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Brewing Film Buzz by the Cup

With Starbucks getting into movie promotion, studios are lining up to court Nikkole Denson, its Hollywood liaison.

April 03, 2006|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Nikkole Denson's name is quickly becoming as familiar in Hollywood as the tall decaf Frappuccinos and caramel macchiatos her company brews up each morning for the town's unemployed actors and aspiring screenwriters.

Two years ago, Denson was one of hundreds of unknown development executives pitching movie projects. Now that she is Starbucks Corp.'s liaison to Hollywood, the same executives who once spurned her are courting her, hoping the coffee chain can become the kind of marketing juggernaut for movies that it has been for music.

"The tables have really turned and it feels great," she said. "All I had to say was 'Starbucks' and the doors were opened."

Denson, 35, whose title is director of business development for Starbucks Entertainment, is charged with sifting through scores of movies to find the ones Starbucks will help market in its 8,300 North American stores.

Starting Tuesday, Starbucks will promote her first pick, Lionsgate's "Akeelah and the Bee," to millions of customers via messages on such media as coffee-cup sleeves. The feel-good drama, which is being released in theaters April 28, chronicles the story of an African American girl in Los Angeles who overcomes a tough neighborhood and bad schools to become a national spelling bee champ.

Starbucks customers won't be seeing horror movies or mindless teen comedies promoted in their local stores. Instead, Denson's mission is to find uplifting, inspirational stories along the lines of "Akeelah," most likely from independent companies such as Lionsgate or studio specialty divisions.

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who is well connected in Hollywood with a board seat at DreamWorks Animation SKG, said the company had no plans to finance movie production. But, he added, Starbucks will continue developing entertainment-related ventures, with films a natural extension of the company's successful music venture.

"We can help customers discover entertainment," said Schultz, sitting in his modest office overlooking the Port of Seattle, where shipments of Starbucks coffee are unloaded.

What got Hollywood's attention was how Starbucks turned into hits such albums as Ray Charles' Grammy award-winning "Genius Loves Company." Studio executives now know that a barista's recommendation alongside a latte is as good as gold.

"What they have done with music illustrates that they are a place where they can create buzz," said Toby Emmerich, president of production at New Line Cinema Corp.

"How many other retail environments do you enter five times a week? People used to talk about television shows at the water cooler. But water coolers don't happen anymore. Now you have Starbucks."

Without Starbucks, Lionsgate executives feared that "Akeelah" risked being pigeonholed as a niche film because of its all-black cast, meaning it might not have gotten the exposure it deserved.

"It is a mainstream movie," said Mike Paseornek, head of production for Lionsgate. "But it would have been harder to sell it as one without Starbucks' putting that stamp on."

Denson considered more than 100 movies as Starbucks' first effort, but "Akeelah" struck a personal chord. She had grown up in a tough Oakland neighborhood, the only child of a single mother who worked hard to save enough money to send Denson to private primary schools.

"There is a little bit of Akeelah in everybody," said Denson, who had tried unsuccessfully to develop the script herself. The movie, she said, shows that "you can do things that a lot of folks don't necessarily think you can do. Whether it's going to law school or going to a spelling bee, it's a great inspiration. "

Denson, a petite woman with piercing dark eyes, had planned a career as a civil rights lawyer, graduating from the University of San Francisco law school after undergraduate work at UC Davis.

After stints at several nonprofit firms, Denson grew restless and moved to Los Angeles, landing a job as production assistant for a Paramount television show in 1996.

Three years later, she was offered the chance to build the fledgling movie division of Laker great Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who has his own ventures with Schultz and Starbucks. Denson helped produce such films as Fox Searchlight Pictures' romantic comedy "Brown Sugar" and put her lawyerly skills to work negotiating partnerships with the likes of 24-Hour Fitness and Coors beer.

Denson was lured to Starbucks in 2004 by Ken Lombard, her onetime boss at Johnson's company. Schultz had hired Lombard to oversee Starbucks' entertainment division, where he spearheaded the launch of the company's Hear Music Coffeehouses and a Hear Music Channel on XM Satellite Radio.

"She has a tremendous amount of integrity and the ability to not really be influenced by whoever is in the room," Lombard said.

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