With only days left until Oscar nominations are announced, one of the most anticipated decisions is whether or not the film "Blackfish" will earn a shot at the Best Documentary category.
It's a feeling of anxiety that Louie Psihoyos, director of the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary "The Cove," remembers all too well. In an interview with MNN, Psihoyos discusses the dramatic impact of "Blackfish," his feelings about SeaWorld's response, and why all marine parks should be nervous about the film's chances.
MNN: 'Blackfish' director Gabriela Cowperthwaite mentioned in a Reddit AMA that she first met you last year at the Sundance Film Festival. Have you two grown closer since then, especially as awareness of 'Blackfishl' has increased and SeaWorld has gone on the offensive against the film?
Louie Psihoyos: Yes, I feel like Gabriela and I are part of a growing resistance against the use of animals for entertainment. In the bigger picture though, it's about respecting nature. Like the veterans of any war, you grow close to the people you go to battle with. Her film, more than ours, galvanized the movement. I feel like we may have got the fight started but hers is like a prize fighter coming in to deliver the knockout punch. It's such a well-done film that there isn't any amount of PR that SeaWorld can do to recover. Their only rebuttal is that they do conservation work, and that wasn't mentioned in Blackfish. However the film isn't about SeaWorld's conservation efforts, it is about how orcas don't belong in captivity. It's incredible that SeaWorld spends .0006 percent of their revenue on conservation, but they made all that money by kidnapping entertainment from the wild. They're like a pimp who hands out candy at Christmas thinking they deserve sainthood.
Despite weathering criticism after 'The Cove' for their role in marine life exploitation, do you think SeaWorld was fully prepared for the PR storm 'Blackfish' would create?
Blackfish totally blinded SeaWorld. In fact, Gabriela's film terrorized the CEO so much he immediately began dumping shares of his SeaWorld stock. So did Blackstone, the parent company of the amusement park. SeaWorld's investors know the jig is up.
'Blackfish' appears to have reached critical mass in terms of exposure (CNN, Netflix) a lot faster than 'The Cove.' In your view, how has the world changed since your film first pulled back the curtain on Japan’s dolphin hunt?
In Japan, "The Cove" helped cut down the consumption of dolphins by about two-thirds and children there are no longer being force fed toxic dolphin meat for school lunch programs. Because of "The Cove," there are tens of thousands of kids in Japan who will not be poisoned and their parents will not know our names, but I know we did a huge public service to Japan whether they acknowledged it or not. Our team still has arrest warrants out for us there. Several countries have banned the sale of wild dolphins for dolphin shows. We made some headway internationally by setting the stage, but "Blackfish" certainly has had an unprecedented impact on consciousness by their television roll-out. They reached 20 million viewers with 14 airings.
If those people had paid to see the film in theaters, "Blackfish" would have nearly doubled the highest grossing doc of all time. Because of "Blackfish," the movement has now reached a cultural tipping point — to go back now would be like trying to redact the laws against apartheid or not allowing women to vote. The genie is out of the bottle and there is no way to put it back in.
We’re on the verge of Oscar nominations, a place you’ve anxiously been in before with 'The Cove.' Do you remember what the anticipation was like?
I remember the anxiety very well and it's a bittersweet memory. I love the people who make documentaries. We're in one of the most difficult branches of the Academy. We work on a film for years with 10-20 times more footage than a narrative feature and we operate with a fraction of their funds. Very few people see docs, but we are using film as a weapon to combat the ills of our society. We all have very good stories — they're real and we tell them from the heart. I feel like documentarians are bonded in their quest to use art and story-telling to make a difference. I feel we're more collaborators than competitors. I get genuinely excited by the success of every documentary because every one that makes it to the surface of public consciousness has an opportunity to change lives in a positive way. Awards certainly raise the profile for a doc, but we don't make them to get awards and certainly not to just make money. Success is measured by impact, brains and hearts in seats as opposed to butts in seats.
At first I was happy for our film just to get into Sundance, and since my wife and I were paying for the crew housing out of our own pockets, I was anxious to get everyone out of town, but then one of our producers said, "Aren't you going to stick around for the awards?" I didn't know there were awards — I thought we had won by just getting into the festival! At the Academy Awards, I didn't think we would win. There was a production assistant seating us at the Kodak Theater asking the nominees how to pronounce their names. He didn't ask me how to say mine, which nobody can pronounce right, so I thought, "Now I can relax." I was wrong.
Based on your experience, what would an Oscar win do for the reach of 'Blackfish'?
If "Blackfish" wins, I would say it's game over for SeaWorld and all marine parks that make their living from abusing marine animals. I also see it as a new day for the environment. I see a new age coming where, as Gabriela says, people think of themselves as the "I-can't-believe-we-used-to-do-that" generation.
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