Saturday, November 16, 2013


Once upon a time, there was a 79 year-old woman who received third-degree burns from a spilled cup of McDonald's coffee.

It was 1994, and I was 12 years old.

Funnily, I remember the story being on the news when it happened. Not just because the old lady, Stella Liebeck, was burned by coffee, of course. The story was a sensation because Stella had just received a court judgement of $2.9 million in damages.

It was a lightning rod.

The case prompted a worldwide media frenzy about whether a company should be held liable for a person spilling hot coffee on themselves. The huge compensation amount kicked the hornet's nest even more.

Endless news reports followed. Like a game of whispers, the facts of the case changed ever so slightly with each telling.

By the time the news cycle was finished, the old lady had been driving her car, holding the coffee between her legs, taken the lid off, and then spilled some of the boiling coffee onto herself.

Outrage! Horror! Rabble!

How could a person, even an old lady, not be held responsible for such personal negligence?

But instead, a United States civil jury rewarded her with the $2.9 million dollar judgement.

And, despite some media and public backlash, the old lady took her vast new fortune and lived happily ever after on the duplicitously-gotten proceeds.

Thus the story remained. A victory in the civil courts but a loss in the court of public opinion. For many years, in fact.

But then, the internet arrived.

And some solid facts of the story, or so they seemed, started to wobble.

Until finally, years later, another version of the story emerged via documentaries online.

The old lady was the passenger in the car, which didn't have cupholders. The car was stationary, parked in the McDonald's parking lot. She had indeed removed the lid, and was holding the cup between her knees. While pulling the far side of the lid off the cup, she spilled the whole thing onto her lap and groin. The burns, ultimately were to 16% of her body. She spent a week in hospital, incurring a $10,000 medical bill. Her ongoing medical expenses, for skin grafts and rehabilitation, pushed the total medical expenses up to $20,000. Her family wrote to McDonald's and tried several times to receive only a recompense for the medical costs. McDonald's offered $800 to close the matter. McDonald's were aware that they served their coffee extra hot, requiring 'franchisees to serve coffee at 180–190 °F (82.2–87.8 °C). At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds', and a McDonald's representative 'conceded that McDonald's coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served.'

Oh, and that $2.9 million the old lady received?

Reduced to around $500,000 by the trial judge.

Quite a radically different story now, isn't it?

Once upon a time we were in the era of propaganda. Whatever stories were made and told became the single voice on the subject. The 'voice of God', almost.

Leni Riefenstahl made a career out of it, directing propaganda films for the Nazi's like 'Triumph of Will':

The power of the filmmaker was excessive in Riefenstahl's case, allowing her to shape a false, positive image of the barbarous Nazi regime.

It's a lot easier when you are the only voice in the room.

Then came an era of diverse artistic voices. More filmmakers arrived, each with different perspectives. The lone authority, the 'voice of God' was no more.

And then, 'filmmaking democratisation' happened. Suddenly, cameras were cheap. They didn't even use film anymore. Editing could be done on cheap computers now too. DVD's could be created by anyone, not just Hollywood studios. Youtube videos, as well.

A rapidly evolving media landscape. From one voice, to a few voices, to too many voices. All clamouring to be heard.

In this new environment, the crowded room, you can start to doubt yourself. A filmmaker can start to wonder, why does it matter if I have a story to tell at all?

And the answer is Stella Liebeck.

An old lady who endured 3rd degree burns and a wave of unwarranted public outrage as her story was warped and twisted against her by a small number of powerful voices: the media.

The same old lady who, through the amazing new capability we have to make films more cheaply, and to make them available online so easily, can finally have her story told correctly.

It just had to wait until we were ready.

So much content is not discovered by audiences instantly anymore. Only the biggest players are in the instant attention and hype business. But hype doesn't last.

If told well, your film simmers. Passing organically from audience member to audience member. Growing in awareness and reaching more and more people over time.

That it is not an instant sensation does not diminish the quality of your story.

So, yes, your story matters. If it is good. If it is told well. It may just have to wait until we are ready for it.

Have a cup of coffee...err...water...cold water, while you wait.

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