The ‘Fast’ and the furious

Chain bites back on 'Food'

Turns out the burger biz is not battle-shy.

Fast-food megalith McDonald’s is hatching a “crisis management” plan to deal with Fox Searchlight’s release of “Fast Food Nation” and the publication of author Eric Schlosser’s follow-up, “Chew on This: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know about Fast Food.”

Pic is the latest to draw the ire of a multinational corporation by painting its biz in an unfavorable light. McDonald’s previously became the object of scrutiny following the release of documentary “Super Size Me”; the HMO industry is reportedly bracing to counter “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s investigation of the health care biz. Last fall, Wal-Mart established an election campaign-style “war room” in advance of the release of Robert Greenwald’s doc “Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost.”

“Fast Food” is expected to see release later this year, though Fox Searchlight has not set a date. Helmed by Richard Linklater with an ensemble cast including Patricia Arquette, Luis Guzman, Ethan Hawke, Greg Kinnear, Avril Lavigne, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama, pic is described as an interlocking series of stories showing the full scale of a fictional fast-food operation dubbed Mickey’s.

An internal McDonald’s memo to its franchisees, first reported by Dow Jones, said the movie “is a big concern to us” and promised a “full-scale media campaign.”

“A lot of work is going on behind the scenes… from a crisis management standpoint,” the memo said.

Though no specifics were spelled out, McDonald’s is planning a “campaign to tell the real story,” including mobilizing a “truth squad” and possibly attempting to “discredit the message and the messenger.”

In a statement released by McDonald’s rep Walt Riker, the chain said, “The McDonald’s family will vigorously communicate the facts about McDonald’s to correct any misrepresentations about our restaurants, our people or our values,” according to Dow Jones.

Schlosser’s book “Chew on This” covers much of the same ground as “Fast Food Nation” but is aimed at children and teachers. Houghton Mifflin currently has an on-sale date of May 10.

The new anti-fast food wave comes as the industry has been going through some executive turbulence. Burger King CEO Greg Brenneman resigned last Friday; CKE Restaurants, which owns chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, saw its chairman, William Foley III, step down last summer.

While “Fast Food Nation” is a relatively small-scale film by Hollywood standards, corporations have been increasingly wary that such efforts can threaten multibillion-dollar businesses, and the targets have been pouring greater resources into trying to head off negative publicity.

McDonald’s has mobilized before to counter a critical film. Though produced on a tiny budget, Spurlock’s “Super-Size Me,” in which he documented the physical effects of a McDonald’s-only diet, led to wide media coverage of his claims.

Near the time the doc was released in 2004, McDonald’s dropped “super-sized” items from its menus, though it claimed the move was unconnected, driven instead by its “healthy lifestyle initiative.”

Before “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” preemed on Nov. 1, the retailer established a war room staffed with veteran operatives such as Michael Deaver, imagemaker to Ronald Reagan, and Leslie Dach, a media consultant for Bill Clinton.

It also promoted a more flattering doc, “Why Wal-Mart Works & Why That Makes Some People Crazy,” produced independently by Ron Galloway.

Several health care firms have sent their employees memos warning them of Moore’s film and urging them not to cooperate.

Details on the film adaptation of “Fast Food Nation,” which was a bestseller when published in 2001, have been closely held. Linklater and Schlosser teamed on writing a script that would convey the arguments in the nonfiction tome through a fictional narrative.

Ironically, the McDonald’s memo itself spells out some details of the plot. According to the fast-food giant, in one storyline, Lavigne plays a Mickey’s employee who ” ‘sees the light’ and then works to reverse the ills of fast food.” Another thread follows “the abuse of Hispanic employees” at the company’s meat plant, while a third concerns an “unethical Mickey’s marketing executive who will stop at nothing to sell hamburgers and french fries to the public.”

In a statement, Linklater had said, early on during his discussions with Schlosser, “The idea that came out of our meetings was that the movie would not be a documentary but a character study of the lives behind the facts and figures. I’m more interested in fiction than nonfiction. You get to the point through human storytelling.”

Searchlight acquired North American distrib rights last December from Participant Prods., which also produced “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Syriana” and “North Country.”

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