based director said
“I originally came into the film trying to explore the trainer relationship and experience.
“I thought of myself as a storyteller, that would pull back the curtain on some things, but I didn’t think the documentary would effect change.”
Animal activists and others were quick to give credit to Blackfish for what Cowperthwaite called a “giant step” by SeaWorld, both in halting its orca breeding program and investing $US50 million ($65 million) to advocate for an end to commercial whaling and seal hunting.
“Huge respect to @blackfishmovie for putting orca captivity at @SeaWorld on the agenda,” Greenpeace UK Oceans said on Twitter.
Melissa Silverstein, founder of the website Women and Hollywood, said SeaWorld’s action showed the impact of film.
“If you think a movie can’t make a difference, see @blackfishmovie,” Silverstein said on Twitter.
“Congrats on getting @SeaWorld to change its policies towards Orcas.”
Blackfish has taken only $US2 million ($2.6million) at the North American box office, but after screenings on CNN, on-demand digital services and in schools, the documentary has been seen by more than 60 million people, Cowperthwaite said.
Cowperthwaite interviewed former SeaWorld trainers and whale experts to paint a moving portrayl of the Orlando theme park’s orca Tilikum, who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, and how he was captured in the wild in 1983 at the age of two.
By the end of 2013, Willie Nelson, Heart and Bare Naked Ladies were withdrawing from music events organised by SeaWorld and Joan Jett and others were asking SeaWorld to stop blasting their music during its “Shamu” whale shows.
Attendance at SeaWorld parks dropped and the company’s shares fell by about 11 per cent in the past year.
Cowperthwaite — who has visited dozens of schools in the past three years — said perhaps children had the biggest influence in changing minds at SeaWorld.
“I think they have been the ones to guide their parents on where to go for vacations,” she said.
“They’re the ones who say, ‘We can’t go there anymore’.”
SeaWorld has been critical of the movie but Seaworld Entertainment Inc CEO Joel Manby acknowledged in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times “a growing number of people don’t think orcas belong in human care”.