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Sustainability in Hollywood: COVID-19 leaves impact on production, environment


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Sustainability in Hollywood: COVID-19 leaves impact on production, environment

This article is part of a two-part series on recent ESG-related developments in Hollywood. This article focuses specifically on Hollywood's efforts to incorporate sustainability in film and TV production. Another part on recent efforts to boost diversity in front of and behind the camera can be found here.

SNL ImageA cameraman wears a mask and glasses while shooting video.
Source: Pexels

Situated in one of the most progressive regions in the U.S., Hollywood, Calif., is passionate about sustainability.

However, its primary industry, film production, historically has been a significant contributor to environmental waste and pollution.

Though the industry has taken great strides to change that in recent years, new requirements for social distancing, medical testing and personal protective equipment are challenging filmmakers to hold onto those gains in sustainability. But in light of the environmental and cost savings associated with green measures, proponents hope the period is only a temporary setback.

Progress made

Producer Mari-Jo Winkler-Ioffreda knows a great deal about how far Hollywood has come with its sustainability efforts. Through the Producers Guild of America trade organization, in 2010 she and other producers interested in sustainability on set launched the Green Production Guide, starting with a mere pamphlet of best practices. Today, the guide serves as an interactive workflow resource that studios can use to maximize sustainability across every aspect of production. Its partner studios include ViacomCBS Inc., The Walt Disney Co., AT&T Inc.'s WarnerMedia, Netflix Inc. and Inc., among other big names in the business.

The Green Production Guide outlines a long checklist of procedures, both on set and in the editorial and executive offices. Are your paper processes defaulting to digital copy? Are you tracking waste management and running recycling reports? Are you composting food waste on set? Were single-use plastic water bottles replaced with reusable bottles and refill stations?

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For an industry that moves fast on tight deadlines, with investors and studio executives all highly interested in the product delivering on time, on budget and at scale, shifting habits at this level of granularity may be daunting. However, Winkler-Ioffreda argued that it only takes an initial shift in habit and culture and the pace and price of production are no more hindered than before.

"Here's the secret: The processes are exactly the same. It's about early implementation, building from the beginning and leadership."

She said the leadership piece in the industry was lacking a decade ago. At first, studios left it up to the filmmakers to implement their own sustainability practices on set, but the major studios now are implementing from the top down, largely using the guide as an operations manual.

When Winkler-Ioffreda was an executive producer on 2009's "Away We Go," a comedy-drama directed by Sam Mendes, she approached distributor Focus Features LLC and asked if the film could be a pilot project for sustainable production. The cast and crew used biodiesel transportation, eliminated disposable waste wherever possible including single-use water bottles, implemented recycling and started composting food waste.

She said the sustainability report that followed the film landed on the desks of heads of production at every major studio, and the momentum toward sustainable production has only gained steam since.

For example, in its 2020 Sustainability Report, Sony Corp. said its use of solar power covers about 8% of the electricity used across its Sony Pictures Entertainment film studios. Its 2014 film "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" stands as an example of cost savings in sustainability. With about 52% of waste diverted away from landfills, nearly 50 tons of materials donated for reuse on future productions and nearly 6,000 meals donated to community shelters, the production was deemed carbon neutral, and it saved an estimated $400,000 for its efforts, according to The Producers Guild. While that is a fraction of the film's $200 million-plus budget, it still represents savings not only for the environment but for the studio.

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Colleen Bell, executive director of the California Film Commission, said production sets more often power their productions with solar energy and rechargeable batteries. They use post-consumer recyclable materials for their disposable products, and they require reusable containers and utensils where possible. Studios also favor transportation, food and service vendors that implement environmental efficiencies, source local products and foods, and do not use fossil fuels.

All of this has led to a measurable increase in environmental efficiency. Albert in the U.K., which provides a carbon calculator for television productions, through efforts similar to the guide has tracked a 10% reduction in the average carbon footprint over the past two years, according to its 2019-2020 annual report.

Pandemic setbacks

However, the pandemic is threatening to undo many of those gains.

"This is going to be a disaster for sustainability," Winkler-Ioffreda said to herself as she began to adapt her own productions to the new COVID-19 standards. "We understand we're going to go backwards a little bit."

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Sets are now bogged down with disposable personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves.

Many productions reduced travel consumption by using buses and carpools to transport cast and crew, but social-distancing guidelines are rapidly eroding that practice.

Some sets have done away with water-bottle refill stations and reverted to single-use bottles, which seem more sanitary.

"It's necessary. It's safety first. It's a moment in time," Bell said. "But at the same time, if we're thinking long term, we need to do everything we can do, even in the short term."

Positive impacts

Fortunately, the pandemic has also yielded some measurable positive impacts on sustainability.

Before COVID-19, there was a tendency to make decisions with all available resources on hand to convene and deliberate. While that is still an important part of the process, Winkler-Ioffreda said there are many more decisions being made ahead of time, requiring less travel, time on set and use of products and resources.

"It has required us to only take what we need," Winkler-Ioffreda said.

With in-person production halted, filmmakers and producers have had to take much of their workflow online. This virtualization is cutting the need for travel and its associated fossil fuel use, which is important because travel and transportation is the largest environmental impact for a production, according to Winkler-Ioffreda.

During the pandemic, Discovery Inc., one of the largest TV programmers, sent much of its on-screen talent their own cameras and even had construction crews go to their homes to build make-shift sets.

"The things we've been able to do with cellphones and GoPros have been impressive," said Kathleen Finch, Discovery's chief lifestyle brands officer.

Discovery is back in full production on the majority of its shows, but the lessons learned during the pandemic are saving the studio money and saving the environment carbon emissions from travel. Audiences also embraced "the authenticity," Finch said, with the company during the second quarter tracking some of its highest ratings in many years at three of its networks.

"These shows resonated with fans. That's very gratifying," Finch said.

Aaron Nagler, operator of Green Bay Packers fan stream Cheesehead TV, noted that before COVID-19, he also used to travel to and from New York to each Packers NFL game, and a cadre of producers and editors all came together in person to create the show. Now production workflows are almost completely virtualized, with nearly no plane travel and significantly reduced vehicular travel.

"The ease of contribution, that is the biggest thing that's going to come out of all this," Nagler said during a recent panel discussion on the pandemic's impact on production.

Overall cost vs. savings

One major studio executive said it is difficult to estimate costs or savings in any general way, given the varying nature of productions, including the number of locations, the types of locations, the size of the casts and crews and the particular resource needs of those individual productions.

However, there are several sustainability practices that result in proven and reliable cost savings. For example, just eliminating single-use plastic water bottles can save a production between $30,000 and $50,000, the executive said.

However, many practices do result in costs for a studio as sustainable products and services often come with a premium. Some also end in savings, but not for the studio itself. For example, many studios are switching on-set lighting to LEDs, which reduce energy consumption by about 70% compared to traditional lights. But very often location sets are rented, and electricity use is included in the rent, so the studio never sees that savings, the executive said.

The executive said in the end, the financial cost-benefit is often net neutral, but the overall benefits of being carbon neutral are undeniable.