The Starbuckization of Popular Culture
About two months ago, I was waiting for a train when my eyes ran over a billboard poster for the then-upcoming film “Akeelah and the Bee.” While looking at the poster, my mind wandered back to a broadcast of “The Charlie Rose Show” I saw the previous week, during which a substitute host interviewed actor Laurence Fishburne. By the time he appeared on “Charlie Rose,” Fishburne had appeared in virtually dozens of press outlets promoting his new film, a drama about a girl and her quest to prepare for a spelling bee.
I found it odd that Fishburne was receiving so much “play,” given that he never had been a large star. Certainly, Fishburne is a fine actor, whose credits include feature films “Mission Impossible 3”, “Mystic River”, and “Boyz In The Hood”, “King of New York” and “Cornbread, Earl and Me.”
Despite his continued excellence, though, Fishburne never had received the promotional push for any of his prior work that seemed to match his visibility prior to the opening of “Akeelah.” Even Fishburne’s iconic turn as Morpheus in “The Matrix” trilogy was consistent with the high level of his previous work, but his performances weren’t so transcendental that they would ensure a spike in his Q rating.
But the credits at the bottom of the “Akeelah” poster revealed a clue that would explain Fishburne’s pre-film promotional visibility. It turns out that Starbucks (yes, the coffee and retail conglomerate) invested an undisclosed sum in “Akeelah” in exchange for a undisclosed equity stake in the film, which was released by Lion’s Gate Films.
The investment is another indication of Starbucks’ growing influence way beyond the cup, as the company’s tentacles ultimately spill onto popular culture. The Seattle-based company has invested heavily in the music business, and in 2004, it shared in eight Grammy awards given to music CD Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company. The Charles disc (which surely got a boost from Jamie Foxx’s outstanding performance as the musician in the biopic Ray) sold more than 800,000 copies from Starbucks stores, nearly 25 percent of the disc’s total sales. Last year, Starbucks stores sold a total of 3.5 million CDs.
According to MovieWeb, “Akeelah” has grossed $15.7 million since its April 28 release. Certainly, these are not blockbuster numbers, but they are notable given that the film stars not one, but three African-American actors (none of them named Denzel Washington); a solid, but unspectacular director (Doug Atchison); and a story line about a black girl preparing for a spelling bee.
(The relatively slow, dramatic story line is a stark contrast to the summer season’s normal fare of sex and action, although some may argue — credibly — that the presence of a young black girl in the title role is more dramatically compelling than, for example, a young white girl in the same role.)
Further, MovieWeb reports that “Akeelah” is still being shown on more than 1,900 screens. More than any other number, the screen count is a strong indication of Starbucks’ marketing power beyond overpriced, high-calorie drinks and coffee beans.
Bruce Horovitz. Starbucks Aims Beyond Lattes to Extend Brand. USA Today. May 19, 2006.
Mark Rahner. The Savvy, Sultry Starbucks Sound. The Seattle Times. April 17, 2006.
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