Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Independent Film 'READY, SET, BAG!' Chronicles the Serious, Humerous and Ruthless Life of Competitive Grocery Bagging

To paraphrase the late comedian Rodney Dangerfied - "Grocery baggers don't get enough respect."

Think about it, grocery store baggers, who're often called courtesy clerks these days, have arguably the most face-to-face contact - and are the employees shoppers have the last contact with when leaving the store - with a grocer's customers than any other store employee or company executive. Yet the typical supermarket chain CEO makes more money in just a few hours than a typical bagger makes in a year.

And least you think it's the case, grocery industry CEO's don't have anything on grocery baggers when it comes to being competitive.

Every February grocery baggers from across the country meet in Las Vegas, Nevada to vie for the title of 'National Best Bagger,' in the National Grocer's Association's (NGA) Best Bagger
National Championship competition. (see the 2010 winners here.)

The baggers represent the grocery retailers they work for and come from throughout the U.S. to compete in the competition, which is held in conjunction with the trade associations's annual convention. The NGA is the national trade group for independent grocers in the U.S.

The annual grocery bagging competition receives a fair amount of publicity each year, particularly from media outlets in the winners' hometowns. But a new independent film - 'READY, SET, BAG!' - aims to elevate the annual bag off competition and grocery baggers to iconic status.

The 80-minute film, produced by Justine Jacob and co-directed by Ms. Jacob and Alex D. da Silva, is currently showing at select theaters throughout the U.S. (You can view a list of upcoming screenings here.)

Oren Jacob is the executive producer of 'READY, SET, BAG.' It was his idea to make the film about competitive grocery bagging and the NGA annual bagging competition.

Justin Jacob is a filmmaker and entertainment law attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area and the former president of the Bay Area Women in Film and Media organization. She produced and co-directed, with da Silva, the award winning independent film 'Runners High,' in 2006.

Alex D. da Silva has been working in the film industry since 1989. He received an MA Degree in Film in São Paulo, Brazil and has worked as a producer, cinematographer and director in commercials and non-commercial projects shot in the U.S. and Latin America. He produced and directed the award winning short film 'O Cantor de Samba' and co-directed 'Runners High.'

'READY, SET, BAG!' is a true slice of Americana.

"Americans don't only work hard, they also like to have fun and the world of competitive grocery bagging is often bizarrely entertaining and unexpected," says producer Justin Jacob. "Contestants unveil their competitive side as they train and take the competition - but never themselves - seriously. Spanning the US, they are the heart of the bagging competition, their workplaces and of 'READY, SET, BAG!'"

In the film viewers get to meet Jacob, a once shy and overweight teenager who blossomed and found friends when he got his first job at a grocery store.

Then there's Brenda. She works beside her daughter as a grocery bagger and rides Harley Davidson motorcycles with her hunting-obsessed husband, James, when not working at the store.

Another competitive grocery bagger in the film is Kim, whose posse of 45-80 year-olds gives her a sendoff to the annual grocery bag off in Las Vegas she’ll never forget.

Other competitive grocery baggers featured in 'READY, SET, BAG!' are:

>Roger, a Chinese/Trinidadian immigrant who sees the prize money from the bagging competition as his entry ticket to the American Dream;

>Ryan, an African-American home-schooled farm boy with a grocery bag full of charm;

>Brian, a returning state champion determined to redeem himself after the mistake that cost him the grocery bagging national title the previous year; and

>Jon, a 49-year-old stoic grocery bagger from Minnesotan who has one last chance to prove that he can snag "bagging gold" before he hits fifty.

Here's how (in italics below) the filmakers describe their motivation for making the film about the NGA's annual grocery bagging contest and the competitive grocery baggers who make it happen:

"Our story originated when Oren Jacob, our executive producer, was talking with some friends about their summer jobs back in high school. Someone blurted out “I used to be a grocery bagger, but never made it out to the regionals…

Driving home that night, Oren called and said, 'I know what our next film is about.'

The idea of taking something as mundane and common as bagging to an extreme competitive level intrigued us and we wanted to find out who would participate in such an endeavor. We started researching the competition, the National Grocers Association that runs the competition, and the supermarket industry in general. We found a competition that has been going on for over 20 years, an organization with a purpose to advocate for independent grocers that cater to their communities, and an industry filled with integrity where individuals love their jobs and serving their customers. We knew we had more than a competition film.

We then pitched the story at the Sundance Producers Conference, and won the Best Pitch award. With our first $500 in funding secured, and five months to go before the national competition, we started a tour of 21 states filming regional bagging competitions and meeting state champions. After propane fireballs, a dedicated coach, a winning 4H dairy goat, a victory dance, a harem, a rugby scrum, some dead deer, band camp, a 50th birthday party, drinking moonshine with flamingos, and a whole lot of very well packed groceries, what we discovered was the heart of America.

We had a blast and saw an opportunity to tell intimate, personal stories that would reveal a slice of Americana we all participate in. As we filmed the final round of the National competition in Vegas, we knew we had a compelling story to tell about these individuals who exemplified being the best at what you do, no matter what that is.

