Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Big Screen

blackfish

(Photo: Eye Steel Film/Flickr)

‘Blackfish’ and the Weird Path to Popularity

• January 16, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: Eye Steel Film/Flickr)

The documentary debuted a year ago, but no one started talking about it until late October. Except, how many people are actually talking about it?

By now, Blackfish has undoubtedly entered your world. The documentary, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, chronicles the story of Tilikum, a killer whale involved with three human deaths while in captivity. It takes steely-eyed aim at SeaWorld, tracking a litany of mistakes, cover-ups, and just plain shady behavior, presenting a compelling—if a bit one-sided—case that the marine park needs to make some serious changes.

In recent weeks, the film has been everywhereThe New York Times, BuzzFeed, Grantland—which is surprising seeing as the movie first screened nearly a year ago.

Blackfish arrived on the scene at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in January. It garnered rave reviews and had a cultural impact as evidenced by a Los Angeles Times article titled “‘Blackfish’ Has Sea World in Hot Water.” Magnolia Pictures and CNN acquired the film. Despite the success, it barely made a dent in our collective consciousness. We turn to Google Trends, where the tiny blip under the letter G represents the Sundance bump:

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 4.12.30 PM

(Per Google: “Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart. If at most 10% of searches for the given region and time frame were for “pizza,” we’d consider this 100 [which is the top line]. This doesn’t convey absolute search volume.”)

Perhaps the relative lack of initial interest isn’t surprising. While Sundance plays an outsized role in creating culture, it does so more because it offers a look into what’s coming up and not because it announces what’s important in the moment. The festival, after all, is just a bunch of rich people at a ski resort in Utah.

But, given the subject matter, the positive press, and the strength of Magnolia’s marketing arm, we could have expected Blackfish to blow up when it was released in mid-July, right? Well, it didn’t. By the time the film left theaters 14 weeks later, it had grossed just over $2 million. That’s not an insignificant amount of money—good enough, even, for 77th all-time on the documentary list and fifth in 2013. (No. 1 on that list: One Direction: This Is Us, which took in $28.9 million. The lesson, as always, boy bands > killer whales.) Still, assuming an average of $10 per ticket, it means that roughly 200,000 people saw Blackfish in theaters.

Throughout the summer and early fall, Blackfish continued to swim along, essentially treading water. That changed in late October when CNN aired the movie. According to some metrics, it was the highest-rated cable news show in primetime that night, which is impressive considering how thoroughly CNN routinely gets trounced by Fox News. More to the point, Blackfish was the second-most tweeted-about show that night behind Scandal. The success prompted a Twitter blog post that, despite a terrible and ridiculous lead—”Not since the story of Moby Dick has a whale been so famous”—made some interesting points:

@CNNfilms anticipated that #Blackfish would take off on Twitter. They’d already seen the Twitter conversation grow since the film first debuted at Sundance in January. The question was how to leverage that growth.

Lila King (@lilacina), CNN’s senior director for social news, says the team aimed to create a synchronous experience between Twitter and TV. “Our approach was to create a back channel to the broadcast, featuring live Tweets from experts such as filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite (@GabCowperthwait), CNN reporter Martin Savidge (@MartinSavidge), marine biologist David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter), film producer Manny Oteyza (@mannyoprods) and many others,” she says.

I watched Blackfish in late December, shortly after Netflix released the flim, at the suggestion of a friend. There was another bump in coverage, not quite as large at the post-CNN one but one that so far has had more staying power than the previous two. As you can see from the Google Trends chart above, the line is trending down but not as quickly as it did before. We’re past Peak Blackfish, but we’re at a point where the film is lodged in enough of our psyches to remain part of some relatively large conversation.

The timing of the Netflix release, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not, was perfect. The holidays mean people had a bit more downtime and were potentially searching for something to watch. Enter Blackfish, that strangely titled film (let’s be honest here: it’s a terrible title that tells you nothing about the movie) their friends might have mentioned. They had an extra 80 minutes, so maybe they watched. And were horrified.

Matt Taibbi provides an example:

Notice the datestamp. December 26. How many Americans watched Blackfish on Christmas Eve or Christmas? I have no idea, and Netflix doesn’t share numbers, but I bet it’s a good percentage of the total number of people who had seen it up to that point. On the streaming service, its reviews average 4.4 stars (out of five) and it remains the first movie listed in the documentary category. (CNN also doubled down with a special section.)

The thing “everybody’s talking about” isn’t really being talked about by everybody. It’s being talked about by people you know.

On one hand, it’s amazing it took Blackfish this long to explode given that it’s a well-done film about animal cruelty, a subject Americans jump all over. On the other, it makes you realize how many steps it takes to break through the noise. Consider the path: Sundance to theaters to cable to Netflix, a chain 12 months in the making. And it’s not as though the film was ignored at each step. Blackfish garnered positive press everywhere it played, landing write-ups in major newspapers and on websites. There was an easy, relatable narrative, one that people would feel good (or self-righteous) about telling their friends. Blackfish is sharable, not in a LOL Cats way but in a “look at how caring/socially conscious I am” and “in a people really like animals” way. It’s the type of thing people put on their Facebook pages or share on their Twitter feeds. And still, it took a year to spread.

I think the bigger point here is that the thing “everybody’s talking about” isn’t really being talked about by everybody. It’s being talked about by people you know. I’m guilty of this, too. I only watched it because a close friend recommended it to me. Before I started researching this piece, I assumed it came out of nowhere. I had no idea it was shown on CNN, much less played at Sundance. It wasn’t on my radar, and then it was, and then it was everywhere.

The Blackfish phenomenon continues to grow, and it’s having at least some tangential effect. SeaWorld’s stock has dropped almost nine percent since July 19 and more than six percent in the last month.

And yet, SeaWorld will post a record-breaking profit of $1.46 billion in 2013. Well over 20 million people walked through its gates last year.

Noah Davis

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


September 25 • 9:05 AM

Sponsors: Coming to a Sports Jersey Near You

And really, it’s not that big of a deal.


September 25 • 8:00 AM

The Most Pointless Ferry in Maryland

Most of the some 200 ferries that operate in the United States serve a specific, essential purpose—but not the one that runs across the Tred Avon River.


September 25 • 7:00 AM

Hating Happiness

People all over the world are afraid of happiness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s yet another challenge to the notion that positive thinking can heal all wounds.


September 25 • 6:00 AM

Why I’m No Longer Willing to Give My Money to the NRA

I grew up with guns—as a kid and during my 20-year military career—and support individual ownership rights, but the National Rifle Association’s platform has shifted radically in recent years.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.