We might be mistakenly giving the film industry more credit than it actually deserves. The astronomical celebrity status associated with participation in Hollywood has given companies and projects a certain level of freedom over their own imaging. The faces of Gwyneth Paltrow, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ellen Degeneres are symbols of the so-called “greenness” of Hollywood. Significant environmental activism is exuded by Hollywood, but Hollywood seldom holds itself accountable for its own environmental footprint.
A feature length film is by no means a small project, especially if it is produced by a corporation like Warner Brothers or Universal. Depending on the plot and budget, the production of a single movie can span continents (Skyfall was filmed in England, Scotland, Japan, Turkey, and China), years (James Cameron began working on Avatar in 1994 and the film was released in 2009), and space (some shots in Dunkirk involved about sixty real ships at the actual port of Dunkirk in France). While low-budget, foreign, and short films are a highly valued sector of the film industry, they are not nearly as valuable as “larger” projects—in the 2016-2017 film year La La Land made $445.7 million at the box office while My Life as a Zucchini made $5.6 million.
In 2016, 12 of the top 100 American movies were produced in California. Over 4o were produced abroad. To produce a feature film on location, even on the East Coast of the U.S., requires almost the entire film cast and crew, often made up of hundreds of people, to travel by plane and bring their equipment and props with them. Several participants will fly first class or on a private jet. A single film with a budget of $150 million (such as Suicide Squad) that transports its cast and crew to Vancouver could directly lead to at least 250 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents just from all the flights. Canada is extremely popular for filming due to its proximity, a favorable exchange rate and qualitative perks such as settings that could stand in for many American cities or regions. While Canada is probably one of the most convenient places to film “on location,” the environmental costs associated with filming there and elsewhere are high and often unavoidable depending on the artistic needs of the project.
The film industry at home emits even more carbon than it does by traveling. A UCLA study from 2006 compared the greenhouse gas emissions from different industries in the Los Angeles metro area alone. The authors estimated that the aerospace industry—essentially all flights to and from LAX as well as the operations of airports—emits 8.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in a single year. The film industry in the same area was estimated to emit 8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. This number has likely increased as Hollywood’s output in the past ten years has increased, as well. The emissions that come from a movie set can be direct or indirect, lighting being the most direct source. While the actors may use efficient LED light bulbs at home, they are not the ones in charge of what light bulbs they use on set, who turns them off after a day of filming, or how they are disposed. Props, catering, sound production, and thousands of printed script pages are just a few of the many sources of indirect emissions. To quantify the individual environmental footprints of film projects is not a straightforward task. Movies are intentionally distinct from one another and therefore the sources of their emissions and waste are distinct, as well.
Hollywood’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions and other components of its environmental footprint are present, diluted, and sluggish. The Environmental Media Association is currently the foremost group that is addressing this industry’s level of environmental stewardship at most points in production. One of their current programs is the Green Seal program, which recognizes production companies that meet certain criteria, which include actions at almost every step of the movie making process. Projects that obtain at least 75 out of 200 possible points get recognized on the EMA website and at their yearly award show. The program also includes recommendations for “greening plotlines and characters,” some of which recommend that characters recycle or ride bicycles. In 2016, Green Seal recipients included Hidden Figures (Fox), the 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG), and Bridget Jones’s Baby (NBC/Universal).
The Green Seal program, which is currently Hollywood’s only widely-accepted sustainability project, lacks a way of incentivizing certification for a film or a film industry event. Avid cinephiles are far more interested in a movie’s Rotten Tomatoes rating than they are in its “greenness.” The emissions that went into the production and distribution of a film are likely not included as criteria for moviegoers in the same way that genre and critical reception are.
However, the problem with Hollywood’s sustainability is not wholly a lack of accountability on the consumer’s part, the amount of people who work in Hollywood who also happen to be passionate about environmental issues is more than enough to tackle the industry’s sizable carbon footprint. These individuals took the lead in 2007 during the writers’ strike, and are doing so again in the post-Weinstein flood of sexual harassment allegations. Those who actually understand the film-making process are much more equipped to rectify its ecological faults than an outside agent whose austere decisions could result in, frankly, bad movies. Many Hollywood players have the right combination of celebrity status and willingness to dedicate time to environmental causes. This could be a major impetus for environmentally-responsible film-making if it is used in a less passive way.
Buchanan, Carolyn. (2016). “Carbon Footprint of Movie Production Location Choice: the Real Cost.” Harvard Extension School. Retrieved from https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/33797344/BUCHANAN-DOCUMENT-2016.pdf?sequence=1
Castley, Guy. “Eats, shoots and leaves: what the movie industry does to location.’” (2015, June 17). The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/eats-shoots-and-leaves-what-the-movie-industry-does-to-location-42417
Corbett, Charles J, et al. (2006). “Sustainability in the Motion Picture Industry.” UCLA Institute of the Environment. Retrieved from https://www.ioes.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/mpisreport.pdf
“EMA Green Seal.” Environmental Media Association. Retrieved from http://www.green4ema.org/ema-green-seal/
McDonald, Adrian. (2016). “2016 Feature Film Study Key Findings.” Film L.A.. Retrieved from https://www.filmla.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/FilmStudy17_ExecutiveSum_WEB.pdf