Arts Listings

Film Documents Grocery Store Bagger National Championship

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday October 29, 2009 - 09:33:00 AM

There have been movies about waitresses and grocery check-out clerks; now, finally, that overlooked retail figure, the bagger, is represented in Ready, Set, Bag!—a new documentary by Oren Jacob of Piedmont, Chief Technical Officer at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, his wife Justine and a few colleagues from Pixar, set to have its world premiere next Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Elmwood on College Ave. near Ashby, and 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Cerrito, on San Pablo in El Cerrito. 

Ready, Set, Bag! is about a little-known slice of retail culture, the annual National Grocery Bagging Competition in Las Vegas. Appropriately, the film’s screenings here and in about 50 cities nationwide next year, will benefit local community food banks through fundraising and food drives. 

Oren Jacob talked about how the idea for Ready, Set, Bag! came up at a Pixar lunch for a new employee. “We were talking about high school summer jobs, and Patrick said he’d been a grocery bagger, ‘but I never made it out of regionals.’ He talked about coaches, high school bands, the governor’s proclamation ... That’s how we found out about the competition put on by the National Grocers Association.” 

Jacob and his team took the idea to the Sundance Producers Institute in August 2006, and won for best pitch. Returning home, he contacted the NGA to ask if there were any contests coming up—and found himself with his crew on a jet for Salt Lake City the next day. 

“On our first day of shooting, we got the Utah champion, Brian, who became one of our main characters. That was Thursday. Then, back home, we found out there was the California championship in Davis on Friday. When the crew came back, the car was covered with stuff like silly string. I said, ‘Was there a frat party or something?’ They showed me the footage; I couldn’t believe it. We woke up on Saturday and said, ‘We’ve got a film.’” 

Traveling through 23 states over three months, the READY, SET, BAG! team “followed 19 contestants, 14 pretty closely,” finally focusing on eight, with “their families and friends, co-workers, coaches, cheerleaders and fans.” In January, 2007, the crew covered the National Contest. There was drama, even a villain—a roll of Lifesavers. “Brian, the Utah champ, had lost the Nationals the year before, because he left a roll of Lifesavers out of the bag on the checkout stand. He regained the Utah title—and set out to avenge himself against those Lifesavers!”  

When the hour-and-a-half film was finished, and its Berkeley premiere set, Jacob “called Alameda County Food Bank to see if we could partner with them, to do a fundraiser and a food drive at the screening. Mechanics Bank, headquartered in Richmond, will put up a dollar for the Food Bank for everyone who comes to see the film. Folks who bring two or more cans of food will get a dollar off their tickets, 50 cents off popcorn. We’ve arranged the same sort of thing with Contra Costa County Food Bank, and in San Francisco—and in every area we’ll be screening READY, SET, BAG! It’s a privilege to be helping them out.” 

The premiere will also feature a rare screening of Academy award nominee Jim Capobianco’s new hand-drawn animated short film to open the program. Food Bank associates will speak about their work, and READY, SET, BAG! will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers and some of the contestants featured in the film. 

Jacob reflected on the process and on the final impression of the completed film. “Working on a film, you’re involved for several years, then you take it on the festival circuit before release. That’s when there’s an urban, often cynical eye on the film. Hollywood often casts an eye of derision on events like this, as in BEST OF SHOW. We’ve done something more in the arena with SPELLBOUND. I was excited to portray people in America, working an honest job, trying to do the best they can—people as they are, with a positive attitude.” 

Jacob has been at Pixar 19 years. His colleague from the making of FINDING NEMO, Executive Producer Graham Walters, joined Jacob in producing READY, SET, BAG!