Menus Subscribe Search

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

More From Noah Davis

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

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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