OFFBEAT: CNN snags rights to 'Blackfish' doc about local Sea World trainer

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-02-24T00:00:00Z 2013-10-25T12:48:08Z OFFBEAT: CNN snags rights to 'Blackfish' doc about local Sea World trainerBy Philip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

On Feb. 24, 2010, Tilikum, one of the star Killer Whales at Sea World in Orlando, Fla. killed Dawn Brancheau, the 40-year-old trainer originally from Cedar Lake area.

She drowned during the "Dine with Shamu Show" when the whale grabbed her and pulled her into the pool, refusing to listen to the other trainers as they attempted to lure it with food and nets to let go of the body.

A new documentary about Sea World, the treatment of Killer Whales used in performances and the death of this trainer, the third such death connected to the whale, is getting lots of attention after finally premiering last month at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

And now, CNN Films, a production and acquisition unit of CNN Worldwide, and the Wagner/Cuban Company's Magnolia Pictures just announced a partnership to acquire the U.S. rights to director Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary, which is called "Blackfish."

I've yet to see the documentary, but I'm told it will hit theaters this summer.

Here's what the CNN Films press release has to say about it: "Thrilling, thought provoking and thoroughly entertaining, 'Blackfish' traces a 39-year history of killer whales in captivity leading up to a 2010 incident where an experienced Sea World trainer was killed by the 12,000 pound Orca whale Tilikum, a whale previously associated with the death of two other people. 'Blackfish' chillingly shows that this incident of violence is hardly an isolated one, along the way exploring the extraordinary nature of Orcas, thought to be one of the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom. Ultimately, it is a story about the life and death consequences of a spectacle that has thrilled millions."

" 'Blackfish' is one of the most exciting, compulsively watchable documentaries that we've seen in a long time," said Magnolia President Eamonn Bowles.

"Gabriela Cowperthwaite has made a beautiful, eye-opening film that sticks with audiences for a long time."

The first death connected with this whale dates back to 1991, less than a decade after Tilikum was first captured off the east coast of Iceland in November 1983 at about three years of age to be placed in captivity to entertain audiences. At Sealand of Pacific, on February 21, 1991, (again, right at this same time of year), Tilikum was blamed for the death of trainer Keltie Byrne, who slipped into the tank with the whales. Since Sealand of the Pacific did not do "water work" with the orcas, the whales had never had a trainer in the pool with them before and Tilikum and two other whale counterparts, Haida II and Nootka IV, began tossing her about to each other's mouths.

"At CNN Films we want to showcase compelling documentary storytelling that also sheds new light on important social and cultural issues," said CNN Worldwide Managing Editor Mark Whitaker.

"Gabriela Cowperthwaite's beautiful and moving film 'Blackfish' is at once an investigation into the people and practices of the marine park industry and a thought-provoking meditation on the limits of man's ability to manipulate nature."

Magnolia plans a summer theatrical release for the documentary, followed by a domestic broadcast premiere on CNN later in 2013.

"I was deeply honored to be accepted into Sundance and am overwhelmed to find partners of this magnitude," said Cowperthwaite.

"To partner on the theatrical release with Eamonn Bowles of Magnolia and Mark Whitaker of CNN, two people who understand and embrace this film, and to receive the support of a powerhouse global brand like CNN, I couldn't be happier."

The film is produced by Cowperthaite, and Manuel Oteyza and executive produced by Judy Bart, Erica Kahn, and Rick Brookwell.

In the months after the fatal event, the Brancheau Family fought for a court ruling for their request to keep private a video of the fatal attack (recorded by SeaWorld's surveillance cameras) blocked from media and the public.

They hired Chicago attorney John Mills, who argued "the family's right to privacy outweighed the public's right to view the video."

"There is no constitutional right to voyeurism and there is a constitutional right to privacy," said Mills in a statement, fighting the material becoming public under Florida law after the Orange County Sheriff's Office concluded investigation.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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