It’s nearly that time again. The red carpets are about to be filled with all the faces we have watched act out intense stories of love, personal triumph, and critiques of our social model. The film industry will once again get dressed up and everyone is waiting to find out who the winners will be, and -why deny it- what the critical issue will be at this year’s gala. Because these awards ceremonies are never free from controversy, usually related to social issues. However, we have yet to hear a resounding self-criticism about the fact that films are art and part of climate change and the environmental crisis we are currently experiencing. Is this the year for a few words on the planet?
According to the latest Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) report the audiovisual production of movies and television shows raised nearly $100 billion on a global level. In fact, in the U.S. alone around 700 movies and 500 television shows are filmed every year. This major economic driver is associated with the transportation of people and goods by air, land and sea; tons of food waste and plastic bottles from the catering for each day of filming; the necessary megavolts of electricity needed to light each of the scenes; generators the currently still run on diesel; hundreds of cubic meters of wood to product sets that are used and then discarded. It’s a lot of waste. All of this generates around 15 million tons of CO2 a year, emissions that are released directly to the atmosphere and accelerate climate change and its negative effects.
In response to this undeniable negative impact on the environment, some major studios, like 21st Century Fox, have set a clear goal to reduce emissions, proposing a variety of different actions to achieve this goal in their productions. From systems to reduce water consumption through drip irrigation to the construction of sets made completely of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood. Meanwhile, Sony has made an effort to reduce its waste 90 percent, reaching agreements with associations in the communities where they film to pick up the food leftovers. They also aim to create content that encourages environmentally responsible behavior.
There are also initiatives in Spain which are designed to reduce the impact of the film industry. Specifically, Promálaga (the organization in charge of the economic promotion of the city of Malaga) is part of the Green Screen project, which has created a calculator for the carbon footprint of audiovisual productions. In addition, public agencies, consulting firms and some of the country’s largest production companies recently established the Alliance for Sustainable Audiovisual Production. However, actions like this that aim to turn the film industry into an environmentally responsible sector remain the exception.
Turning the entertainment industry into a more sustainable activity requires implementing some of the systematic and tested environmental assessment mechanisms applied in other sectors. This ensures that action is not limited to isolated events. Instead, there is rigor in measuring impact, planning strategic reduction actions, and ultimately, truly relevant action to compensate for the impact of the waste.
In most cases, sustainable production has to do with looking at everything from an environmental lens while writing a script. For example, simply thinking that the main character relaxes by going for a run in the park at lunch time instead of taking a long shower at night. They are two very different situations in terms of the environmental impact. Just by writing in a more sustainable way we are already reducing a significant portion of the movie’s negative effects.
In a second stage, optimizing the actual production process with more efficient transportation strategies, or by using suppliers that are able to provide sustainable alternatives to energy or food consumption further reduces the impact on the environment. And above all, it’s about that: reducing, reducing, reducing. Improving production design so that the impact of the waste that must be compensated is as low as possible.
In this final stage of offsetting environmental footprint, audiovisual producers still have a long way to go. First, because measurements are usually limited to CO2 and waste production. Second, because the industry has not yet internalized the cost of ecosystem degradation as a direct result of set construction, or the degradation that occurs indirectly from the “pull effect”. There is more than one example of pristine landscapes that were used to film famous movies that have had to close to the public due to the constant pressure from visitors that go there to take a picture.
Internalizing this direct impact on ecosystems and natural capital requires integrated methodologies that allow measuring both the impact of the activity and the own baseline of natural resources provided by a space. Afterwards, the net zero impact is achieved applying corrective measures and strategically planned restoration projects go beyond traditional tree-planting initiatives or transactions in the secondary carbon market.
While there’s still a long way to go, the good news is that consumers are becoming increasingly critical about companies’ environmental behavior, and therefore are rising as a significant source of pressure. However, rewarding the transformation efforts in new productions would stand as a powerful statement by the film industry. When will we have an award for the most sustainable film?