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Big business is under fire at the multiplex

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In late September 2005, Jonathan Oppenheimer, currently a director on the board of diamond giant De Beers, delivered a speech at a Cape Town, South Africa, global mining conference warning of a grave danger to the entire industry: Blood Diamond, a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio that wouldn’t even begin shooting for another five months. The project was set amid the Sierra Leone civil war of the 1990s, a brutal conflict largely bankrolled through the sale of uncut diamonds. ”Can you imagine its impact on the Christmas-buying audience in America,” asked the executive, ”if the message is not carried through that this is something of the past?”

The thorny question of what to do when a feature film casts your industry, or even your entire country, in an unflattering light is an unenviable challenge facing three separate entities this fall: the diamond trade (with Blood Diamond, out Dec. 15), U.S. agribusiness (with Fast Food Nation, out Nov. 17), and, yes, even the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan (with Borat, out Nov. 3). And the stakes are high: All three are multibillion-dollar players that could face a serious dent in their bottom lines if these films cause audiences to cut back on diamonds, cheeseburgers, or, you know, visits to Kazakhstan.

So what are the institutions doing about it? Historically, the first step in countering a negative film is to lean on the filmmakers to change their message. Last February, representatives of several diamond interests sent an open letter to Blood Diamond director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai) asking that the movie highlight the Kimberley Process, an auditing system implemented in 2003 that the World Diamond Council says has resulted in illegal, rough diamonds amounting to less than 1 percent of total diamonds sold. The filmmaker declined their request.

”It’s my job to tell stories as best I can,” explains Zwick, with a wry chuckle. ”It’s their job as an industry to sell their product. I don’t tell them how to do their job, nor do I think that it is appropriate for them to tell me how to do mine.”

The next step: Push your point of view before the film premieres, with print ads, websites, and talking heads. ”If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you, and chances are you won’t like the way it comes out,” explains Allan Mayer, a partner and corporate-crisis expert at the PR firm 42West. Mayer is currently working with the WDC, which is implementing a multimillion-dollar effort to educate consumers about the Kimberley Process with an elaborate website and info packets delivered to diamond retailers around the world.

Of course, that won’t work if a company’s message still isn’t as compelling as that of the film. In that case, attacking the message — and, by proxy, the messenger — eems standard. Bestfood nation.com, backed by a group of 20 agriculture and food organizations, addresses the issues raised about their businesses that are detailed in Eric Schlosser’s books Fast Food Nation and Chew on This and, by inference, the fictionalized film of Nation co-written by Schlosser and director Richard Linklater (School of Rock). Effective though the strategy may be, it’s something that Schlosser feels is misplaced. ”The film is designed not to support any political program, any particular diet, or anything literal like that,” says Schlosser. ”It’s trying to make people open their eyes about this world that’s totally, deliberately hidden, and maybe introduce you to people that aren’t [usually] being discussed.”

Unsurprisingly, when asked for comment, the company that would seem to be the biggest target of Linklater’s film, McDonald’s, responded with this terse statement via e-mail: ”The film is fiction and the filmmaker has repeatedly said that it has nothing to do with McDonald’s.” (For the record, Nation‘s fake fast-food joint is named Mickey’s. Nope, no connection there at all.)

”One of the tricky things about this,” says Mayer, ”is if you get too worked up about a specific idea of what the movie’s going to say before the movie comes out, you can actually look quite foolish.” (Like, say, Kazakhstan’s painfully earnest advertisements on CNN and in The New York Times?) Ironically, Zwick says a postscript about the Kimberley Process has been a part of Blood Diamond from the first draft; and for its part, De Beers maintains that it has no issue with his film. Quite the contrary. ”So long as the film helps to bring more awareness to that process,” says company rep Rosalind Kainyah, ”then we welcome it.” Which may be the best timeworn strategy of all: When you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

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