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Will 'Blackfish' Sink SeaWorld's Bottom Line?

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Shamu jumping out of the water at SeaWorld.
Alamy
A raft of musical acts are bowing out of gigs at SeaWorld (SEAS) parks -- and they're just a few of the folks suddenly not willing to visit.

Heart, Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, Cheap Trick, and Barenaked Ladies have all canceled upcoming performances at the marine life theme parks in light of "Blackfish," which depicts the downside of having killer whales in captivity. Responding to a bit of fan pressure, transmitted via petitions on Change.org, REO Speedwagon and Trisha Yearwood called off their planned SeaWorld concerts, too.

Joan Jett has even requested that her anthem "I Love Rock & Roll" stop being used in the park operator's flagship "Shamu Rocks" show.

"We've talked things over, and decided not to play at SeaWorld at this time," Barenaked Ladies wrote late last month on the Canadian rock band's website. "We watch movies too, ya know!"

SeaWorld offered to show the band around one of its parks to show how it cares for its killer whales, but there were too many Barenaked Ladies fans complaining about the park since the documentary came out.

"Thanks for all of your support," the band concludes. "We'll see you all at a mutually agreeable concert venue in the near future!"

'Bad Reputation'

If it were just bands boycotting the operator of 11 theme parks, this brouhaha would probably just fade out like a song on the radio, but SeaWorld is apparently starting to feel the pain in its bottom line. Last month, it posted disappointing financial results for its vital summer quarter as attendance fell 3.6 percent year-over-year.

But "Blackfish" was never mentioned in its earnings release or subsequent conference call. SeaWorld blamed the sliding popularity on rain and higher admission prices. Bad weather is a popular scapegoat in the amusement park industry. Locals do tend to stay away if the weather is gloomy. Even though most rival park operators posted increasing attendance figures this summer, Disney (DIS) did experience a slight dip in California. However, Walt Disney World -- just a 15-minute drive from SeaWorld Orlando, where rain was a factor -- did entertain record crowds this summer.

We also can't dismiss the fact that the average guest paid 9.1 percent more to get into the park this summer than a year ago. If the weather doesn't scare away a potential visitor, stiff asking prices could do the trick. However, it's hard to fathom SeaWorld being immune from the influence of a documentary that centers around the circumstances of a trainer's death at the hands of one of its killer whales in Orlando.

Even if it wasn't initially seen by a lot of moviegoers -- "Blackfish" made just $2 million at the box office during the quarter following its mid-July debut -- we live in a time in which the opinions of a small group can go viral. As incensed watchers voiced their displeasure about parks that keep killer whales in captivity, the film's message spread far beyond the few hundred thousand people who paid to see it at the local multiplex.

'Barracuda'

As bad as things were for SeaWorld during the third quarter, it could be about to get a lot worse. "Blackfish" was picked up by Time Warner's (TWX) CNN Films, which began airing the documentary on cable news channel in October after the film had completed its theatrical run. It then became available on DVD and digital download in November.

This isn't the first documentary to take SeaWorld and marine life parks in general to task. There was 2003's "Lolita: Slave to Entertainment" and 2009's "The Cove." However, the growing popularity of social media is making this year's documentary a more potent attack on SeaWorld's pocketbook.

In a year that has treated many IPOs to huge gains, SeaWorld isn't trading much higher than its debut price of $27 a share back in April. Moreover, that reflects that it's shed a quarter of its value since peaking at nearly $40 back in May. It's not just retail investors that seem to be bailing on SeaWorld. Blackstone Group (BX) -- the company that took SeaWorld public -- revealed last week that it's selling 18 million shares of the company. It was previously only looking to unload just 15 million shares.

With bands, guests, and investors moving on, SeaWorld is looking all wet. It's at this point where Cheap Trick would begin belting out "Surrender" -- if it hadn't canceled its show.



Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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