By Lauren Harper
The Amazing Spiderman 2, Girls Trip, Madam Secretary, The Post and Divorce. What do these shows and films have in common? Believe it or not, they are all films and shows with production sets that are working to be more sustainable and reduce their environmental impacts.
The United States film and entertainment industry produces an average of 700 films and 500 television series a year. On average, these industries spend millions of dollars on everything from flights for actors and actresses, to food for crew teams, fuel for trailer generators and, of course, electricity for picture perfect light. While this results in award-winning entertainment and enjoyable evenings of episode binging, these productions can have large carbon footprints and significant environmental impacts.
For example, movies with a budget of $50 million dollars—including such flicks as Zoolander 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Ted—typically produce the equivalent of around 4,000 metric tons of CO2. That’s roughly the weight of a giant sequoia tree.
Fortunately, many actors, producers and production companies are taking strides to reduce their environmental impacts by incorporating Corporate Social Responsibility practices into their business models, both on location and in studio sets. Productions are aiming to implement a variety of sustainable practices in pre-production, during filming, and in post-production.
Carbon and Greenhouse Gas Offset
The film and television production industry generates carbon and greenhouse gases from travel, transportation, production material deliveries, onsite generators and even pyrotechnical scenes. To account for the carbon footprint that results from these activities, many productions will hire third party contractors who specialize in carbon and life cycle analysis accounting to track the overall impact from the production. 21st Century Fox has been tracking its carbon emissions and analyzing opportunities for reduction for over a decade. Their accounting and analysis helped them identify opportunities to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions, such as reducing the CO2 emissions from film productions by 15 percent per shoot day and investing in renewable energy sources. Going the extra mile, 21st Century Fox also partners with a third party contractor to verify that its carbon inventory is accurate and consistent with global carbon accounting standards.
The Producers Guild of America and the Green Production Guide have been working together to create a guide for companies that want to reduce carbon emissions on set. After collecting research from successfully sustainable productions, they enhanced their guide with feasible methods and practices, like communicating sustainability objectives to crew team, utilizing only recyclable set construction materials or using rechargeable devices. They also created documents with resources to assist productions in their sustainability efforts.
Each show and film uses a number of props, clothing and backdrops to produce the perfect scene. Once productions are complete and the items are no longer needed, they can generate large amounts of waste if not disposed of properly. The practice of waste diversion can be extremely useful in these instances. Many companies have partnered with existing city recycling programs and local NGOs to recycle and donate their excess materials. Since 2011, Sony Pictures has prevented 90 percent of the waste at its headquarters in Culver City, CA, from reaching landfills. Instead, by partnering with the city, leftover food, furniture and clothing from in-studio productions gets donated to people in need or burned to generate electricity.
A few production crews are working to reduce waste generated on location, meaning at remote production sets. This includes hiring compost-friendly vendors, working with local food pantries and thrift stores to donate excess food and clothing, and using reusable water bottles. During the making of The Snowman, the production found that personalizing each water bottle with the crew member’s name made them more likely to use it.
During Universal Pictures’ production on the set of Girls Trip, they were able to divert 600 pounds of excess catering food to the local community with the help of the New Orleans Mission, providing 500 meals for homeless people. The production leadership also enforced a “Print Only By Request” policy that resulted a 60 percent reduction in paper waste in comparison to production films of a similar size.
Transportation is the second largest contributor of greenhouse gases in the United States. To cut down its carbon footprint from production and news team transportation, CBS Entertainment adopted a fleet of fuel efficient hybrid vehicles in 2011. While the company has yet to publish a figure on the vehicles’ carbon reduction, it is estimated that hybrid vehicles can reduce transportation-related carbon emissions by 50 percent. In addition, almost every major studio has promoted and incentivized ridesharing and electric vehicle programs. Benefits to employees include priority parking for carpoolers, EV charging stations at work, and hybrid vehicle shuttles for commuting across studio campuses.
Water Use Reduction
Productions and studios are adopting water conservation practices to lessen not only their water consumption, but also the waste that can be generated from plastic bottles. NBC Universal utilizes recycled stormwater for its landscaping and some operational uses. In addition, similar size production studios are working to eliminate bottled water consumption by installing reusable bottle filling stations around their campuses. Some on location or mobile productions have even contracted new vendors to set up large water filling stations on site, eliminating plastic waste and reducing transportation costs.
In one case, on the set of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Walt Disney Studios was able to reduce operation costs by eliminating all bottled water use. This action, according to the Producers Guild of America, has the potential to result in a savings of $6,000 that would have been spent on bottled water over a 60 day period.
Energy efficiency is something that studios are becoming more mindful about, especially because they can reduce costs significantly by using energy efficient lighting alternatives and electrical retrofitting.
To offset some of their energy consumption at their headquarters, many production studios have installed solar roofs. Warner Brother Studios currently has a 600-kilowatt solar roof that has the ability to generate 1.15 million kilowatts of renewable energy annually—this is enough to power over 150 average homes.
In 2013, actor Jason Bateman directed and produced the film Bad Words, using only solar energy. (Interestingly, when they said “quiet on set,” there was no background noise from the generators that typically power on-location sets.) This was a first in the film industry, and it shows that it is possible to produce movies and television shows using renewable energy, given the right equipment and energy sources.
Although many of the sustainable practices mentioned above are taking place at studio headquarters, the industry is also working to bring these practices to the more remote filming locations of your favorite movies and shows. Organizations like Producers Guild of America Foundation, Environmental Media Association, Earth Angel, EcoSet Consulting and NYC Film Green are helping to lead the U.S. film and television industry in more environmentally friendly production practices.
The need for sustainability in all sectors is something that can no longer brushed aside. Organizations are finding that they can not only reduce the environmental impacts of their operations but also improve their long-term economic and social performance. There is no doubt that the film and television industry is starting to recognize these benefits. As sustainable practices and policies are further demanded, incentivized, and adopted, it is possible that one day the film and TV industry may generate as many environmental improvements and offsets as entertaining shows and videos.
Lauren Harper is an intern in the Earth Institute communications department. She is a graduate student in the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.