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Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX ) has had a devastating impact on many businesses, most notably Blockbuster, and to some extent cable TV. But its next victim might not have anything to do with the film industry.
The documentary Blackfish became available on the service earlier this month. The 80-minute take-down of SeaWorld (NYSE: SEAS ) has been available for viewing in various capacities for nearly a year (at film festivals, in movie theaters and even on CNN), but its addition to Netflix's streaming lineup seems to have pushed its message over the edge.
SeaWorld has shifted into damage-control mode, and its management is firing back. After viewing the film myself, I believe SeaWorld and its shareholders should be highly concerned.
Blackfish will pull at your heart strings
To put it simply, Blackfish is a film that will disturb you. I'm far from a card-carrying PETA member (I hunt regularly), but I couldn't help beinfg affected by the movie's portrayal of the plight of captive killer whales.
The footage of a mother whale crying out when separated from her baby will haunt you, while the image of the male whale's droopy dorsal fin stands out as a symbolic representation of the unfairness of keeping whales captive.
Perhaps after watching the film on Netflix, a number of musical acts that were set to perform at SeaWorld's parks have backed out of scheduled appearances. Country stars Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride cancelled upcoming shows, as did the rock group Heart.
Can a documentary take down a corporation?
SeaWorld, of course, calls the movie "inaccurate" and has responded with a newspaper advertising campaign and an open letter. Unfortunately, SeaWorld's response seems hollow -- it hasn't offered a direct refutation to many of the points raised in the film, nor is its letter nearly as emotionally compelling as the footage it seeks to rebuke.
SeaWorld's CEO Jim Atchison told Bloomberg that it was "not worth watching," but I don't think Atchison's word will prevent his potential customers from seeing the movie.
Documentaries have, in the past, had an effect on corporations. The 2004 film Super Size Me led McDonald's to pulling super sized-fries and drinks from its menu, while 2005's Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices changed Wal-Mart's public-relations strategy.
But Blackfish could ultimately be far more damaging. Super Size Me demonstrated just how unhealthy a diet rich in fast food truly is, but I don't think the film taught anyone anything they didn't already know. Likewise, far too many Americans are far too dependent on Wal-Mart to significantly change their shopping habits.
But SeaWorld? As an amusement-park operator, it is the definition of a company dependent on discretionary income. Its customers may only visit its parks a few times in their entire lives -- destroy its image, and many of them could very easily take their vacations elsewhere.
Netflix's ability to spread a message
With about 31 million U.S. domestic subscribers, Netflix could easily spread Blackfish's anti-SeaWorld message among the broader U.S. population. Perhaps after reading this very article, many Netflix subscribers will log onto their accounts and view the film.
Netflix's influence is already apparent in the PR disaster that's arisen in just the past few weeks -- if SeaWorld's attendance begins to drop noticeably, it will further proof of how Netflix's platform has ingrained itself in Americans' entertainment habits.
I can't say for certain that will take a toll on SeaWorld's attendance, but after watching the movie, I'm certainly in no rush to visit a SeaWorld park. At the very least, I think SeaWorld's shareholders owe it to themselves to watch the film -- they might not be so comfortable with their holdings afterwards.
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