And... Action!: Hollywood’s Sustainability Problem

Submitted by Anya Crittenton on September 20, 2021
Via Unsplash

“Hollywood amuses me,” Grace Kelly once said. “Holier-than-thou for the public and unholier-than-the-devil in reality.” 

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can’t name their favorite movie or TV show. Hollywood is ubiquitous and mesmerizing. 

For me, I live in Los Angeles, and I’m married to someone who works in the entertainment industry. My media consumption is nearly incalculable and matches my passion for it, to boot. Despite my love for it, however, I started to wonder... what is Hollywood’s impact on the planet? It is, after all, a massive industry, from studios, to international shoots, to red carpets and award shows. 

Suddenly my love of Hollywood and the planet went to war with one another. 

So, I reached out to some experts, armed with questions, including Hunter Vaughn, the Environmental Media Scholar-in-Residence in the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Media Studies, and Colleen Bell of the California Film Commission. 

“Hollywood can make changes on pretty much every level,” Vaughn told me right off the bat. 

Ouch. 

But okay. We can work with this. What does “change on every level” actually look like? 

Take Two 

Movie and TV productions happen across the world. For larger ones (think Marvel or The Fast and the Furious franchise), they need hundreds of people, food services, vehicles, land usage, and much more. 

One key factor of choosing where to film is tax incentives, which is why so many productions shoot in places like Georgia, New Zealand, Canada, and more. Vaughn warns, however, that by “opting for the highest profit margins” based on such tax incentives can lead to “localized ecosystem destruction” due to travel and wreaking havoc on local plant life, animals, and more. 

A practical way to offset such destruction is to “earn” the tax incentive by establishing and following strict sustainability guidelines and/or giving back to the community. 

Some examples of this include New Mexico’s giveback program as part of being approved for its film tax credit or Tyler Perry’s film studios in Atlanta organizing community outreach

There are also sustainable production practices more filmmakers can start adopting. Bell suggests working with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to donate uneaten meals or wardrobe to locals in the community and reusing sets. 

And the Oscar Goes to... 

Think of some of your favorite movies—including those beloved Best Picture winners like The Hurt Locker or Braveheart. How many of them depict explosions, ruin, and general havoc? 

Those seemingly fun moments are part of the problem, according to Vaughn. 

“The enormous influence Hollywood has on cultural values belies perhaps its most negative environmental impact,” he says. “It continues to train hundreds of millions of viewers in ideological contradictions that speak environmental concern while practicing environmental destruction.” 

What Vaughn wants to see are movies that do less “fetishizing of explosions and glamorization of extreme wealth” and more that “provide stories and images that speak to the importance of social welfare and environmental protection.” 

How bad is it, really? 

According to a report by the British Film Institute (BFI), A Screen New Deal: A Route Map to Sustainable Film Productions, each tentpole flick—films with a budget of $70 million—uses about 2,840 metric tons of CO2 (carbon dioxide).  

A majority of the emissions, about half, come from fuel and is the equivalent of a passenger vehicle driving 3.4 million miles. 

The remainder of the emissions come from 30% energy, enough to power Times Square for five days; 16% from air travel, equating to 11 one-way trips from Earth to the moon; and 4% from accommodation, about the same as the annual electricity usage in 34 homes. 

Needless to say, one single film production inflicts major damage to our planet. 

“Show Me the Money!” 

Box office numbers are reported like professional sporting events and the paychecks of directors and actors are staggering. It’s no secret that Hollywood’s main motivator is cold, hard cash. 

“By far the biggest limitation is the profit-driven logic of capitalism that still guides Hollywood decision-making,” Vaughn says of what’s holding this industry back on being more sustainable. 

“Solutions are there, popular cultural values have shifted in that direction, and Hollywood has already spent two decades branding itself as green—but the culture of excess and profit are still its defining tendencies.” 

When I ask Vaughn about financial incentives to become more sustainable, he defaults to Hollywood prioritizing its profit margin. 

That doesn’t mean there’s nothere isn’t room for hope, however. 

Vaughn believes through other industry models, public pressure, and long-term financial gains, Hollywood will realize environmental sustainability is not just a good moral decision, but a smart fiscal decision, as well. 

Bell adds: “Implementing more fuel-efficient practices can require an initial capital investment, but inevitably reduces bottom line costs in the long run. Most groups report they are not seeing increased costs, but instead see savings generated by sustainability efforts.” 

What Can Hollywood Do? 

Vaughn and the BFI haves several recommendations for Tinsel town: 

  • Reduce reliance on traveling to maximize profits by exploiting local tax incentives, consolidate travel 

  • Work with renewable energy sources and providers 

  • Produce less content romanticizing destruction, explosions, and material excess 

  • Reuse materials, costumes, buildings, and more whenever possible

  • On all levels, within stories and practices, stress the urgency of climate change 

  • Collaborate and share infrastructure and tools, engage in more virtual planning 

There are also some simple solutions not exclusive to the entertainment industry. These include electric vehicles, practicing recycling and reusing policies, or setting goals like net zero. 

Like any movement, environmental justice is an intersectional one which requires the efforts of many organizations and industries. Hollywood can further its sustainability practices through federal guidelines, giveback programs, or government help. 

The California Film Commission, for example, has a Green Resource Guide that productions can use. This includes guidelines and resources for things like catering and craft services, recycling and donation guides, and more. 

There’s also the Green Production Guide, a toolkit for sustainable filmmaking. It’s a joint venture between the Producers Guild of America Foundation’s PGA Green committee and the Sustainable Production Alliance. 

Happy endings are abundant in Hollywood, so why not strive for one for our planet, too? 

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