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SeaWorld emails show execs knew 'Blackfish' bad for business before telling investors

Lori Weisberg and Gabrielle Russon, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

SAN DIEGO -- Amid mounting cancellations by performers and lost business, SeaWorld executives revealed in internal emails that the 2013 "Blackfish" documentary was affecting revenues -- long before they publicly acknowledged an effect.

Growing frustration over the backlash from the anti-captivity film bubbled to the surface in an email about performer Willie Nelson's decision to cancel an upcoming concert at the Orlando, Fla. park in 2013.

"This whole (expletive) thing pisses me off," Fred Jacobs, SeaWorld's former corporate communications vice president, wrote in a December 2013 email. "God we look like idiots."

Jacobs' email was among a number of communications unsealed this week as part of ongoing litigation against SeaWorld concerning shareholders' claims that the company misled investors early on when it denied fallout from "Blackfish" had anything to do with decreasing attendance at its SeaWorld-branded parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.

The federal government, in the midst of a related criminal investigation into SeaWorld, was granted permission in September to intervene in the investors' lawsuit.

SeaWorld declined to comment Thursday on the correspondence because it is related to ongoing litigation but said that the company "remains ever-focused on our mission to inspire people to protect animals and the world's oceans."

A number of the emails unsealed this week by the court make reference to "Blackfish," including one with the subject line, "Lost Blackfish revenue -- confidential." It is dated Jan. 13, 2014, seven months before SeaWorld executives admitted the documentary was affecting park attendance, the suit maintains.

In an August 2014 earnings call with analysts, the company attributed falling visitation to ongoing controversy surrounding its killer whales, although it did not cite "Blackfish" specifically." Instead, it mentioned proposed California legislation seeking to outlaw the use of trained captive orcas in Shamu stadium.

In January 2014, though, company leaders confidentially tallied a list of lost revenue from "Blackfish," according to the released emails.

That tally, which was not disclosed in court documents, came in response to an email from former SeaWorld Vice President of Global Brand Management Toni Caracciolo asking the marketing team to fill out a spreadsheet titled "Lost Blackfish Revenue."

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