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(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
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.

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