After watching our film, we’re confident that you will never go through a checkout aisle the same way again, knowing what it takes to be qualified, at a professional level, to ask the question 'Paper or plastic?'"

The film first debuted at a handful of film festivals in 2008-2009 but is just now getting a widespread national screening.

In 2008, 'READY, SET, BAG!' received the Award of Excellence at the prestigious Indie Fest film festival. In 2009 the Honolulu International Film Festival gave it its Award of Excellence in Filmmaking. The grocery bagger-focused film also is an official selection at this year's 2010 Sonoma (California) International Film Festival.

The filmakers are walking the talk (or video in this case) as well with their award-winning film: They're donating $1 from each ticket sold for 'Ready, Set, Bag!' to a local food bank in the cities where the film is shown during its current national tour.

Additionally, the filmakers are doing a number of other things to help America's hungry, as part of their philosophy that since the movie is set in the retail grocery business and focuses on bagging groceries, they have a certain obligation to assist those less able to buy bags full of food at the supermarket.

Those activities are:

>Food donations at screenings: In certain locations, individuals get $1 off the ticket price for bringing in at least 3 cans to donate to the local food bank.

>BlipTV Channel: Clips of the film and other related contect are available for viewing at All of the advertising revenue from the channel is being donated to Feeding America, the national organization that supports U.S. food banks and pantries. The site is regularly updated with new video.

>Online: The filmakers are giving 10% of all item sales from their online store to Feeding America.

> Deal: The filmakers are offering a deal at A donation of $1 from the deal goes to the local food bank when tickets to the film are sold through Groupon.

According to the filmakers, donations from the above activities have so far this year provided over 5,000 meals.

Fresh & Easy Buzz readers who work in the retail food and grocery business, or have worked in the industry, particularly as a grocery bagger at some point, will get caught up in the film.

But 'READY, SET, BAG!' is far more than a film for past and present grocery industry employees. Rather, it's a serious, humerous and even ruthless sociological look at the world of competitive grocery bagging and more. As mentioned earlier - it is a true slice of Americana.

The eight competitive grocery baggers featured in the film 'READY, SET, BAG!"

Minnesota State Champion, Jon Sandell
With a goal to make it to the national competition the year he turned 50, 49-year-old Sandell won the state competition. Tough on the outside but with a generous heart, he represents Chris’ Food Center, a family-owned store run by a previous best bagger champ and proud displayer of numerous State Bagger Champion trophies. Sandell wants the top prize and brings along his “Harem," three female coworkers who knew that Sandell was their ticket to Vegas.

Utah State Champion, Brian Bay

The year before, Bay failed to place at nationals when he missed a pack of lifesavers that had rolled up against the side of the checkout stand. This year, he returned to beat out 38 competitors and became Utah’s reigning State Champion. After a year of practicing and more determined than ever, he, his wife and cheering squad can’t wait to return to Vegas for his chance at redemption.

Alabama State Champion, Roger Chen
Chen is very clear about why he’s participating in the contest – for the money. Describing himself as the “typical American,” he is a 25-year-old Chinese immigrant born in Trinidad, Tobego. He has been in the US for two years studying computer science and needs money to pay for his education. His lively and dedicated coach, Publix store manager Joe Yaeczitis, has found what he believes is the contestant who will finally bring Alabama its first national title.

Pennsylvania State Champion, Kim Weaver
Forty-eight year old Weaver is grounded, works with her teenage kids at the same store and loves to play pinochle. Once a month she gets together with the Flamingals – a hilarious group of eight women from the store (aged 45-80) to eat, play cards, have sleepovers and drink. Surrounded by flamingo paraphernalia, they give Weaver a special Vegas sendoff she’ll never forget.

California State Champion, James Hunter
Competing in the “Thunderdome of bagging competitions,” the driven, highly competitive Hunter had to drown out 400 screaming, dressed up, face-painted bagging fans to emerge the California State Champion. He’s a rugby star at school and off to college this year. Both a team player and a solo dynamo, he feels fully confident to compete against the best of the best in Vegas.

Iowa State Champion, Brenda Wygle
It took Wygle ten years of competition to finally become the Iowa State Champion. Her daughter, 17, who works with her at the store and has stuck by her side through it all, has no doubt her mom can win at the national level. Often taking Harley rides with her husband and son, Wygle is proudly the first woman to represent Fareway Stores over the 20 years of competitions.

Virginia State Champion, Jacob Richardson
At 17, Richardson is the youngest state champion in the competition this year. He’s outgoing, sweet-natured, and can’t stop talking. But, he wasn’t always this way. Once an overweight and solitary videogamer, getting a job at Food City helped him break out of his shell, make great friends and lose weight. Now when he’s not working, he’s at the store hanging out with his friends or talking with them on MySpace. His very supportive dad and sister have dreams Richardson will win in Vegas, but he says he knows he’s “already a winner.”

Ohio State Champion, Ryan Hamilton
“Ryan Hamilton IS Ohio,” as his friends describe. The consummate overachiever, Hamilton grew up and was home-schooled on a farm in Mt. Vernon, OH. He’s the winner of numerous 4H awards, a college swimmer, volunteer for an inner city afterschool program, and studying to become a vet. But what really matters to him is family.

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