Disappointing bean counters

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Times Staff Writers

The polar bears of “Arctic Tale” have gotten a chilly reception in movie theaters despite Starbucks Corp.’s serving up promotional materials in thousands of its stores.

The Paramount Classics documentary, co-financed by National Geographic Films, has failed to draw the crowds that flocked to other recent environmental movies such as Oscar-winners “March of the Penguins” and “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Costing less than $5 million to produce, the film has grossed roughly $600,000 domestically since its release July 25.


Although the coffee giant has broadened its reach as a cultural tastemaker through music and book sales, “Arctic Tale” is another example of the green mermaid’s golden touch failing to transfer to movies. Starbucks’ first move into film promotion, Lions Gate’s “Akeelah and the Bee,” did not live up to expectations.

“I question the company’s ability to get people into theaters,” said Jim Romenesko, an online media watchdog who also runs the blog. “When people go to Starbucks they can easily miss the movie marketing materials strewn among the clutter of items for sale.”

Though Lions Gate and Paramount Vantage shoulder much of the blame for the two films’ tepid box office, Starbucks was seen in Hollywood as a powerful partner that could use its brand name and the daily traffic in its 6,800 North American stores to help create big buzz.

But Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment, said he was proud of the “Arctic Tale” campaign, noting that it was aimed at spreading a social message rather than driving ticket sales.

“Our measurement of success was not the box office,” Lombard said. “Our measurement of success was to do as much as we could to encourage discussion around the critical issue of today -- global warming.”

With “Akeelah,” the company and Lions Gate established box-office benchmarks and encouraged behind-the-counter baristas to attend special screenings. This time, he said, the company focused on events such as a National Day of Discussion on climate change, held at various Starbucks stores.


Lombard said it was “still early in the game” and that Starbucks would consider new approaches when it collaborates with studios in the future.

The Seattle-based coffee chain has been careful not to jam its stores with movie posters and promotional paraphernalia that could annoy customers. Some wonder whether Starbucks can market films effectively with such a subtle approach.

Harvey Shotz, a regular customer sipping a coffee recently at a Starbucks on Robertson Boulevard, said he thought the blue-and-white color scheme promoting “Arctic Tale” was a tribute to Israel because its flag shares those colors.

“I haven’t a clue about the movie,” Shotz said.

Others say the company may have picked projects that lacked wide appeal or freshness.

“Akeelah and the Bee” grossed $18.9 million theatrically, but Lions Gate spent about $25 million to make and market the movie. The studio also signed a generous profit-participation deal with the coffee company.

“We made a movie that basically broke even,” said Jon Feltheimer, chief executive of Lions Gate, noting that DVD and television deals added to the bottom line. “But we are proud of the movie, and if you ask me if I would work with Starbucks again, I would say absolutely yes but perhaps with a different financial arrangement.”

Executives at Paramount’s specialty division confirmed Sunday that they would work with Starbucks to market the screen adaptation of the bestselling novel “The Kite Runner,” to be released in November.


Starbucks was a very good partner on “Arctic Tale,” said John Lesher, president of the division, now called Paramount Vantage. “Unfortunately we made a movie that didn’t get great reviews. When the movie comes out on DVD, I’m sure their involvement will have made a positive impact on our bottom line.”

The filmmakers and National Geographic agree, saying they benefited from Starbucks’ role in raising awareness for a movie that lacks the high profile of Hollywood blockbusters.

Narrated by Queen Latifah, “Arctic Tale” follows a mother walrus and her calf and a polar bear and her cubs through the frozen wilderness that’s melting away beneath them. But the animals-fighting-the-elements theme may be too reminiscent of the 2005 mega-hit “March of the Penguins,” which grossed $127 million worldwide.

As Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote: “It lives in the shadow of ‘March of the Penguins,’ ” which was a National Geographic project as well.

“Arctic Tale” also lacks the name recognition of “An Inconvenient Truth,” which starred former Vice President Al Gore, or the recently released climate change documentary “The 11th Hour,” backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, which is off to a stronger start at the box office.

Brandon Gray, editor of industry tracking website, said it would have been reasonable to expect one-tenth of the “Penguins” box office haul, or something north of $10 million.


Buoyed by success in music, Starbucks announced its entry into movie marketing last year by saying it could serve as a “very effective model for the studios.”

In 2004, it co-produced the late Ray Charles’ Grammy-winning duet compilation “Genius Loves Company,” which sold 5.5 million CDs worldwide. Starbucks’ new CD label, Hear Music, debuted with Paul McCartney’s “Memory Almost Full” album, and its North American stores alone sold more than 231,000 copies.

In the last year, the retailer has marketed two bestselling books: “A Long Way Gone,” the memoir of Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone, and “For One More Day,” a tear-jerker novel from “Tuesdays With Morrie” author Mitch Albom. Its U.S. stores alone sold more than 100,000 copies of each.

Starbucks stores added to strong DVD sales for the family films “Happy Feet” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

But marketing strategists say that CDs, books and DVDs, as potential impulse buys, might make a more natural fit for a coffeehouse than films that are showing only in theaters.

“You get your coffee and your muffin, maybe you pick up the McCartney CD,” said Chris Thilk, who runs the blog in Chicago.


“With a theatrical movie, you’ve got to spur delayed behavior.”