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Movie Industry Lines Up For A Starbucks Coffee Buzz

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

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

As director of business development for Starbucks Entertainment, Denson, 35, is sifting through scores of movies to find those Starbucks will help market through its 8,300 North American coffee shops.

Denson's first pick — the Lionsgate drama Akeelah and the Bee — was promoted by Starbucks to millions of customers, with crossword puzzles, words of the day and definitions on coffee sleeves in advance of the movie's theatrical release April 28.

It is a feel-good drama that chronicles the story of a black girl in Los Angeles who overcomes a tough neighborhood and bad schools to become a national spelling-bee champion.


The film's start at the box office was slow — it grossed $6 million its first weekend — but Starbucks officials remain upbeat about both the movie and company's future in the entertainment business. This past week, as we reported in Netribution, Starbucks announced an alliance with the Hollywood-based William Morris Agency to find music, film and book projects to promote and sell in its coffee shops.


Denson's must find uplifting, inspirational stories along the lines of "Akeelah," most likely from independent companies such as Lionsgate or studio specialty divisions.

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, is well-connected in Hollywood with a board seat at DreamWorks Animation. He said the company has no plans to finance movie production. But, he added, Starbucks will develop entertainment-related ventures, with films a natural extension of the company's success so far with music.

"We can help customers discover entertainment," said Schultz.

Without Starbucks, Lionsgate executives feared Akeelah might have been unfairly pigeon-holed as a niche film because of its all-black cast, so it might not have got 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 over 100 movies for Starbucks' first effort, but for her Akeelah struck a personal chord. The entertainment exec is the only child of a single mother raised in a tough Oakland, Calif.ornia, neighbourhood. Denson said her mother worked hard to save enough money to send her to private primary schools.

"There is a little bit of Akeelah in everybody," said Denson, who had tried unsuccessfully to develop the script herself. "But I really walked away from the movie feeling great because it showed 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 graduated from the University of San Francisco law school and planned to be a civil-rights lawyer. After stints at several non-profit organizations, she moved to Los Angeles, landing a job as a production assistant for a Paramount TV show in 1996.

Three years later, she was offered the chance to build the fledgling movie division of Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a well known former US sportsman, who has his own ventures with Schultz and Starbucks.

Denson helped produce such films as Fox Searchlight's romantic comedy Brown Sugar, and put her law skills to work negotiating partnerships with 24-Hour Fitness and Coors beer.


Starbucks lured her in 2004, when Ken Lombard, her one-time boss at Johnson's company was hired by Schultz to oversee Starbucks' entertainment division, which 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 of Denson.

Coaxing people into going to a movie theatre could be more of a challenge than selling them a CD at a coffe shop counter. Every Hollywood studio wants its movie backed by Starbucks, but most have blanched at the hard bargain the company drives.

For Akeelah, Starbucks is a producer on the film, but it put no money into the production. Starbucks will sell the film on DVD and receive a share of the film's profits.

Denson plans to relocate this summer from Starbucks HQ in Seattle to L.A. with the Starbucks entertainment division. She will be returning to Hollywood with considerably more clout than when she left.