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16 June 2022

Hollywood’s sustainability initiatives examined, still somewhat aloof

The Hollywood Reporter’s inaugural Sustainability Issue has been unveiled, making the case for environmental action in the media and entertainment industry. Developed in partnership with the Environmental Media Association (EMA), the report opens by arguing that we are not consigned to inevitable disastrous climate change, and that the Hollywood community can make an impact.

There are two main concerns in the industry. The first is in the cost of production, and the second is the perceived impact of the telling of stories. The former is far more pragmatic, while the latter is more philosophical or ideological, and consequently, most of the more tangential change belongs in the first camp. Slightly frustrating is the fact that the report seems more focused on the latter camp – with a particularly obnoxious section that focuses on how to build a green garden retreat, which feels incredibly tone-deaf.

So, while we will shortly dive into the former pragmatism, it is worth quickly addressing the Good Energy initiative, which is pushing an online resource that attempts to guide writers in how to best incorporate climate change within their stories. Without getting too touchy-feely, these films and shows do affect how our cultures think about issues, and climate change is no different. Broadly, Good Energy wants to inspire more hopeful thinking, rather than doom-and-gloom.

As for the tangible, two of the most commonly seen recommendations currently are to avoid plastic water bottles, and to go paperless for scripts and timesheets. Removing beef and meat in general from catering is also popular, although there is a major bone to pick with Call of the Wild, which proudly claimed that it had composted 30,753 pounds of compostable utensils – as if asking everyone involved to bring their own cutlery would not have been the much better idea.

However, a notable snippet highlighted the return-on-investment problem that many of these productions will face. The 2018 return of The X-Files is highlighted in the report, for donating leftover food, recycling all aluminum and steel used, and diverting 81% of its total waste from landfill. This generated just $41,000 in cost savings, on a very sizable production, and illustrates why it is so hard to pitch such improvements to the accountants. This is why market-driven environmental efforts have so frequently failed.

Transport is the most pressing problem. To fly one person from New York to Los Angeles costs around 1,416 pounds of carbon dioxide – equivalent to around 4 months of a person’s average emissions. For the media and entertainment industry, such flights are commonplace, and when you consider the impact of flying entire production crews and their equipment around for location shoots, the scale of the problem becomes quite apparent.

There are some overlapping organizations in this field. The EMA itself was founded back in 1989, to push for environmental progress in the entertainment industry – creating a namesake awards program to promote productions that met its sustainability criteria, and publishing production guides for those that want to improve.

In 2008, the Producers Guild of America (PGA) set up its Green initiative, which could have been better named given the inevitable confusion with the golfing organization. In 2021, PGA Green began lobbying Hollywood to improve its carbon footprint. PGA Green has a target of halving Hollywood emissions by 2030.

The Sustainable Production Alliance (SPA) was launched in 2010, with a similar goal. Prominent members include Amazon, Discovery, Disney, Fox Corp., NBCU, Netflix, Paramount, and Sony.

The SPA published a report last year that examined SPA members’ production. It found that the average ‘tentpole’ production had an average carbon footprint of some 3,370 metric tons of carbon dioxide – equivalent to around 33 tons per day.

A ‘large’ film would average 1,081 tons, with a ‘small’ film at 391 tons. Fuel for production vehicles and electricity generators are cited as the largest sources. For TV, one hour of scripted dramas averaged 77 tons per episode, with a half-hour scripted single-camera at 26 tons per episode. In comparison, the average US household carbon footprint is 48 tons per year.

The biggest studios have explored using their buildings as renewable energy plants. Paramount seems to have taken the biggest step here, and reckons it has saved 363 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade.

Disney offered up another view of the problem. It reckons that for each filming location it can remove, it will save around 30 tons of carbon emissions – mostly consisting of travel, but also building materials. On this basis, it has used massive LED screens to create digital sets, instead of traveling to a location. Disney’s The Mandalorian used this approach.

The UK-based albert initiative is featured prominently in the report too, with the BBC-BAFTA environmental project subject to an interview with its director Carys Taylor. albert is best known for its carbon calculator and certification system, but provides a number of tools and services that are meant to grease the green wheels for productions.

The ‘green rider’ is neat, and effectively provides a template to ensure that talent can request certain environmental targets in order to appear.  A recent partnership between albert and Arup, a global engineering firm, has created a studio sustainability standard, and an analysis of subtitle data highlighted the disparity between approaches seen in programming.

There were 43,175 words relating to waste disposal in climate content, but only 10,991 relating to transport – the far more damaging problem, given the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra.

On this note, the report also includes albert’s estimates on the carbon emissions of TV and film production. These clash with the above SPA estimates. albert reckons a tentpole film generates 2,840 tons, with an average hour of TV at 9.2 hours – compared to the SPA’s 3,370 and around 52 respectively, if we double the single-camera TV estimate.

The disparity between TV calculations is particularly jarring, and something Faultline shall do some digging on. However, we have gotten to the bottom of the albert name itself. At one point, back in 2011, there were two overlapping environmental projects. ‘Victoria’ evidently did not take off to the extent that albert did.