Greening the Silver Screen

The film industry is trying to curb its consumption, but is it doing enough?

Until this assignment, I had never thought about the environmental impact of the film industry. But of course, there is an environmental impact from most everything we do, and the making of a film is no exception.

Until this assignment, I had never thought about the environmental impact of the film industry. But of course, there is an environmental impact from most everything we do, and the making of a film is no exception.

Digging a little bit deeper into this issue, it becomes obvious that the film industry has a consumption problem: food, energy, building materials, fuel, paper – you name it – making a movie requires a lot of input. This type of consumption often slips under the radar, out of sight and mind from viewers when we think about the film industry.

Some of the particularly environmentally-damaging activities of film-making include the use of craft services or catering and their subsequent waste, the use of generators, production vehicles, the electricity and natural gas used in the studio space, set construction, massive amounts of air travel and, even paper. And when you consider the full life-cycle of a film, from pre-production  and casting, right through to screenings and distribution, the impact just keeps growing.

An environmental assessment commissioned by Canadian company Green Screen Toronto found that a large TV series or film feature can consume up to 810,000 sheets of paper, over 900 tonnes of construction material, 175,000 litres of gasoline and 100,000 plastic water bottles. This study did not take into account the carbon emissions related to air travel to promote a film, which can be exceptionally large, with stars crisscrossing the globe for interviews and premieres.

What is the industry doing to combat this outsized environmental impact?

There are a number of initiatives being undertaken in Hollywood to deal with the consumption problem. A project called Green is Universal, created by Universal Pictures and Focus Features, seeks to inform filmmakers on how to make their production methods more sustainable. Their website links to a free ‘Green Production Guide’ (GPG), an initiative by the Producers Guild of America (PGA).

The GPG provides filmmakers with production-specific information, resources and best practices on how to make their production activities more sustainable, along with a searchable database of vendors who provide environmentally friendly products & services, and the locations they serve to make access to these companies easier. The Guide is also available through a free app, helping industry professionals to find exactly what they need, when they need it, as well as a carbon calculator for tallying up the carbon emissions generated by electricity use, food, flights and more.

The Green is Universal website also promotes films whose production teams are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact. So far, 11 feature films from 2013/2014 have made efforts to reduce their environmental impact, including Ride Along (starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart) and Admission (starring Tina Fey). There are lists from 2012, 2011 and 2010 as well. But just what are these movies doing to “green” their activities?

According to Green is Universal, Ride Along refilled reusable bottles, used local organic food in catering and “encouraged the use of washable dishes over disposables.” They also used 100 per cent recycled paper material to make the fake brick and cinderblock sets. Unused lumber and paint was donated to Habitat for Humanity, and the production company sponsored the planting of 35 trees in Atlanta Georgia – one for each day of shooting.

In 2013, the film Admission engaged its departments in a large greening process. They managed to dramatically cut paper usage, utilize non-toxic cleaning supplies, recycle set waste at a rate of 91 per cent, and donate leftover food from catering to provide over 1,400 meals for the hungry in New York City. I am quite impressed by the donation of leftover food, made possible by the help of a local NGO, Rock and Wrap It Up.

Perhaps the action with the biggest potential impact mentioned for the film Ride Along is the effort to use washable dishes rather than plastic ones. Plastic or Styrofoam plates are my biggest pet peeve when attending an event, especially when a kitchen is nearby and washing is feasible. The garbage piles up instantly from plates and napkins alone, and people feel entitled to take new plates for each course because they are already laid out. Their choice of wording concerned me though; they mentioned an “effort” to use washable dishes over disposable ones, not a strong commitment, or 100-per-cent guarantee, leaving me wondering just how robust their efforts were. The lack of specific results from their activities is also troubling. I suppose the take-away here is that if you do something, you should measure its impact – that way you and your public can be sure your actions made a difference (not just a good point for the film industry, mind you).

In a Canadian context, the concern for unsustainable film practices ignited the creation of Green Screen Toronto (GST). GST, launched in 2007, is a not-for-profit Planet in Focus program that researches and develops environmentally sound practices and promotes them to international industry professionals. GST has collaborated with various organizations including FilmOntario, Pinewood Toronto Studios, Cinespace and the Toronto Film & Television Office. Planet in Focus is an environmental media arts organization that trains arts administrators and supports environmental filmmakers. Forget TIFF, they run the Annual Environmental Film Festival! This year it is happening November 6-9 in Toronto, and is on its 15th year.

Along with the film festival, each year Planet in Focus gives out a Green Screen Award to a film or television production that has “demonstrated and implemented an effort in putting environmental awareness front and centre of its production practices.” The 2013 winner was Dead Before Dawn 3D.

Other organizations like this are popping up around the world, including New Zealand’s Greening the Screen, which is very similar to Green Screen Toronto.

If we want to strictly control this industry and its practices, there is no doubt in my mind that government needs to get involved and regulate the use of products in the industry and how waste is dealt with on sets. I did some searching to see if any Canadian laws covered aspects of the film industry, but was not successful in finding anything directly focused on this. If you’re aware of any proposed legislation to this effect, please let me know in the comment section down below!

Those in the industry who are positioned to do so also need to lead by example and encourage a culture of environmental stewardship and industry-wide standards. Green is Universal’s checklist and a code of best practices created by the Centre for Environmental Filmmaking (CEF) at American University in Washington, DC, can both act as good starts to this, and to encourage other productions to use. A number of partners produce this code along with the CEF. The code states that filmmakers should:

  1. Calculate how much energy will be used during film production;
  2. Make an effort to reduce consumption through the production process;
  3. Reduce the carbon debt created through travel; and
  4. Compensate for carbon footprints via carbon offsetting.

The potential economic benefits that can be gained from greening a film production site should also be highlighted whenever possible. A report released this past July by the PGA, aims to dispel the idea that “green” is synonymous with “expensive.” Their report highlights the cost saving opportunities provided by reusing materials, or reducing the need for plastic water bottles. The average cost of bottled water for 60 days of shooting is $11,175, according to the PGA Green report. That cost could fall to about $5,489 if productions instead used reusable tools, such as water coolers and reusable bottles.

I personally am of the belief that we are more likely to subscribe to a desired action if we know everyone else is already doing it – an industry standard (or social norm) – or if our activities are controlled and regulated by government legislation.

For now, Green is Universal should not only publish their Sustainable Production Guide, but set goals for the entire industry, and report on the progress made towards increasing these goals each year. I think it is vital to incorporate actual measurements in order to understand the consumption problem of the film industry and the impacts of various solutions, and who better to lead us than Hollywood?

Julia is passionate about understanding the needs of business, NGOs, and government in order to help to make environmental issues a priority and create impactful change. She is currently researching Ontario’s low-carbon economy and working as a Policy Analyst at the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, and lives in Toronto. Julia attended the COP21 Conference with an international liberal youth organization. She tweets at @jrhawthorn.