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The Independent US

Starbucks has transformed the way the world drinks coffee. It has peddled a lifestyle as much as hot drinks. And now it is making its entry into the film industry.

This week, Akeelah and the Bee, the first film co-distributed by the Seattle coffee chain reaches US screens. Anybody who has been dropping by Starbucks for a grande latte in the past few weeks - and that is hundreds of thousands of people - will know about it, because promotional materials for the film have been popping up on coffee cup sleeves, coasters and magnets.

The marketing push will be the making or breaking of the venture. Akeelah, advance reviews say, is a fairly formulaic feel-good film about a pre-teen African American girl from a tough Los Angeles neighbourhood who overcomes adversity to triumph in a national spelling competition. It stars Laurence Fishburne, of The Matrix, as the girl's inspirational spelling coach, Angela Bassett as her sceptical mother and newcomer Keke Palmer as Akeelah.

What makes the film stand out is not the way it was made so much as the way it is being promoted. The tagline "Changing the world ... one word at a time" is a deliberate echo of Starbucks' ambition to change the world, one cup of coffee at a time. Obscure words such as elucubration have appeared on coffee cup sleeves and coasters. And last week, US and Canadian outlets of Starbucks began to sell travel versions of Scrabble alongside cakes, sandwiches, tasteful singer-songwriter CDs and other carefully chosen goodies.

Naturally, the film has a soundtrack, available in Starbucks outlets. It features a soulful line-up including Al Green, Aretha Franklin and the Jackson Five.

Since Starbucks' involvement in the film is limited to marketing and distribution, its exposure to the whims of the movie marketplace is relatively limited. The film's main backers are Lions Gate, a small Hollywood distributor whose race relations drama Crash won this year's Oscar for best picture, and 2929 Entertainment, a thriving new film company interested in harnessing the synergies of the digital age to produce and distribute films in innovative ways.

According to Starbucks' chief executive Howard Schultz, the move into films was a logical one after a previous successful foray into music distribution. Starbucks owns a chain of small-scale CD stores in the US called Hear Music and puts out collections it thinks will appeal to its youngish, professional latte-sipping clientele. Genius Loves Company, a compilation of duets with Ray Charles released last year, was a huge commercial success.

"We've been looking for more than a year to find a great story that would bring a sense of discovery to our customers, and when we saw Akeelah and the Bee, we immediately realised it was the perfect choice," Mr Schultz said. "The film's inspirational message about a community coming together to support one of its own is emblematic of what Starbucks stands for."

Not all of Starbucks' cross-marketing ventures have been successful. An attempt to invest in the internet during the dot.com boom of the late 1990s came to an abrupt halt after the company's share price began to plummet. An in-house magazine called Joe folded after three issues.

The company, though, has continued to enjoy huge growth, with the number of outlets tripling in the past six years. There are more than 11,000 worldwide, including 450 in the UK.

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