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Crystallizing opinion

The gem trade, fearing sales won't sparkle, campaigns against `Blood Diamond.'

October 10, 2006|Elizabeth Snead | Special to The Times

"BLOOD DIAMOND," Ed Zwick's film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly, doesn't open until Dec. 15, but it's already getting more free publicity than Warner Bros. could have dreamed of. Set in the late '90s when rebel militias seized control of Sierra Leone's diamond mines, selling rough gems to buy weapons they used to slaughter and mutilate many thousands of innocent people, "Blood Diamond" tells a fictional tale of two South Africans, a white mercenary and a black fisherman, who find a rare pink diamond. But even two months before its release the film has spurred talk that it could turn consumers off to buying diamonds for fear their money would be supporting murderers.

De Beers, the international diamond cartel that controls the majority of the world's diamonds, has gone on the offensive to try to distance the industry from the history depicted in the film. But according to Ken Sunshine, Leonardo DiCaprio's publicist, those connected with the movie feel the stepped-up public relations efforts have backfired for De Beers. "I hope they keep on publicizing the controversies and our 'Blood Diamond' movie," Sunshine said.

For his part, Zwick says he's been pleased with the attention. "The changes that have come about in regard to the conflict diamond trade ... came about because of increased attention on the issue. If the film can continue to increase awareness, it will have surpassed my expectations."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 474 words Type of Material: Correction
'Blood Diamond': An article in the Oct. 10 Calendar section about controversy in the diamond industry over the film "Blood Diamond," to be released in mid-December, included references to the De Beers Group. De Beers was not given a reasonable amount of time to respond, contrary to The Times' policy.
The article referred to De Beers as a cartel that controls the majority of the world's diamonds. There are conflicting statistics over the percentages of diamonds mined and sold by various companies, and a De Beers spokesman says it does not mine and market the majority of the world's diamonds.
The article said De Beers was banned from operating in the U.S. for a decade because of antitrust violations, a reference that erroneously combined two 1994 legal challenges: The company was never banned but says its executives chose not to travel to the U.S. after a 1994 indictment charging De Beers and General Electric with industrial diamond price-fixing. De Beers pleaded guilty in 2004 and was sentenced to pay a $10-million criminal fine. Also, De Beers was accused of violating antitrust laws in a group of class-action lawsuits in 1994 that alleged U.S. consumers overpaid for diamonds; it settled those lawsuits for $250 million in 2005 without admitting liability.The article also said that De Beers executive Jonathan Oppenheimer asked the "Blood Diamond" filmmakers to add a disclaimer stating that the events portrayed were fictional and that, under the Kimberley Process, so-called conflict diamonds now rarely end up on the market. This request came from the World Diamond Council, not from Oppenheimer or De Beers. The article suggested Oppenheimer was head of the De Beers Group when he expressed concerns about the film in September 2005 to diamond dealers and retailers at an industry convention in Cape Town, South Africa. At the time, he was head of a division, De Beers Consolidated Mines; he is currently a member of the company's board of directors.
The article stated that De Beers is exploring for diamonds on land in Botswana that was formerly occupied by the Kalahari Bushmen. That claim is made by Survival International on behalf of the Bushmen, who were relocated by the Botswanan government, which is partnered with De Beers in a diamond company called Debswana. A De Beers spokesman says that while it has explored in the Bushmen's former homeland in the past, it has never mined there and "today has no activity of any sort in the region."
The article also referred to a report released by the U.S. Government Accounting Office. Its name is the Government Accountability Office.
A letter from the De Beers Group providing that company's perspective was published in the Calendar section on Oct. 14 and can be read online at A letter from the World

Indeed, as Bonnie Abaunza, Los Angeles-based director of Amnesty International's celebrity outreach program, points out, the media is covering so-called "conflict diamonds" more now than when Sierra Leone's bloody civil wars were actually taking place. "It's amazing that all this attention is on conflict diamonds when no one has even seen the film yet," she said. Amnesty International is steadily recruiting celebrities in an effort to use the film to focus attention on human rights questions that still surround the diamond industry. For example, Abaunza said, she recently screened "Blood Diamond" for hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, who works with De Beers on his line of diamond jewelry.

As early as last fall, De Beers head Jonathan Oppenheimer expressed concern that the film might hurt Christmas and Valentine's Day sales. He asked the filmmakers to add a disclaimer stating that the events in the film are fictional and in the past and that, thanks to the Kimberley Process, which the industry put in place to document where diamonds come from, conflict diamonds end up on the market only very rarely. The filmmakers declined to add it.

De Beers then hired PR big-guns Sitrick and Co., which specializes in Hollywood scandals, while the diamond industry also mounted a PR campaign -- full-page ads in newspapers and online -- to explain the industry's efforts to control the supply and sale of blood diamonds. "The PR campaign was never designed to fight the film," said a member of the World Diamond Council publicity team, who asked not to be identified but added that the industry was happy that the issues were being discussed. The publicity campaign, he said, "was designed to educate consumers about a story we should have told years ago."


Bushmen's plea

In September, unbeknown to Warners, another player entered the diamond PR war: the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana, who were evicted by the government of Botswana from their land, where De Beers is exploring for diamonds.

The Bushmen, whose advocates say that De Beers' Botswana diamonds should be considered conflict diamonds, took out a full-page ad in Variety, asking for help from DiCaprio. It read, in part: "Friends have told us that you are in a film, 'Blood Diamond,' which shows how badly diamonds can hurt. We know this. When we were chased off our land, officials told us it was because of the diamond finds. Please help us, Sir."

More international headlines were made when, after the Bushmen ad ran in Variety, Survival International, on behalf of the Bushmen, asked model Linda Evangelista to step down as the new face of De Beers, and asked Mohammed Fayed not to let De Beers open a concession in Harrod's in London.

Warner Bros., meanwhile, has done no publicity for the film, save releasing the trailer last week. It was a tightly closed set while shooting in Africa, which only finished a few months ago. Only a few critics have seen the still-unfinished film, and studio reps are tight-lipped on details of their publicity plans. In September 2005, De Beers' Oppenheimer expressed concerns about the film to diamond dealers and retailers at an industry convention in Cape Town, South Africa.

"Can you imagine its impact on the Christmas-buying audience in America if the message is not carried through that this is something of the past?" Oppenheimer asked. "That this is something that has been managed and taken care of?"

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