SeaWorld was probably hoping that this movie would sink to the bottom of the ocean and stay there, but since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival
in Park City, Utah earlier this month, Cowperthwaite's documentary is riding high on the crest of a wave.
With tickets for all showings at Sundance sold out well ahead of its premiere date, and an equally jam-packed wait list, Blackfish was one of 43 independent films selected for the festival out of a field that numbered more than 2000. Competing in the category of US documentaries it was also one of just three films (from a field of 16), that was purchased for widespread distribution in theaters.
About the film
Blackfish (the Native American name for orcas), focuses on the life of SeaWorld's prize bull orca, Tilikum, and the unfortunate path that led him to kill a seasoned SeaWorld trainer with years of experience.
Filmed over two years and featuring never-before-seen footage and interviews, Cowperthwaite's journey led her to conclude in this interview with Movieline.com
I thought I was making a movie about the death of a trainer. It was only when I started filming that I discovered that nothing in this industry is what it seems.
According to Voice of the Orcas
On Tuesday, January 22, 2013, just four days into the festival, the film was snapped up by Magnolia Pictures & CNN films in a seven figure deal.
Magnolia President Eamonn Bowles said in this press release
Blackfish is one of the most exciting, compulsively watchable documentaries that we’ve seen in a long time. Gabriela Cowperthwaite has made a beautiful, eye-opening film that sticks with audiences for a long time.
CNN Worldwide Managing Editor Mark Whitaker, agreed. He added:
At CNN Films we want to showcase compelling documentary storytelling that also sheds new light on important social and cultural issues. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s beautiful and moving film 'Blackfish' is at once an investigation into the people and practices of the marine park industry and a thought-provoking meditation on the limits of man's ability to manipulate nature.
About a week ago, Blackfish was also picked up by Madman Entertainment
for an Australian and New Zealand theatrical release. Submarine Entertainment negotiated the rights on behalf of the producers with Paul Wiegard and Paul Tonta of Madman Entertainment.
Buffeted by eminent and phenomenal reviews, Blackfish continues to ride the roller coaster of success. Canada.com
listed it as one of the top ten movies at Sundance and described the documentary as "a sober and fair treatment that avoids all activist clichés and techniques."
Exclaim's Daniel Pratt
said that "Cowperthwaite covers all the bases and provides an exposé that is, at times, heartbreaking to watch." With an "impressive amount of information" Pratt added, "it isn't overwhelming, thanks in large part to the charismatic and articulate interview subjects that provide such compelling tales."
the film as "a mesmerizing psychological thriller with a bruised and battered killer whale at its center." The magazine also added:
'Blackfish' goes even further than 2008’s Oscar-winning 'The Cove' to launch a direct attack on Sea World and the practice of keeping marine mammals in captivity. Righteous, captivating and entirely successful as single-issue-focused documentaries go, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film draws on startling video footage and testimonies from former orca trainers, building an authoritative argument on behalf of this majestic species.
John Giansiracusa described Blackfish as a must see. "Documentaries don’t often make people’s must lists" he explained, "but once you see Blackfish it’ll definitely be on yours."
SeaWorld apparently declined repeated requests from Cowperthwaite for an interview for the movie. It was an unsurprising move considering their stance on the 1993 hit movie 'Free Willy'. In 1992, producers asked both SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium for permission to film at their pools.
The Orca Network explained that both aquariums denied the request primarily because of the theme and ending of the movie which were deemed unacceptable. In this article
compiled by the Network's Howard Garrett, Garrett said the parks' refused to be involved "unless the ending was changed to the whale going to a better aquarium like Sea World."
SeaWorld is also notorious for its reticence and churnalism and has only commented on the movie once since its release. In a recent statement to ABC10 News
, SeaWorld said:
Based on our very preliminary review ... Blackfish appears to repeat the same unfounded allegations made many times over the last several years by animal rights activists. Importantly, the film fails to make the most important point about SeaWorld: the company is dedicated in every respect to the safety of our staff and the welfare of animals.
What SeaWorld neglects to acknowledge however, is that these activists are former SeaWorld trainers with inside information and knowledge of the park's operations.
What's next for Blackfish?
Cowperthwaite's documentary will be released at Landmark Theaters across the US this summer with a CNN cable showing expected later in the year. The theatrical release of Blackfish across Australia and New Zealand is also expected later in the year.
For now however, Blackfish will rocket hop to the 30th Miami International Film Festival
Documentary Competition where it will join nine other docs screening at the ten-day fest between March 1 - 10.
If the success at Sundance is anything to go by, wanna-see viewers of Blackfish, might want to purchase their tickets now. There's a clip posted above to whet your appetite courtesy of IndieWire.com
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Blackfish / U.S.A. Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Produced with Manuel Oteyza and Judy Bart, Erica Kahn, and Rick Brookwell served as executive Producers.