‘Blackfish’: How a pair of housewives enabled the year’s hottest doc

A scene from Gabriela Cowperthwaite's acclaimed and independently financed documentary 'Blackfish'
(Magnolia Pictures)

Independent financiers are nothing new to Hollywood, but lately some of them have been coming from far outside the margins--really far.

To wit: Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s anti-Sea World activist piece “Blackfish.” The cri de coeur about the plight of whales in captivity--Sundance discovery, CNN ratings hit, Oscar shortlist candidate, cause célèbre --is helmed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. The nonfiction-TV veteran was mainly a concerned parent, someone who decided she wanted to explore a documentary after an eyebrow-raising trip with her children to Sea World.

She had no cash for such an endeavor, though, so a friend introduced her to Judy Bart and Erica Kahn, a pair of wealthy middle-aged housewives who, well, admit they really didn’t know what they were getting into.

“We have no background whatsoever in the business,” Bart told The Times recently. “We thought this would be fun,” she added. “It’s like Lucy and Ethel make a movie; that’s literally who we are.” In fact, the women initially wanted to fund a scripted movie, but they didn’t quite have the funds for that, which can be more expensive.


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While the film was pretty much entirely made possible by Bart and Kahn, Cowperthwaite notes she did encounter a more proactive attitude on the part of the women that took her aback at first--a point that many who finance their films with outside money make, as money and enthusiasm encounter the realities of the film business.

“They wanted to see some kind of visual proof after each shoot -– proof that we weren’t running off to the Bahamas,” the director said. “They didn’t understand what it is I did, so I’m not sure if they knew I was worth my salt.”

Other film favorites this Oscar season come from equally far-flung quarters—“Wolf of Wall Street” was financed by the son of the Malaysian prime minister (really), and “Dallas Buyers Club” was made possible by a fertilizer magnate; you can read more details on those films here. In a business of strange bedfellows, some of the most interesting movies come from the strangest of all.

Times staffer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.


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