Director: Drew Rist
Writer: Don Merritt, Drew Rist
Producer: Don Merritt, Jake Wilganowski
Stars: Danny Balis, Jeff Kloster, Jim Baldwin, Laura Miller, Tom Pirko
Texas-based Dublin Bottling Works struggles against the Dr Pepper Snapple Group to maintain production of their historic pure cane sugar product.
Dr Pepper soft drink distribution is big business. It’s small business, too. At least it used to be, in the Texas town of Dublin anyway.
Legend has it that pharmacist turned soda jerk Charles Alderton created the 23-flavor beverage in 1885 and named it “Dr Pepper” to honor the father of a lovely young lady. Alderton’s drink failed to impress the eponymous doctor, but it did win over businessman Sam Houston Prim. In 1891, Prim entered into an arrangement that brought Dr Pepper to his Dublin Bottling Works plant for regional sale. Based on how far a horse and cart could travel in one day, Prim drew up an agreement that gave him distribution rights within a 44-mile radius around Dublin.
For decades, Dublin Bottling Works was just another franchise bottler with its storied history as the chief characteristic distinguishing it from countless other regional bottling centers. That changed in the 1980’s, when Dr Pepper Corporate swapped the sweetener in their recipe with high fructose corn syrup. W.P. Kloster, who went on to spend 50 years of his life at Dublin Bottling Works before his death in 1999, kept pure cane sugar as Dublin’s key ingredient and “Dublin Dr Pepper” was forever enshrined as a unique product all its own.
If you came out the other side of that history lesson with the impression that “Bottled Up: The Battle Over Dublin Dr Pepper” is some time tunnel educational piece about soda manufacturing, you would be mistaken. Simultaneously sad, sweet, inspiring, and even suspenseful, “Bottled Up” is a fascinating, and at times heartbreaking, David versus Goliath story where Goliath unfortunately emerges as the victor.
For 120 years, Dublin Bottling Works operated under Sam Houston Prim’s original agreement. While people would travel from all over the country to take home cases of the cane sugar product, Dublin Dr Pepper was otherwise restricted to distribution solely within its horse and cart determined territory. Things got dicey when the world entered the Internet age and Dublin Bottling Works started filling mail orders that included not just the beverage, but merchandise branded with the “Dublin Dr Pepper” name.
Eventually, the bigwigs at Dr Pepper Snapple Group decided that enough was enough. Under the pretense of protecting other bottling businesses hurt by Dublin Bottling Works overstepping its jurisdiction while also diluting the brand name, corporate headquarters lifted its law firm’s foot and planted it back down on top of Dublin, Texas.
Director Drew Rist wields his filmmaker’s brush with the confident strokes of a seasoned documentarian. “Bottled Up” connects all of the traditional dots expected of a documentary feature from slow zooms on vintage photographs to mood perfect and well-choreographed music swells. Rist knows precisely how to pull on heartstrings with sentimental symbolism of lights extinguishing over a stalled assembly line, and it works exactly as intended.
Despite serious stakes for those involved, this is still a film centered on a tug of war over soda. “Bottled Up” keeps its balance with a respectfully playful tone when appropriate, such as when the camera is “sworn to secrecy” before a guided tour of Dublin’s “hidden” Dr Pepper memorabilia museum. There is almost a fun spy movie feel when a clandestine informant calls in with a disguised voice to lead the investigation towards a cake mix culprit like he is some kind of soda pop Deep Throat, too.
Better still, Rist has a keen ear for cherry picking clever sound bites that fill the frame with a snappy energy to keep the story colorful. It helps that virtually all of the talking heads have captivating insight and are immensely charming. The Texas natives in particular are so closely invested in the outcome that their passion is infectious. Their honest personalities give the narrative a feeling of folksy nostalgia that connects the viewer to Dublin as if it is everyone’s hometown.
“Bottled Up” earns itself a face for the corporate villainy angle when Dr Pepper Snapple Group CEO Larry Young is caught on tape personally touting “Dublin Dr Pepper” before his company’s giant fist makes a legal move to crush all references to the term following more than a century of use. Resisting the temptation for a “Roger & Me” moment that might draw out the drama over whether or not HQ will appear on camera, Dr Pepper Snapple Group EVP Jim Baldwin then provides rehearsed rhetoric to make HQ seem even more insensitive.
Twice calling the settlement over the conflict “a win-win agreement,” Baldwin goes on to downplay the taste difference of Dublin Dr Pepper before adding, “we still have a very good relationship with (Dublin Bottling Works)” and “we support our Dublin fans who love Dr Pepper.” Inadvertently, Baldwin kind of deflates the drama when he points out that pure cane sugar Dr Pepper is still available, and has been bottled in Temple, Texas for over a decade.
If there is a definitive “bad guy” in the fight over Dublin Dr Pepper, “Bottled Up” leans towards pointing the finger at big business. Like all good documentaries distancing themselves from bias and presenting levelheaded perspective however, a case is also made that Dublin Bottling Works at least shares blame in their struggle, even if it is an unpopular viewpoint.
The movie doesn’t go deeply into nitty gritty details, nor does it fully explain the legality of the whole situation. Lawyers cloud the corporate side’s claim by mentioning various legal loopholes while Dr Pepper Snapple Group EVP Jim Baldwin makes a valid assertion that Dublin Bottling Works hurt local businesses whose regions they infringed upon. Likely, the truth lies somewhere in between with fault falling on both sides.
“Bottled Up” stumbles briefly with only 20 minutes to go in a 73-minute film. With the lawsuit resolved, the focus meanders into an inessential aside with a Dublin Bottling Works mixologist and a connection of pure cane sugar to America’s obesity epidemic that is of arguable overall value. But coming full circle on demonstrating its ability to be a well thought out and well produced documentary, the movie recovers nicely with a confrontation-themed finale that even nabs the requisite shot of a Dr Pepper employee grabbing the lens. The standoff is overinflated, but its dramatization is entertaining nonetheless.
Dublin Bottling Works co-owner Jeff Kloster is shown in the aftermath carrying on his family’s proud legacy by dusting himself off while getting to work mopping floors and fixing fountains at the stores carrying his products. For the rest of Dublin, the future is more uncertain. Ghost town montages of empty buildings and “for sale” signs are just some of the ripple effects felt by Dr Pepper’s hammer. It can be argued that corporate HQ didn’t just crush a franchise business, but they effectively leveled the entire lifestyle of a rural American town.
Ultimately, “Bottled Up” poses interesting questions about the homogenization of a brand identity and its effect on a small town’s way of life. How important was it really for a company making $7 billion to swallow one making $7 million, which is just one-tenth of a percent of their own revenue? We know what Dublin, Texas lost. The greater question is what did the Dr Pepper Snapple Group gain?
Review Score: 90