Sustainability in the Film Industry

The film industry is a place where hours of work and large sums of money get put into a finished product that provides audiences with, on average, around two hours of entertainment. On the surface, it might not seem like sustainability is really relevant, however the film production industry produces significant emissions and is not yet near to being healthy for the environment. But it’s not all bad news.

The British Film Institute (BFI) has recently set out their ‘New Screen Deal: A Route Map To Sustainable Film Production’ which is a report that intends to help achieve ‘sustainable practices that support wellbeing, environmental restoration, and economic prosperity.’ Within the BFI as a company, they encourage their staff to be ethical, for example powering their offices and studios with renewable energy, maintaining a zero to landfill policy, and replacing paper towels at their head office with energy-efficient dryers. They have four beehives from local beekeeping trusts at their sites and their energy consumption continues to fall year on year.

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One of the companies that BFI has partnered with for their New Screen Deal is BAFTA’s Albert Initiative. Founded in 2011, they aim to ‘unite the screen industries to make a positive environmental impact and inspire audiences to act for a sustainable future.’ They operate a system where films can be eligible for an ‘Albert Certification’ which allows them to be rewarded with one, two or three stars if their production completed a Carbon Action Plan, and the Albert logo will be visible on the end board of the film if they do so. 

The 2019 blockbuster ‘1917’ was the first large scale UK film to gain this certification. The film achieved this in a number of ways – firstly, environmental assistants monitored the team throughout every stage or production. This ranged from making conscious decisions on small elements such as only using recycled paper and banning plastic cups, to bigger tasks like researching waste companies. Bio Collectors came to set and collected food waste to convert into biogas, electricity and high grade fertiliser for agriculture. The hair and makeup department also diverted from landfill as much as possible by using bamboo and biodegradable equipment where they could. The majority of the cast and crew were based in Britian to keep flights to a minimum and when moving locations, or when the pre-production team travelled to France on research trips, train travel was used. 

How big budget film 1917 achieved certification - albert
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Britain isn’t the only country making ethical decisions when filmmaking – Hollywood is catching on too. Jurassic World: Dominion, one of the first films to trial shooting in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, had a team that was extremely considerate of the environmental impact a big-budget action film would have. Sustainability manager Louise Marie Smith, who set up Neptune Environmental Solutions in 2007 and later began working with US film studios, was quoted saying “In the past, productions would put a green runner on set with no experience or authority. I wanted to make the sustainability department its own entity, on equal terms with other departments. It has become my crusade!”

In an interview, Louise also said that at the start of her career heads of departments didn’t take long-term budget savings or environmental impact into consideration. Universal Studios was one of the first to be supportive of sustainability efforts and it has now become an embedded step in the production process. Louise and her team’s impact can definitely be seen in the ethical practices used in Jurassic World: Dominion. The accounts department used a tagging system to catalogue any item or process that has a carbon footprint of any kind, which culminates in a C02 report similar to Albert’s Carbon Calculator. The decision was also made to shoot the majority of the film in Pinewood Studios, which runs on renewable energy.

Despite all these positive changes, there’s still a long way to go until the film industry can truly be considered environmentally ethical. Even in the films mentioned above, there were holes in the plan. For example, 1917 hoped to use solar-powered generators but found them difficult to source to scale so instead opted for generators that utilise waste vegetable oil. Although preferable to diesel, there are still questions on the sourcing of this. With Jurassic World: Dominion, renewable diesel was used in generators which, although has approximately 70% less lifecycle carbon emissions and is a step forward, it’s not quite the perfect solution. The huge sets on the film were also made using hard to recycle materials, and those materials that could be recycled needed to be done so in a way that protects the film’s Intellectual Property.

Technology could provide a promising future for sustainability within film. When 1917 was shot in 2018/2019, utilising waste vegetable oil in their generators was the most convenient option for the production. However, the environmental team is confident that within the next year technology will have advanced enough for larger-scale productions to reduce their footprint even further with the introduction of electric generators on film sets, which are slowly but surely being introduced. 

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