'We look like idiots': SeaWorld execs knew 'Blackfish' was bad for business

Company facing criminal probe, lawsuit over 'Blackfish' comments

ORLANDO, Fla. – Internal emails from SeaWorld executives suggest the company had concerns about the documentary "Blackfish" months before publicly acknowledging the film was hurting theme park attendance, court records show.

SeaWorld officials circulated a confidential spreadsheet titled "Lost Blackfish Revenue" seven months before company executives told investors that the documentary was impacting revenue, the emails show.

Additional correspondence reveals that a former SeaWorld official encouraged employees to manipulate a newspaper's online opinion poll about "Blackfish" the same week SeaWorld's former chief executive told that same newspaper the film was not affecting the company.

On the day musician Willie Nelson cancelled a concert at the marine park in 2013 over concerns about its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld's former vice president of communications emailed a public relations colleague, "God, we look like idiots."

The newly unsealed emails are being used as exhibits in a lawsuit filed against SeaWorld by a group of shareholders who claim company executives misled them about the effect "Blackfish" was having on their investments.

That lawsuit is related to an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice criminal fraud investigation into SeaWorld and its executives, court records show.

Shareholders claim SeaWorld execs misled them

"Blackfish," a documentary that criticizes the practice of keeping killer whales in captivity, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013.

CNN acquired the rights to the film and began broadcasting it on its cable channel in late October 2013. Over the next two months, the documentary was released on DVD and began streaming on Netflix.

SeaWorld officials first acknowledged "Blackfish" was having a negative impact on park attendance in August 2014, according to the lawsuit.

Following the announcement, SeaWorld's stock price plunged more than 33 percent.

The investors suing SeaWorld allege executives secretly knew "Blackfish" was hurting the company long before August 2014 and took steps to conceal the problems by blaming attendance declines on on bad weather, the timing of holidays and competition from other theme parks, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs, which include the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System and a teacher's pension fund in Denmark, also claim former CEO James Atchison made "suspicious" sales of his SeaWorld shares prior to acknowledging the so-called "Blackfish effect."

SeaWorld officials have denied the shareholder's allegations and continue to defend themselves against the ongoing federal lawsuit.

Yet newly-released internal emails suggest company officials had concerns about the effects of "Blackfish" as early as December 2013.

Emails show reaction to musicians cancelling SeaWorld concerts

In late 2013, the band Barenaked Ladies announced it would not be performing at SeaWorld's upcoming Bands, Brew & BBQ festival due to concerns raised by "Blackfish."

On Dec. 2, 2013, former SeaWorld Chief Creative Officer Scott Helmstedter sent an email describing an upcoming meeting with the company's public relations representatives to "combat the negative social media and correct the misconceptions purported by 'Blackfish.'"

"I fear if we don't take action, we'll continue to lose artists and goodwill with our audience," Helmstedter wrote. "Further celebrity endorsements of Blackfish or resulting business partner boycotts will continue to damage our reputation."

Four days later, musician Willie Nelson announced he was also backing out of SeaWorld's concert series due to concerns about the company's treatment of killer whales.

Company officials learned about the country singer's cancellation from an animal trainer who saw Nelson make the announcement on CNN, emails show.

"This whole f***ing thing pisses me off," former SeaWorld Vice President of Communications Fred Jacobs wrote to a fellow company public relations representative on Dec. 6.  "What relentless amateurism we've shown in booking these f***ing people and managing the whole f***ing chocolate mess.  All of this could have easily been avoided."

Jacobs ended his email by writing, "God, we look like idiots."

SeaWorld encouraged manipulation of newspaper online poll

Several days before Christmas in 2013, Atchison addressed questions about "Blackfish" in an article published in the Orlando Sentinel.

"As much data as we have, and as much as we look, I can't connect anything really between the attention that the film has gotten and any effect on our business,"  Atchison told the newspaper.

That same week, the Orlando Sentinel published a poll on its website seeking public opinion about "Blackfish."

On Christmas Eve, former SeaWorld Public Relations Director Nick Gollattscheck sent an email to several company executives and employees about the online survey.

"The Sentinel poll is still running," Gollattscheck wrote. "Let's keep flooding it."

The former SeaWorld spokesman then encouraged employees to manipulate the poll results.

"Have also heard if you click 'no', then click on 'vote' multiple times, it will count multiple votes. Like a hundred or so," the email states.

Gollattscheck signed off his message by writing, "Happy holidays and keep voting. Ho ho vote."

Execs circulate "Lost Blackfish Revenue" spreadsheet

In early January 2014, seven months before SeaWorld executives would acknowledge "Blackfish" was affecting on theme park attendance, former SeaWorld Vice President of Global Brand Management Toni Caracciolo sent the company's marketing team an email titled "Lost Blackfish Revenue - Confidential.'"

Caracciolo asked the SeaWorld employees to fill out an attached spreadsheet that was also labeled "Lost Blackfish Revenue."

"Please do not distribute outside directors/managers as should keep confidential we are keeping a list of this," she wrote.

The contents of that spreadsheet have not yet been made public in the shareholder's lawsuit against SeaWorld and remain sealed by court order.

Former SeaWorld Orlando park President Donnie Mills sent an email Jan. 24 to Atchison and Chief Financial Officer Jim Heaney suggesting "Blackfish" was hurting the company's catering business.

"The impact of our detractors has found its way to caterings," Mills wrote. "To date we have six cancellations. I will keep you posted if this trend continues."

"Have these parties specifically referenced BF without prompting?" Atchison asked of the documentary.

"My understanding is that these groups have cited BF or activists (sic) commentary," Mills responded.

"Thanks. Frustrating..." the former CEO responded.

On March 13, 2014, SeaWorld officials announced that year-to-year attendance had declined by more than 4 percent, according to the shareholder lawsuit.

Company officials again blamed the visitor loss on bad weather and school schedules, records indicate.

Following the announcement, a financial analyst asked Atchison about "Blackfish."

"With respect to the impact on our business, as much as we’re asked it, we can see no noticeable impact," Atchison replied, according to the lawsuit.

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.