– by Jonas Tilkov
Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate change.
– David Attenborough
The dream machine
Grasping the scale of a typical Hollywood movie production as an industry outsider can be extremely difficult at times. This is owed mostly due to the fact that creating a movie is rarely just putting a camera in front of an actor and shouting ‘Action!’. Even cheaper productions require an immense amount of resources to achieve the final result – there is set design, costume design, make up, lights and cameras of varying sizes, and then of course the large crew of people that is needed to set all this up and tear it down again after filming is finished. And both people and equipment need to be transported from A to B, as filming locations outside of a studio environment can technically be all over the world for the same movie.
It’s no secret that film is among the largest players in entertainment today. Just in 2019, the industry grossed a total of $101 billion USD of profit (Rosa Escandon via Forbes).
Film & TV is how modern day society experiences storytelling, it’s how news can be consumed or how education can be communicated. It provides jobs and entertainment. It can mirror the cultural Zeitgeist as much as it can influence it and it can be a medium for political movements.
And just like many other industries its practices are part of the reason for man-made climate change.
Picture source: TerryPapoulias via Pixabay
metric tons of carbon dioxide
This realization shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course, considering the aforementioned effort needed to realize a large scale production. And yet the actual numbers paint an alarming picture. In a report from 2021 released by the Sustainable Production Alliance (consisting of big name members like Amazon Studios, Disney, Netflix, Sony and more) the average carbon footprint of a tentpole production, the biggest effort a film company undertakes within a year, can reach up to 3,370 metric tons. That is the equivalent of the yearly emissions of 726 gas-fuelled cars or the yearly electricity usage of 656 homes. Also worth mentioning is that 72% of those emissions are resulting from the fuel usage and air travel during the production, which showcases how much transportation and travel plays a role in this statistic. This is not a new realization either, in 2006 for example there was already a study by UCLA ranking the film industries environmental impact as the second largest polluter in the Los Angeles area right after the region’s oil refineries.
With the Earth most likely already having crossed the planetary boundary threshold of irreversible damage to the polar ice sheets due to climate change, efforts to reach a point of climate neutrality are of the utmost importance, yet there seems to be barely any progress.
Hollywood’s mindset is only slowly adapting to these issues. Pledges are being made, like the 2021 call to action letter by the Producers Guild of America to reduce the industries carbon emissions. But even these seem to be half-hearted, considering that the letter is only pushing to cut emissions by half by 2030, a target that addresses the problem of carbon emissions, but doesn’t really come close to bringing actual change about.
Educate through entertainment
What does this sobering reality mean for the future of Hollywood and the film scene as a whole? Does it doom the industry to be yet another gear in the cycle of perpetuating climate change? Or is there also potential for film insiders to step up as frontrunners in the race to a more sustainable future? As is often the case with complex issues like these, a straight forward answer is hard to come by. There is however an interesting aspect the silver screen can bring to the table: Education.
A concept that might not be immediately obvious, but can be seen in at times surprising circumstances. A study from 2004 revealed that US audiences who had seen the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow were more aware and worried about climate change and were even more willing to change their own behavior due to their concern of global warming as opposed to non-watchers of the movie. This is even more surprising if one is to consider the context for this statistic – At a time in the early 2000s where public climate change awareness was still in it’s infancy, The Day After Tomorrow, a highly fictionalized movie about the topic was able to change audiences mind about the issue. Add onto that the massive stardom actors often receive from the public eye and one can quickly find perfect candidates to spread more awareness about climate change. Hollywood behemoths like Leonardo DiCaprio or George Clooney have been outspoken advocates for climate action for years. And filmmaker and naturalist David Attenborough uses his chosen medium of documentaries to preserve nature on film and educate about its destruction by human hand.
In a way this uses film’s strong suit of storytelling not just for entertainment, but for a higher cause, to use its huge popularity to bring an understanding of a highly pressing matter like climate change to the masses.
Picture source: Dimhou via Pixabay
Insider tools: the Screen New Deal
But not just education is a way for the film industry to push for sustainable practices, and it will take more effort than just that. To realistically transform the way film is being produced, it will need guidelines providing information on how to reduce and eliminate any environmental impact. One such guideline is the Screen New Deal, a report from 2020 by Albert, an environmental organization focused on making TV and film sustainable, the British Film Institute, and Arup, an engineering company. The Screen New Deal, according to Albert, offers a roadmap for the film industry to achieve the systemic change needed to be environmentally sustainable.
The report defines 5 key areas that need to be considered during the making of a film: Production Materials, Energy and Water usage, Studio Buildings and Facilities, Studio Sites and Locations, and Production Planning. For each area the paper offers sustainable alternatives to the current ones and also adds case studies of existing providers for these alternatives, giving production companies an easy starting point for further research. At the same time the report explains the benefits gained from switching to the sustainable options, including outside of the environmental ones also financial and social benefits, showcasing how much good can be additionally gained.
What the Screen New Deal proves is that there are very graspable guidelines out right now that enable film makers an easily understandable transition to sustainability without sacrificing any creativity in the process. With the industries mindset changing, tools like these will be immensely important in enabling a smooth and, most importantly, quick transition away from the environmentally harming practices of current day productions.
The film industry is faced with the problem of climate change like many other industries area right now. Changes and new innovation will have to be implemented to prevent global warming from reaching the critical tipping point of no return. The situation however is far from hopeless and with the right people, a willingness to adapt, tools like the Screen New Deal, and educational strategies, film will continue to be a flourishing industry, just hopefully with conscious consideration what impact gets created in the process.
This essay aims to bring an understanding of the interlink between climate change and the film industry. This is done with a literature review of the current reality of these elements, with a strong focus on the Hollywood industry as well as a closer look at the developments and potential for future progress towards a sustainable, climate neutral or positively impacting film industry.
- Albert. (2020) ‘Screen New Deal’. Available at: https://wearealbert.org/2020/07/22/screen-new-deal/ (Accessed: 21 June 2022).
- Albert. (2020) ’Screen New Deal Report’. Available at: https://wearealbert.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Screen-New-Deal-Report-1.pdf (Accessed: 21 June 2022).
- Chuba, K. (2021) ‘Producers Guild Calls For Hollywood’s Transition to Clean Energy, 50 Percent Reduced Emissions by 2030’, The Hollywood Reporter, 28 October. Available at: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/pga-green-clean-energy-hollywood-1235038037/ (Accessed: 21 June 2022).
- Escandon, R. (2020) ‘The Film Industry Made A Record-Breaking $100 Billion Last Year’, Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rosaescandon/2020/03/12/the-film-industry-made-a-record-breaking-100-billion-last-year/ (Accessed: 21 June 2022).
- Glaister, D. (2006) ‘Hollywood gets a new role as Los Angeles’ great polluter’, The Guardian, 15 November. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/nov/15/filmnews.usa (Accessed: 21 June 2022).
- Sustainable Production Alliance. ’Carbon emissions of film and television production’ (2021). Available at: https://www.greenproductionguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/SPA-Carbon-Emissions-Report.pdf (Accessed: 21 June 2022).
- Leiserowitz, A. (2004)‘Before and after The Day After Tomorrow’. Available at: https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2004_11_Before-and-after-The-Day-After-Tomorrow.pdf (Accessed: 21 June 2022).
- US EPA (no date) ‘Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator’. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator (Accessed: 21 June 2022).
Stockholm Resilience Center (no date)’The nine planetary boundaries’. Available at: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html (Accessed: 6 July 2022).
Picture source: Skye Studios via Unsplash