SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. and its former CEO, James Atchison, have agreed to pay more than $5 million to settle fraud charges for misleading investors about the documentary film “Blackfish,” the Securities and Exchange Commission announced Sept. 18. SeaWorld’s former vice president of communications, Frederick D. Jacobs, has agreed to settle fraud charges for his role as well.
The SEC’s complaint, filed in federal court in New York on Aug. 13, 2014, alleged that SeaWorld and Atchison made misleading statements or omissions in SEC filings earnings releases and calls, and to the press regarding the film’s impact on the company’s reputation and business between approximately December 2013 and August 2014, according to an SEC news release.
A shareholders lawsuit filed September 2014 alleges the operator of SeaWorld parks, which includes the Mission Bay location, misled investors by publicly stating declining attendance was caused by bad weather rather than fallout from the documentary. “Blackfish” focused on the killer whale Tilikum. In the film, SeaWorld is criticized for its treatment of its captive orcas and received more media attention in the latter half of 2014, when the movie received wider distribution.
According to the SEC’s complaint, when SeaWorld finally acknowledged its declining attendance was partially due to the negative publicity stemming from the film, its stock price fell, causing significant losses to shareholders. For the first half of 2017, SeaWorld Entertainment’s net loss was $237 million, compared with a net loss of $66.3 million from January to June 2016. For the six months ending June 30, 2017, the company reported total revenue of $560.1 million for its 12 U.S. parks, a decline of 5 percent from the same period the prior year. By the end of last year, SeaWorld Entertainment, headquartered in Florida, had eliminated 350 positions nationwide, including 79 in San Diego, as part of a restructuring following the decline in revenue.
“SeaWorld described its reputation as one of its ‘most important assets,’ but it failed to evaluate and disclose the adverse impact Blackfish had on its business in a timely manner,” said Steven Peikin, co-director of the SEC Enforcement Division.
SeaWorld and Atchison have agreed to settle the SEC’s charges without admitting or denying the allegations. SeaWorld will pay $4 million in penalties and Atchison more than $1 million in penalty and disgorgement. Jacobs agreed to settle a fraud charge and to pay disgorgement and prejudgment interest of approximately $100,000. All of the settlements are subject to court approval. In an SEC filing, the company stated it was “pleased to have resolved this matter and to continue to focus on delivering superior guest experiences, world-class animal care and rescuing animals in need.”