Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz is working the markets and promising a comeback, after the company experienced a toxic shock to their share price at the end of 2007. At that point in time, they had 15,000+ stores around the world and were opening at a rate of 6 per day. Pundits began to wonder if this was the death knell. He wants to convince them otherwise. Hollywood has also had some set-backs, closed down independent distribution arms and put film finance into the doldrums - despite the buoyant ticket sales around the world. It would seem that in both marketplaces the product isn't in peril (people love movies as much as they love coffee) but the method of distribution is called into question.
Most of the writers I know work in coffee shops. There are probably more screenplays conceived on Starbucks caffeine than on any other substance. Besides, very few writers can afford the other stuff. At the end of the day, all of this caffeine ends up in our lakes (as Boston Harbour discovered) and in our theatres (Hollywood). The point of this is not to draw a scatological connection - although, I leave that open to interpretation - but the screenwriter could benefit from pondering the analogies between Starbucks and Hollywood. If anything, it might make them aware of their own part to play in this global caffeine circus.
I was listening to a fun interview conducted by screenwriter and old friend, Bruce Feirstein, for KCRW's Politics of Culture with author, Taylor Clark. In the interview, they discuss Clark's then-published book, 'Starbucked'. Of course, I thought it was very apropos that a screenwriter conduct this interview, because the story of Starbucks' blaze to glory then crisis is insightful.
The Starbucks that we are familiar with today originated in 1987 (although founded in 1971), when Howard Schulz came on board. His motto in the early years was - 'To inspire and nurture human spirit - one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time'. This was rousing stuff and the coffee shop explosion is history.
Contrary to popular opinion, the urban myth that Starbucks put mom and pop shops out of business was debunked by Clark in his book. Apparently, there were only 585 coffee shops in America in 1989 - before Starbucks went on the rise. Every independent operator he interviewed, claimed that having a Starbucks move into their neighbourhood brought with it a significant increase in sales for everyone in the coffee retail business.
A decade and a half later, Starbucks employs 125,000+ people and is ranked the most effective brand after the likes of Apple and Google. It's reach is daunting; the 2nd largest chain in America is Caribou coffee but, apparently, they only have 1/25th the turnover of Starbucks.
How did this happen? Starbucks has a brilliantly designed marketing machine that is supported by a powerful real-estate machine. They analyse neighbourhoods and crunch lots of numbers before they take residence in a neighbourhood to make sure that they have a hit on their hands before they open. They also realised that 'Reliability & Consistency' were tantamount to their brand and the key driver to their success. Their brand embodied 'upwards mobility' and 'affluence'. Communities actually paid Starbucks to move in and create the sense that they were on the up-and-up. In Beijing, people queued up to place their order and get a piece of that affluent symbolism. Because of this, they were able to charge $4 for a cup of coffee, wherein $2.50 was for the milk. And let's not forget - coffee is a drug. Once people are hooked, they want more and more. In the US, the average coffee consumer visits a coffee shop 18 times/month (350 million cups a day).
Things were going good. People paid a premium and they were happy. Starbucks was on a roll. Then, things started to slide.
Somewhere along the way the company got sidetracked. They went after the money and only the money. Sure, people wanted 'relability and consistency' but they also wanted community. The original Starbucks had something special, something of value to offer in the 'Third Place' that they created outside of work and home. It offered aspiration. But Starbucks lost sight of this by opening up drive-thru's (which were phenomenally more profitable but offered zilch 'experiential' factor). They began promoting films (that flopped) in addition to books and music. Their coffee was made by machines. How else can you deal with high employee turnover on such a massive scale without automating the processes? They lost the human touch.
Hollywood has had its own crisis with plummeting DVD sales. It's reaction has been to cut overheads and the devleopment 'independent' and quirky films. More faith is put in the marketing and distribution of Blockbusters than in anything else. Their product has, likewise, become homogenised. They often forget their sense of 'community' by sidelining storytelling (the thing that binds us) and, instead, promoting plot and pyrotechnics (SFX). They look for short-cuts and they number crunch to determine what should be green-lit.
So, what does this mean for screenwriters?
The next time you sit down in Starbucks to write your screenplay, remember that you are writing the DNA of Hollywood - roasting the beans that fuel the whole empire. You are the Barista and it is your job to provide that human touch. You have to think of the commercial aspect - Hollywood is a chain, afterall - but you don't want to lose sight of the importance of stories in people's lives. They are hooked on them. They need stories to bring enjoyment, escape, sensibility and meaning to their lives. Our lives. Stick to your convictions and write with passion. Passion is infectious. Don't be afraid to take risks just because Hollywood is. We all need great films, wherever they come from.
All this coffee talk is making me want one. If you want to try somewhere new, I highly recommend the Algerian Coffee Store in Soho. They will home deliver whatever you want and offer a great service - and a great alternative - to Starbucks.[originally published on Nomadz.net]