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Rough start for Starbucks

'Arctic Tale' builds little buzz in partnership

Starbucks may not be the powerful promotional partner Hollywood thought it would be.

Paramount Classics’ “Arctic Tale” has become the second pic backed by the coffee giant not able to translate the company’s caffeine buzz into strong box office. (Starbucks previously backed Lionsgate’s “Akeelah and the Bee.”)

The environmentally focused docu revolving around polar bears and walruses has earned $484,000 since bowing July 25. Pic’s widest opening on 227 theaters occurred in its fourth week of release Aug. 17. It plays in 158 venues in its fifth frame this weekend.

National Geographic Films produced “Arctic,” as well as surprise hit “March of the Penguins,” which went on to earn $77 million for Warner Independent in 2005.

Par Classics (a division of Paramount Vantage) had hoped the success of the penguin tale would rub off on its own pic and help sell more tickets.

But it also hoped that having Starbucks aboard would raise awareness for the film and entice the company’s 44 million weekly customers to hit the multiplexes.

Starbucks installed signage and stickers in 6,800 of its stores, printed “Arctic”-branded cup sleeves, sold plush walruses and the pic’s soundtrack and sponsored discussions in select stores nationwide about climate change. Materials for the movie also appear on the company’s website.

Chain doesn’t have video screens in its stores as rival Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf does, so footage from a pic it pushes can’t be displayed in stores.

Campaign runs in stores in the U.S. and Canada through Monday.

Starbucks said it didn’t go further and create a themed Frappuccino, for example, because it didn’t want to overly commercialize the tie-in.

“With all of our entertainment options, we are careful to promote our products and projects in a tasteful manner and not to interfere with the coffeehouse experience,” said Ken Lombard, prexy of Starbucks Entertainment.

Starbucks’ pic deals go beyond a traditional promo pact like that of, say, General Motors for “Transformers,” because Starbucks collects a percentage of a movie’s profits in return for its marketing muscle.

And that unusual payoff pact winds up putting a bigger spotlight on the results of the films the company decides to back — especially given that Starbucks does not invest in the production of the films it promotes.

Promo partners are increasingly becoming a studio’s best friend, with brands ponying up their own marketing dollars to help push pics and make their companies seem more appealing to customers through entertainment tie-ins.

Starbucks has long been considered a potential powerhouse for Hollywood, especially after helping launch music artists and assisting more familiar ones to sell CDs.

But it hasn’t fared as well on the film front.

“Arctic Tale’s” performance has been chilly so far. Its $484,000 compares with the $4 million “Penguins” had earned by the end of its fourth week when it played on 132 screens.

“Akeelah,” the first film Starbucks promoted, ultimately earned $19 million. Pic still turned a profit given its $8 million production budget (Lionsgate spent around $20 million to market it). But industryites had expected it to earn more given Starbucks’ backing and rhetoric from the Seattle-based company that it’s a bona fide entertainment player.

“We are an innovative company that is not afraid to go outside of our comfort zone, and ‘Akeelah’ and ‘Arctic Tale’ showed us the coffeehouse can be a means to introduce films to our customers they might not normally be exposed to,” Lombard said.

Pics also are a way to associate Starbucks with a particular message — climate change in the case of “Arctic Tale.”

“We introduced ‘Arctic Tale’ to our customers because we want to spark a dialogue about environmental issues,” Lombard said. “The coffeehouse is a great place to inspire such discussion. There is no more important issue facing our planet today than climate change.” The tie-in was an “avenue to get people of all ages to talk … and hopefully be inspired to be a part of the solution.”

But studios ultimately want Starbucks customers to be inspired to buy tickets; the B.O. tallies show that Starbucks may still need to massage its marketing efforts when it comes to studio partnerships.

When it announced the “Arctic Tale” deal, Lombard said the company had “learned its lesson” as a result of its “Akeelah” campaign, saying it needed to make a better effort to let customers know it wants them to “go see” the films it promotes.

“We are still evaluating our ‘Arctic Tale’ promotion,” Lombard said. “Nonetheless, we are always looking to provide tangible customer experiences that educate and inspire discussion and go beyond traditional movie marketing.”

Par Vantage and National Geographic Films execs say that while they’re disappointed with the B.O. for “Arctic Tale,” they’re happy with Starbucks’ effort and look forward to sales of the eventual DVD in the company’s stores.

“They were great partners and awesome to work with,” said one National Geographic exec. “They did everything they said they would do. I’d work with them again in a heartbeat.”

Given some of the negative critical reaction to the U.S. version of “Arctic Tale,” National Geographic Films is lobbying to sell the European version of the docu on DVD, complete with a different score, songs and narration.

Starbucks pushed a healthy number of “Akeelah” DVDs. It’s also sold other studio titles like Warner Bros.’ “Happy Feet” and Sony’s “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

But then again, a DVD can be easily picked up and purchased as a customer is ordering a grande vanilla latte.

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