SeaWorld Entertainment and its former Chief Executive Officer, James Atchison, recently settled a claim for $5 million with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that alleged that the company misled its investors about the potential detrimental impact to its profits after the success of the “Blackfish” documentary.
The critically acclaimed “Blackfish” documentary, released in 2013, highlighted the alleged mistreatment of killer whales held in captivity and made several pointed claims against SeaWorld in particular. The touching documentary was seen by millions and was broadcast on network television as well as available for streaming on Netflix, maximizing its audience viewership. While the thrust of the documentary sought to highlight the importance of keeping killer whales in the wild and not in captivity, the emphasis on SeaWorld’s alleged poor treatment of its famed killer whale, Tilikum, in particular, caused significant PR damage for the company.
According to Time.com, SeaWorld Entertainment saw an 84% drop in net income in 2015, with 100,000 fewer visitors to the parks in the same year. Clearly, the documentary struck a chord with viewers sympathetic to the plight of the killer whales, and who protested with their wallets.
Given the widespread success of the film, and coupled with the negative publicity SeaWorld received, investors were likely concerned about its impact on ticket sales and visitors to the parks. The SEC claimed that SeaWorld and its former CEO misled investors by downplaying the impact of the film on potential profits in the years after its release between 2013 and 2014. However, by August of 2014, the negative impact on the company’s business was becoming harder to ignore. SeaWorld’s share price dropped 32.9% in August, resulting in a loss of $832 million of shareholder value.
SeaWorld Entertainment and its former CEO agreed to pay a $4 million fine, as well as an additional $1 million in fines and disgorgement.
“This case underscores the need for a company to provide investors with timely and accurate information that has an adverse impact on its business,” Steven Peikin, co-director of the SEC enforcement division, said in a statement. The SEC was pursuing the alleged fraud claims under a federal law that allows the regulatory body to proceed with fraud claims that allege negligence, rather than an intent to actually defraud. SeaWorld Entertainment entered into the settlement without any admission of guilt or wrongdoing.
The impact of “Blackfish” on the amusement parks was not only financial. The public pressure and increased scrutiny resulted in SeaWorld reconsidering its orca breeding program, and officially putting an end to it in 2016. The park also phased out its popular killer whale shows in most of its parks, which typically drew a large audience due to its interactivity with the killer whales. While the company will no longer breed orcas in captivity, they still have a number of killer whales that reside within the park and have a life expectancy of up to 50 years. It is unclear at this point how (and if) these killer whales that have already been bred in captivity will be utilized going forward.