A Starbucks Jolt to the Big Screen

"Akeelah and the Bee," opening on 2,800 screens this Friday, is an inspiring little film. It's about a precocious 11-year-old girl, Akeelah, who copes with her father's murder by becoming a spelling whiz. Played by relative newcomer Lauren Keyana Palmer, Akeelah ends up the co-winner of the National Spelling Bee on her first try, a triumph over myriad hardships.

For the record, Akeelah's winning word wasn't "Frappuccino"-- a tempting candidate given that it's hard to spell, but also that Starbucks is a driving force behind the movie. It's a new direction for the coffee chain, but entirely in keeping with its success in becoming a major player in the struggling music business by hawking CDs in its 8,300 North American stores. "Film is the next logical step for us," said Kenneth Lombard, present of Starbucks Entertainment.

"Akeelah" is Starbucks' first outing. In a partnership with the film's distributor, Lions Gate, Starbucks is promoting "Akeelah" to its millions of java junkies. "Akeelah" is touted on the sleeves slipped onto the Starbucks cups (it sells 4 million beverages daily), emblazoned with obscure words like "shalloon," a lightweight wool fabric used for coat linings. Coasters are used to promote the movie, too, and a display table at the Starbucks in South Orange, N.J., recently was stacked high with travel Scrabble sets. And when the baristas weren't regaling customers with their knowledge of soil acidity in coffee-growing regions, they carried on about spelling bees and the joys of big vocabularies.

Last Friday the chain began a countdown to "Akeelah" 's opening date, April 28, on the ubiquitous chalkboards that spell out the day's coffee blends. Starbucks has no plans to pour bucks into making films, limiting its involvement to promoting the movie (and taking a cut of the profits in return) and selling DVDs. But look for more movie promotions in the future at Starbucks. After all, why not build a little movie buzz along with a caffeine buzz?