Sustainability Practices in Movie and Television Production: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly | AzSustainability.com

Sustainability Practices in Movie and Television Production: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This might not be something that is happening in Arizona, but behaviors and successful sustainability practices in major industries affect us all. In the particular case of the movie and television industry, financial support comes from the entire world and Arizona’s money matters. For this reason, you may be interested in some of the environmental practices of production studios.

This 2006 report titled, “Sustainability in the Motion Picture Industry” (PDF) was commissioned by the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) to review the movie and television industry and find some of the successful sustainability practices already in place. It is worth noting that although this is a public project funded for $170,000, the CIWMB claims full copyright of the report and does not allow reproduction of it in any form. The excerpts reproduced here are done so in Fair Use in order to comment on and review the report.

The Principle Investigators of this report are Dr. Charles J. Corbett, Professor in the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Dr. Richard P. Turco, Professor in the UCLA Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

The authors used interviews and case studies to learn about “best practices” within the movie and television industry between Summer 2003 and Spring 2005. The goal was to present this information in a clear fashion that would make it easier for the industry to make these best practices more commonplace. The reason for studying the movie/TV industry is that it is highly decentralized. A studio decides to pay for a film or television show, but it is the production team that finds an assortment of other individuals and businesses to help put it together. The argument is that other industries are starting to outsource more and therefore they can learn a lot from the practices of this industry.

It becomes quickly apparent, however, that this industry does not want the attention of this type of study. The authors note that while getting interviews and talking to people on sets was relatively easy, there was very little interest in being outspoken or giving identifiable remarks. The industry does not want publicity that might lead the public to become concerned with its practices, as the authors mention in the following statment on numbered page 3 (overall page 8 within your PDF reader), “The public at large does not think of the motion picture industry as polluting or otherwise environmentally harmful, so any publicity related to environmental initiatives within the industry would, in that view, draw attention to the existence of environmental problems that apparently need solving.”

The following section includes a few highlights from the report, but there is a lot more in it that is not reviewed here.

Internal Coverage of Sustainability Issues: The report tallies the number of articles appearing in two movie/TV industry newspapers: Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter. Figure 1 of the report is a plot of the number of environment or sustainability articles appearing in these two papers versus time. It displays a rise in environmental coverage by showing that there were a total of 3 articles in 1997 compared to 13 in 2004. The researchers performed a careful study in which only true environmentally related articles were counted. From a statistics point of view this result does not seem to imply anything about a “recent increase in attention awarded to environmental issues in the motion picture industry” as the authors conclude. To compare, I conducted my own (decidedly non-scientific) study by using the search engine at Variety’s website. Here are some searches and the number of Variety articles they return:

“baby seals” – 3

“environmental impact” – 69

“sex scenes” – 1,757

“breasts” – 2,371

“jack nicholson” – 2,501

It seems as though environmental issues would get more coverage if either Jack Nicholson becomes a freegan or they start making breast implants out of recycled plastic bottles.

Environmental Impact on the Los Angeles Area: Employing so many people and working year-round, it is no surprise that the industry has a significant environmental impact on the LA area. In terms of conventional pollutants, energy usage, greenhouse gas emission, and lubricating oil and tire consumption, the industry is either the largest user or very near to it (Figs 1-3, 4-5). The fatalities section of page 15 (PDF 20) is interesting to read, but difficult to put in perspective.

One conclusion from the report is that the industry is contributing a lot of greenhouse gas and is not doing much to reduce its generation, as read on page 68 (PDF 73): “From the environmental impact estimates, greenhouse gas emissions are clearly an area where the motion picture industry can be considered a significant contributor. From the interviews, it is clear that very few people in the industry are actively engaged with greenhouse gas emission reduction, or even with discussions of the issue.”

Budget Limitations on Sustainability: Page 23 (PDF 28) spells out that roughly 50% of a 50-million dollar budget will be used for the cast (but dominated by the A-list star), director, and producer. These three people possibly collect more than half of the budget and the many, many other people involved in production split the remainder. This makes movies (though the television side is somewhat similar) expensive and leaves little room for costs incurred through environmentally sound practices. So, if you are happy to see your favorite actor in a movie, be aware that hiring this actor might have come at the expense of various, higher price, sustainable practices on set.

Recycling: Recycling is very good because in order to comply with City regulations the studios banded together to accomplish compliance efficiently. Even in this case, however, it is difficult to recycle sets and will often be cheaper to throw them away.

Ultimate Challenge to Maintaining Sustainable Practices: The ultimate challenge facing the industry is that no long-term planning is possible. A project is not worked on until the money is finally approved, and then it is done as quickly as possible because delays lead to less profitability and might result in cancellation. Sustainability is all about planning ahead developing practices that can be repeatedly applied. The movie/TV industry, on the other hand, is built around being nimble and capitalizing on spur of the moment pop-culture phenomena to produce content that will attract the largest possible audience. This leads to a mentality in which no expense (no resource) will be spared in the production of such content.

Case Studies: The report includes a few case studies that display successful practices in sustainable productions. You can read about the movie, “The Day After Tomorrow” being carbon-neutral, though this was achieved by paying for carbon offsets to The CarbonNeutral Company and that money came from the director, Roland Emmerich, personally. Whether studios are willing to start paying this on a regular basis remains to be seen.

“Film X” is an example of a production that wanted to remain anonymous, but the production team provided many interviews. The theme of profitability being the most important aspect of movies came up repeatedly (even though this was “a two-hour, dramatic film based on a popular
bestselling novel and comprised of a large cast of A-list actors,”). Commercial success was deemed even more important than creativity and artistry. This gets back to the difficulty involved in applying sustainable practices while keeping costs down.

The Matrix 2 and 3 are an example of a successful set recycling program. The production worked with The ReUse People and were able to recycle 97.5% of the set material.

3 Responses

  1. James Towner Says:

    Thanks for the great post. I’d imagine that eventually sustainable practices could save the film industry money. Businesses all over are starting to find that sustainability is good for business and helps them make more money.

  2. Tracy Says:

    Like James, I am surprised that they don’t seem to think the planning is worth it to save money ultimately. I hope that practices will improve but it does seem like it is so deeply entrenched in our culture.

    “Commercial success was deemed even more important than creativity and artistry.” That says it all – when artists have to put commercial success before creativity certainly they are not going to be putting any extra time (and therefore money) into setting up some sort of foundation for a sustainable plan. It is sad that we are so driven by profit that we lose what is important.

    Thanks for the great post, Dave!

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