Starbucks Enters Film Business

Starbucks' latest foray is into the film business. The company is equity partners in a film called Akeelah and the Bee, scheduled for release at the end of April. The company believes it has become such a trusted brand that it can now have an editorial voice in popular culture. Deborah Wang of member station KUOW reports.

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Here's an effort to get a little more income out of the nation's coffee drinkers. Starbucks, which already wants to be your coffee shop, restaurant, and record store, is now going to market a movie.

Deborah Wang, of member station KUOW, reports, from of course, Seattle.

DEBORAH WANG reporting:

It is not exactly the company's first foray into the movies.

(Soundbite of music)

WANG: Fans of Austin Powers may remember that Doctor Evil once had his headquarters in a Starbucks store.

(Soundbite from the film, “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”)

Mr. ROBERT WAGNER (Actor): (As Number Two) Dr. Evil, several years ago we invested in a small, Seattle-based coffee company. Today, Starbucks offers premium quality coffee at affordable prices. De-lish.

WANG: But the company is now making a more serious move into film. Its putting its name behind a low-budget production called Akeelah and the Bee.

The movie is about an 11-year-old African-American girl from the inner city who has a gift for words and an ambition to reach the national spelling bee.

(Soundbite from film, “Akeelah and the Bee”)

Unidentified Announcer: (In film clip) In a place where dreams are hard to come by.

Unidentified Woman: (In film clip) Akeelah, get in here!

Unidentified Announcer: (In film clip) One girl will start a journey where the odds are a million to one.

WANG: It might seem odd for a coffee company to be doing movies, but Starbucks officials say it's the next logical step in its entertainment strategy. Starbucks originally began selling music as a way of luring more customers into its stores. Since then, it has emerged as a potent force in the music industry. Ken Lombard is head of Starbucks Entertainment. He says the company surveyed customers and found they wanted movie recommendations as well.

Mr. KEN LOMBARD (President, Starbucks Entertainment): When we find something that we feel is a compelling story, we'd like to be able to put it in front of them and say, you know what This is a great film opportunity for you to take yourself, your family, and enjoy.

WANG: So Starbucks struck a deal with Lions Gate Films, the producer of Akeelah and the Bee. The coffee company will get a portion of box office receipts, DVD sales, and other incidentals. In return, Starbucks will market the film in its stores. Spelling bee words will appear on flash cards, cup sleeves, and coasters--words like pterodactyl, and logorrhea, which, by the way, means pathologically incoherent speech.

The company hopes the main marketing force behind the film will be the people behind the counters. But, it is still an open question whether word of mouth marketing can drive Starbucks customers into the movie theaters.

Gitesh Pandya is the editor of boxofficeguru.com, a website which follows the movie industry.

Mr. GITESH PANDYA (Editor, boxofficeguru.com): Its one thing when you do something at McDonalds and you're reaching 6-year-old kids. It's much easier to excite them about a certain film. But if you're looking at your average 25, 30-year-old adult, who has been marketed for years and is very savvy and knows when they're being pitched to, you have to do something a little bit different.

WANG: Company officials admit there's also a risk that customers may be turned off by a movie promotion. For that reason, they're moving slowly. They have yet to choose their next script.

This is not the final chapter of the entertainment story, though. There are plans to roll out a Starbucks book sometime later this year.

For NPR News, I'm Deborah Wang, in Seattle.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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