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Lights, camera, take action! – How the film industry is becoming greener

The silver screen is the adjective we often use to describe that distant place of wonder known as the cinema, but what if the future of film is actually green?

It may have been a while since many of us got to walk into a cinema to see what the latest blockbuster movies have to offer. Even so, the cameras must keep turning, and week after week, it’s lights, camera, action on the next big thing.

The film industry as a whole is not very green due to the industry’s reliance on single-use sets, locations, and prop. There is a sense of disposability about the film making process… it’s unlikely that a set for a feature film can ever be re-used – “especially when it comes to locations you need to blow up”

– Jason Cherubini, CFO of Dawn’s Light Media

Before COVID-19 banished us from the silver screen for what feels like a lifetime, going to the movies had never been more popular. In 2019, it was estimated that the global box office generated revenues of $42.2 billion. Streaming generated an additional $58.8 billion, as more of us started embracing the concept of home cinema experiences like never before.

But what is the cost of our seemingly endless appetite for escapism through the movies, and what can be done to make them greener?

The cost of movies

In the good old days, a film was usually wrapped up in the space of a few short weeks, using monochrome film, distributed to a limited number of theatres around the world, before vanishing from view for years or even decades at a time. In fact, some of the oldest movies ever made have been lost forever.

As many as 75 per cent of the original silent era vintage of films produced by Hollywood have vanished, never to be found again, according to a study by the Library of Congress. Even so, the industrial scale of film production has ramped up since the days of the Roaring Twenties, to more than make up for the hours of footage lost to the mists of time.

However, all these hours of footage, which make it to the big screen, or are destined to wind up on cutting room floors, all come at a price, and not just in the form of cinema tickets. The British Film Institute (BFI) published a report in September 2020, revealing that the typical blockbuster motion picture produced a carbon footprint of 2,840 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. That’s the same as 11 one-way trips from Earth to the Moon.

But what goes onto the big screen isn’t the only thing to produce a lot of carbon. The simple process of accommodation for actors and crew on a film production requires the consumption of the same amount of energy used by 34 houses in just one year. Add in the cost of transport for promotional screenings, the manufacture of merchandise and the distribution of the films themselves, and suddenly films look like an energy-intensive undertaking. But where is there an opportunity to make things better?

The silver screen turns green

Jason Cherubini is the CFO of Dawn’s Light Media, a film production company created in 2014. Previous works by Dawn’s Light Media include thrillers such as Dark Water, starring Jean Claude Van Damme, as well as new release Money Plane, starting Kelsey Grammer and Adam “Edge” Copeland of WWE fame.

“The film industry as a whole is not very green due to the industry’s reliance on single-use sets, locations, and props”, Jason reveals. There is a sense of disposability about the film making process, it seems, and while things can be immortalised forever on film and it’s possible to re-use the odd set, or switch production to more practical locations, it’s unlikely that a set for a feature film can ever be re-used – “especially when it comes to locations you need to blow up”, adds Jason.

However, there is a change in attitudes taking place, even in the latest shows and films. The lines between TV and film are becoming increasingly blurred, especially with the likes of Disney+ marketing popular shows such as The Mandalorian, a spin-off streaming-only series from the long-running Star Wars film franchise.

Jason explains: “An impressive new area of filmmaking is the use of large LED screens for backgrounds, powered by video game engines. This was made popular by Disney+’s ‘The Mandalorian’ and has been gaining attention across filmmaking. Filming in this way limits the need for physical sets or traveling large crews across the world.”

The benefit of switching from physical sets, which can take days or weeks to construct, only to be discarded once shoots wrap, to LED screens is obvious. LEDs are far less energy-intensive and require lower maintenance than LCD screens, require less time to set up and consume less resources than building a physical set from scratch.

Why go through the effort of building a stunning alien vista on a soundstage, just to tear it down in a matter of weeks?

More sustainable production practices

When a typical business wishes to do what it can to offset the emissions it produces during a given year, it may decide to embark on investing in tree-planting projects, in order to produce forests capable of absorbing an amount of carbon equivalent to their own expected carbon footprint. However, film productions don’t just limit themselves to such options.

An increasing number of film productions are investing in the concept of carbon credits, or directly purchasing carbon offsets. In his own experience, Jason Cherubini knows personally of productions which have approached brokers in this way, effectively paying a person to save emissions equivalent to the ones you expect you’ll have to produce.

We cannot continue to create films in the same manner we did before with no long-term plan for the environment around us. It’s time for our industry to lead the way both on and off screen and rebuild for a cleaner, greener future.

– Pippa Harris, chair of the albert Film Forum & producer at Neal Street Productions speaking to bfi.org.uk

The money can be spent on not only tree planting, but construction projects for renewable energy infrastructure all around the world. As a result, films can give governments and green energy companies a helping hand, all while delivering an entertaining experience to millions. Could we see a green recovery in the film industry, when cinemas are given the green light to open their doors to the eager filmgoing public?

However, the actual shift towards greener practices on and off the film set are another thing, and require the audience to get involved, to really make change. Film buffs showing greater interest in green productions is essential to give new ways of film making become more popular and economically-viable over time.

On the production side, steps are being taken to keep track of a production’s carbon footprint. The BFI collaborated to help produce a document titled A Screen New Deal, which serves as an effective blueprint for the British film industry to follow, to achieve more sustainable work moving forward. Aside from the Screen New Deal, all productions receiving BFI funds already have to complete and submit a BAFTA albert* carbon calculation, once the project is finished. That much-needed investment comes with a responsibility to make sure everything is done to stay mindful of the bigger picture, and not just the picture that ends up on our screens.

It means future productions will be encouraged to make an effort to keep an eye on their environmental impact, which could persuade studio bosses to take steps to minimise them in successive ventures. When the next big box office smash comes to a theatre near you one day, you can be sure that more work will have gone into making it more sustainable than anything you’ve seen before. How successful these green productions will be depends largely on which movie you think is worth your time.

When cinemas do reopen, and the silver screen is lit up once more, why not make it a green movie instead?

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