Blood Is a Dud, but Trade Gets Flayed

Blood Diamond had a lot more action on screen than at the box office, but its premiere led to an avalanche of often unfavorable media coverage about conflict diamonds.

The NGO-endorsed action-adventure film premiered at a disappointing No. 5 its first week and slipped to No. 7 its second. At press time, four weeks after its premiere, it had earned just over $40 million—below expectations for a film with a $100 million production budget and an estimated $30 million advertising and promotional cost.

Promotional events included cast appearances on The Tonight Show and Oprah (see sidebar). But the movie received mixed reviews from critics, with most singling out the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio—who received a Golden Globe Best Actor nomination for the film—and second-billed Djimon Hounsou. Audience reaction seemed a little more positive, and it seemed to maintain a good percentage of its audience after its disappointing opening.

As many feared, the film had a distinct anti-industry tinge, and some reviewers noted it would give people “a good reason not to buy diamonds this Christmas.” The film is set in Sierra Leone in 1999 and tells the story of a mercenary diamond smuggler, Danny Archer, played by DiCaprio, who buys conflict diamonds for an evil cartel named “van de Kaap” (modeled on De Beers).

Among the people he encounters is an investigative journalist played by Jennifer Connelly, who notes that “people back home wouldn’t buy a diamond if they knew it cost someone a hand.” Hounsou plays fisherman Solomon Vandy, whose son has been kidnapped and turned into a child soldier by the Revolutionary United Front rebel forces. The film recounts Vandy and Archer’s hunt for a rare, oversize pink stone, which Hounsou later sells to Van de Kaap.

The film does include what some might call “mitigating factors.” It notes, for example, that diamonds are one of several commodities that have been exploited and used to fund warfare. (“Let’s hope they don’t discover oil here,” one man notes amidst the carnage.) The final montage—where protestors catch up to Van de Kaap—and the Kimberley Process–noting end card deliver a surprisingly upbeat message that takes away some of the sting. The end card also notes that “illegal diamonds are still finding their way to market” and that it is “up to the consumer to insist that a diamond is conflict-free.”

In interviews, stars DiCaprio and Connelly stressed that the film’s message is not to boycott diamonds, but that consumers need to ask questions before they buy. “Ultimately, diamonds are a source of social and economic stability in Africa, so this movie isn’t to say people shouldn’t buy diamonds,” DiCaprio told one interviewer. “What we’re specifically trying to target are conflict diamonds that fund these warlords and civil strife.” They may have been influenced by a letter written by former South African president Nelson Mandela to Warner Bros., in which he warned the company, “It would be deeply regrettable if [this film] led the world to believe that an appropriate response might be to cease buying mined diamonds from Africa.”

Yet these words of caution were not alwaysreflected in the media coverage. The two non-governmental organizations aligned with the film—Global Witness and Amnesty International—seemed in a particularly hostile mood. In one press conference, Global Witness’s Charmian Gooch accused the diamond industry of “putting forth a lot of misleading stuff,” said the Kimberley Process was “full of loopholes,” and asserted that “right now, you cannot buy diamonds that are guaranteed conflict-free.”

The trade did its best to publicize its point of view. The World Diamond Council undertook a $15 million campaign to counteract the film’s impact, but that led many to suggest there was an industry “campaign” against the film. Some accused WDC’s “Hollywood liaison” firm (first Sitirck and Co., then 42West) of placing hostile stories in the New York Post‘s Page Six column and preventing the movie’s stars from getting profiles in glossy magazines. Others think the WDC campaign led to more coverage of the topic.

By the time the movie premiered, it seemed that everyone was weighing in, from Jane Fonda—who showed off her conflict-free earrings on the Today show—to rap mogul Russell Simmons (see Upfront Diamonds, p. 50), to the U.S. State Department, where a deputy secretary assured reporters at a special press briefing that “we’ve come a long way since the bloody atrocities committed in Sierra Leone depicted in that movie. … We really have a totally different system by which rough diamonds are exchanged and traded around the world, and this has come about as a result of the Kimberley Process.”

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh boasted on his popular show that he would try and buy conflict diamonds “because someone has to support these wars.” Comedy Central’s Steven Colbert noted in a mock commentary that the Kimberley Process “relies on what is historically the best way to check industrial human rights abuses: voluntary compliance and self policing. … The best part is the guys who came up with the process [are] the diamond industry. They’re not gonna lie to themselves!” A side card noted, “If they do, they’ve got the perfect make-up gift.”

Concerns were high that the movie would affect diamond sales, especially since the publicity came in the middle of the all-important holiday season. Anecdotal reports suggest that jewelers received more than the usual number of queries on the topic. A survey by MVI Marketing’s Jewelry Consumer Opinion Council shortly after the film opened found that two-thirds of movie-viewer respondents believed it wouldn’t have an impact on their willingness to purchase diamond jewelry, but one-third felt it would—a potentially huge dent in diamond sales. Ultimately, however, jewelers queried for JCK‘s post-holiday report (see page 38) said the movie had little or no impact on sales.

Amid the sometimes heated dialogue, some were philosophical. “I thought the movie was great and very powerful,” wrote Peggy Jo Donahue, director of public affairs for Jewelers of America, in a comment on the JCK Voices blog at JCKonline.com. “Sometimes I think that we, as an industry, get their knickers in a twist arguing about all that’s been said unfairly—me included. But our anger can obscure the fact that people have suffered greatly in Africa and sometimes diamonds have fueled this. I believe we have an obligation to do what we can to help ensure that diamonds aren’t a cause of such suffering anymore.”