11/8/2013 6:30 PM ET|
Will SeaWorld tank after 'Blackfish' backlash?
The film explores the accidental deaths of SeaWorld trainers and exposes the dark side of holding killer whales captive.
The more people see the film "Blackfish," the deeper stock of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. dives.
Shares of Orlando, Fla.-based SeaWorld (SEAS) have been sinking with the gradual release of this independent documentary, and are now down about 25 percent from highs reached earlier in the year.
Some folks at SeaWorld may have seen this coming. Before the company went public in April, it offered this warning in the "risk factors" section of its initial public offering registration:
"An accident or an injury at any of our theme parks ... that receives media attention, is the topic of a book, film, documentary or is otherwise the subject of public discussions, may harm our brands or reputation, cause a loss of consumer confidence in the Company, reduce attendance at our theme parks and negatively impact our results of operations."
Unfortunately, this may be exactly what is happening now.
Sales for the quarter ended June 30 totaled $255 million, down from $259 million during the same quarter last year, but SeaWorld attributes the slight decline to bad weather, not the film, which had yet to hit a mainstream audience. Through August 2013, SeaWorld says revenue rose about 3 percent over the same period in 2012. "We remain on track to achieve a record year," CEO Jim Atchison said in a press release.
Blackfish explores the accidental deaths of SeaWorld trainers and exposes the dark side of holding killer whales captive just to do amazing pet tricks for humans willing to pay the steep price of admission.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has garnered one big barge of critical acclaim after the next with each subsequent engagement. The film went mainstream on Oct. 24 when it was featured on CNN and became the subject of several CNN news features.
SeaWorld's response to this public-relations nightmare seems highly ineffective. None of its executives would go on camera for the film, or for later CNN interviews. The company only put out a statement making vague accusations about the veracity of the film.
"Blackfish is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain. … The film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld — among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world's most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research."
SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs called the film "animal-rights propaganda" in an email exchange with me. "It in no way reflects our values as an organization or the current state of killer-whale display in our parks."
The film indeed has an unabashed activist bent, but it is largely based on testimony from SeaWorld's own former trainers, who tearfully and regretfully recount their own roles in mistreating these creatures.
Meantime, reviewers keep spouting lines like "Best film of 2013" and "An inherent immorality is brought thrashing to the surface." And news organizations keep rolling headlines that challenge SeaWorld's central business model: "Should Killer Whales Be Tourist Attractions?"
For now, SeaWorld stock remains a couple of bucks above its IPO offering price of $27 a share, but this could become an underwater IPO soon enough. In addition to battling perceptions from the fish flick, SeaWorld is awash in debt and trying to sell tickets to middle America in what remains a soft economy.
SeaWorld runs 11 theme parks, including Busch Gardens in Tampa and SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio.
Buyout firm Blackstone Group (BX) filled all of these tanks with debt when it purchased SeaWorld from Anheuser-Busch (BUD) for $2.3 billion in December 2009. Blackstone put down $1 billion in cash and financed the rest.
The company today has more than $2 billion in debt, or as it warned in its IPO registration statement, "We are highly leveraged." Despite this warning, SeaWorld's IPO did very well, rising more than 25 percent to nearly $34 a share on its first day of trading. Part of the stock's appeal, of course, was a promised 3 percent annual dividend.
None of the proceeds from the IPO went to any so-called "blackfish." Much it instead went to Blackstone. The investment company said it would use IPO proceeds to pay itself $47 million for terminating its 2009 advisory agreement with SeaWorld. That's on top of a $500 million dividend SeaWorld paid in March 2012, mostly to Blackstone. And another $110 million dividend in September 2011.
After all these deals, Blackstone recouped its cash and more than doubled its initial investment in three years. Meantime, it remains SeaWorld's largest shareholder after the IPO.
These Wall Street guys are so big they have killer whales swimming in circles. Little fish better watch out.
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how many die each week from car accidents caused by texting but let a couple of trainers get killed in a freak accident and we have documentaries. You want to save lives do a few documentaries about the dangers of cell phones while operating vehicle, not that it will do much good.
Dangerous fish, no, first of all whales are mammals not fish but if you want real dangerous creature look at man
Two things that were said in the doc that bothered me were,' If we don't have a SeaWorld, how will children know what an Orca Whale looks like. And then Seaworld blaming the handlers that were killed.
First of all there are a lot of animals that I haven't seen in person, but I still know they exist.
I thought we decided a long time ago that blaming a victim is not what we believe. SeaWorld should go away, there are so many new Aquariums that allow children to see all kinds of animals that they would never see in person. I am not a big fan of Aquariums or Zoos, but I think they are getting better with the habitats for the animals.
When they closed the original park in Ohio...I lost all faith and interest in a company that obviously has no concern for its roots, just cash.
Once you've see one show ..that's it , you've seen it, done with it, good bye.
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