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 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 starbucks gossip.com blog. "When people go to Starbucks, they can easily miss the movie marketing materials strewn among the clutter of items for sale."
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 with future collaborations.
The Seattle-based coffee chain, which has 6,800 North American outlets, has been careful not to jam its stores with movie posters and promotional paraphernalia that could annoy customers.
Harvey Shotz, a regular customer sipping a coffee recently at a Starbucks in Los Angeles, 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 might 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 this week that they would work with Starbucks to market the screen adaptation of the best-selling novel The Kite Runner, to be released in November.
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 is melting away beneath them. But the animals-fighting-the-elements theme might be too reminiscent of 2005's March of the Penguins, which grossed $127 million worldwide.
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 past year, the retailer has marketed two best-selling 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 showing only in theaters.
"You get your coffee and your muffin, maybe you pick up the McCartney CD," said Chris Thilk, who runs the MovieMarketing Madness.com blog in Chicago. "With a theatrical movie, you've got to spur delayed behavior."
Josh Friedman and Lorenza Munoz write for the Los Angeles Times.