Hollywood Knows It Has a Big Carbon Problem on Set

(Bloomberg) -- Diesel generators. The sputtering, screeching devices were in the back of Emellie O’Brien’s mind during last month’s Golden Globe Awards, and they’ll be there again throughout Sunday’s Academy Awards. O’Brien consults with film studios on ways to cut their carbon footprint, so when stars like Joaquin Phoenix and Cate Blanchett take the stage and start talking about the scourge of climate change, she knows better than most what’s happening.

As climate change has become more visible and pressing, Hollywood studios have made efforts to halt certain dirty practices. Some are transitioning to solar power while others are focusing on energy-saving measures such as cutting down on waste and using LED light bulbs on set. But there’s a long way to go to before the film industry aligns with the climate goals espoused by stars and scientists alike.

“I think that a lot of productions are paying attention to this and are making an effort,” says O’Brien, whose company is called Earth Angel. “But people just aren’t talking about it enough. And that makes it really challenging to gauge.”

Many of the hallmarks of inefficiency haven’t changed since O’Brien first started consulting in 2013: mounds of wasted food, energy-hungry sound stages, reliance on single-use plastic, and frequent travel by airplane. In some respects, the industry has gotten worse. Filmmakers’ increasing use of computer-generated graphics, for instance, add to a project’s energy budget.

Douglas Rheinheimer, vice president for studio services at Paramount Pictures and the person who procures energy for the studio’s lot in Hollywood, considers managing emissions to be part of his job. One of the biggest opportunities he saw to reduce emissions came in 2011, when rates for conventional power were rising about 7% per year. According to filings with the City of Los Angeles, the Paramount lot was consuming more than 40 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually, about as much as a small city. The rising costs threatened to crush Rheinheimer’s budget.

Solar wasn’t an option, as many of the buildings on the studio’s 62-acre lot date to before World War II and could collapse under the weight of the panels. Many of the lot’s iconic set pieces used in films like The Godfather and Sunset Boulevard are on historic registries, which limits changes. The studio eventually settled on an alternative energy project involving small, natural gas-powered turbines, which reduced emissions by 35% per year but continued dependency on fossil fuel.

Several times a year, Rheinheimer would meet with representatives from Warner Bros., Disney Corp., Sony Pictures and other studios to share what he was learning. They still sometimes meet to discuss carbon-cutting, he says, but “it’s sort of faded away.”

Hollywood Knows It Has a Big Carbon Problem on Set

While some changes can be affordably and permanently made on the lot, many productions are like a circus moving between towns to incorporate different settings. The only reliable way to power the lights and trailers is by running generators powered by diesel, the most polluting refined oil product. Diesel emits almost 40% more carbon dioxide than natural gas when burned.

Most studios attempt to track the impact of those generators, along with other emitting activities. The data is compiled in a carbon footprint report for each movie or TV show, using a form designed by the members of the Green Production Guide, an initiative sponsored by most of the major studios. Those reports are kept private, however, making it difficult to know the environmental impact of any motion picture. The lack of transparency also makes it difficult to track whether productions are becoming more sustainable on average. Only one parent company of a major studio, Sony, received an “A” rating from the Carbon Disclosure Project, which assesses what companies reveal about their environmental impact.

Mike Slavich, the sustainability director for WarnerMedia, would like to switch to cleaner-burning generators, a goal shared by Paramount’s Rheinheimer. But without alternatives or financial incentives such tax credits, progress is slow. Audiences so far aren’t demanding productions cut their carbon footprint, either. If anything, the appetite for visually dazzling, graphics-heavy epics has given studios the opposite message. “That’s certainly a challenge,” says Slavich.

O’Brien says studios will move more quickly once the actors pushing sustainability in award-show speeches start insisting that measures be taken on set. Frances McDormand made an call for inclusion riders to insure diversity at the Oscars in 2018.

There is some precedent for this. Joaquin Phoenix—whose passionate speech at the 2020 Golden Globe awards included an admonishment of his fellow celebrities to reduce their private jet travel—asked his talent agency, WME, to eliminate meat from the menu of its Oscars party for climate reasons. WME agreed to make the change, according to a spokeswoman.

A representative of WME said Phoenix was unavailable to comment on actions he takes on set to reduce emissions. Four other actors who gave speeches about the Australian fires and climate change at the Golden Globes, including Blanchett and Patricia Arquette, also were unavailable to speak about actions they take on set, according to publicists, as well as climate advocates Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo.

No matter what happens onstage, presenters and winners at the Oscars on Sunday will get reminders about climate change. The green room was designed by watchmaker Rolex to look like a scientific observation center in the North Pole, featuring window panes with scenes of faux snowy tundra. Rolex put out a statement saying it was mean to be “a reminder of the beauty and fragility of the environment.”

A Rolex spokeswoman at a tour of the room on Wednesday was unable to say if the materials used, including about a dozen vases of fresh flowers scattered around the room, had been sourced sustainably.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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