The film industry is working towards sustainable practices

A single tentpole production produces an estimated 2,840 tonnes of carbon emissions, according to a report

Art by Mikayla Croucher

Art by Mikayla Croucher

A film set produces an estimated 2,840 tonnes of carbon emissions on a single production, but the industry is collaborating to create long term solutions to reduce their carbon footprint. 

A report titled “Screen New Deal” by albert, a collective of film industry experts based in the United Kingdom supporting film and TV productions to reduce their environmental impact, details the way the industry currently operates and provides a guide on how to transition to net-zero emissions. 

“In the past decade the global film industry has seen a year-on-year growth in revenue, with global box office revenues increasing from [$38 billion US] in 2016 to nearly [$43 billion US] in 2019,” according to the report. The average annual growth rate is predicted at 7.5 per cent between 2020 and 2025, which will result in $50.2 billion US by 2025. 

The report used data from 19 tentpole productions, the highest budget category in film production, to highlight the maximum potential impact of a single production. It found that an average day of filming equates to more than one person’s annual carbon footprint, and an average hour of filming is equivalent to the carbon footprint of a flight from London to New York, which is over eight hours. 

The data also showed that for a typical tentpole production the total energy consumption could power Times Square for five days, the fuel consumption could fill an average car tank 11,478 times, the total waste generated equates to the weight of over 300 blue whales, and the plastic bottle usage is equivalent to the yearly average of 168 people. 

Overall, the report found that one average tentpole film production generates 2,840 tonnes of carbon emissions. 

The Sustainable Production Alliance, an international company working towards sustainability in the film industry, conducted a survey for stakeholders on best practices to reduce a production’s environmental impact. According to responses, 14 per cent have on-site clean power projects and 62 per cent have access to clean energy through a utility supplier. 

“I think this industry can be a role model for other sectors on how to drive change and implementation, and hopefully the measurements of those results will have an impact so things don’t get worse,” says Prem Gill, CEO at Creative BC, a non-profit funded by the provincial government with a mandate to support the economic development of B.C.’s creative industries. 

Creative BC offers film productions a variety of programs from grants to services, working towards sustainable practices. They also developed Reel Green, an initiative within the Provincial Film Commission to reduce the environmental impacts of films through collaboration. 

“Reel Green is our sustainability program for the film and television industry in B.C. It started in 2006 but we revitalized it about five years ago,” Gill says. “Through Reel Green, almost 1,000 people have been trained in the specific program and supported through investment from over 22 industry partners.”

“The goal is not just to unite the industry around stable practices, but provide the tools and the toolkit. And we really lead this nationally for Canada, we have a national Reel Green Committee.” 

Creative BC also has a clean energy committee that collaborates with industry and labour organizations and supplies to look at power tie-ins instead of diesel generators. A power tie-in is a program Creative BC offers that invests in electric grid-tie projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in high volume filming areas. It allows crews to tie-in electric power grids, reducing the need for diesel generators on film sets. 

Gill says they use the carbon calculator by albert which helps productions understand their carbon use on a particular film set, such as the type of light bulbs used, travel, and fuel consumption. The calculator shows where reductions can be made and what alternatives there are. 

Reel Green has a vendor list of organizations that have sustainable practices for the film industry and are graded at level one, two, or three depending on the green performance. 

“The green vendor list consists of zero waste facilities or electric vehicle rentals for people looking for companies that have the same commitment to sustainability,” Gill says. 

Martini Film Studios (MFS) located in Langley is a full-service production facility with stages for film and TV production. Reel Green graded the studio as level two for their energy conservation and reduction of plastic and waste. 

“As a studio we’re working towards providing production companies with the ability to be more sustainable,” says David Shepheard, vice president of operations at MFS. 

“We’ve been a sponsor of the Reel Green initiative from the early inception. We believe it’s the right thing to do, production needs to be more sustainable. Reel Green’s given that education and thought leadership on how productions can be greener,” he says. 

“We’ve recently transferred all our energy to renewable natural gas … so the heating for all of our properties and stages comes from renewable natural gas. That significantly increases the sustainability calculations for the film productions.” 

According to the Sustainable Production Alliance survey, renewable diesel “is a drop-in fuel for petroleum diesel” that causes 70 per cent fewer “lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions because it comes from renewable feedstocks.” 

“There is a big move at the moment on electric battery generators to power some production. There’s a lot of electrical equipment … so at the moment, we’re just waiting for battery technology and high powered batteries to come on the market to be able to switch from diesel generators to electric and hydrogen-based generators,” Shepheard says. 

The survey reports that cleaner fuel and alternative power sources produce less emissions, and that “mobile batteries and solar panels also cause less noise, which is useful when productions shoot in sensitive locations.” 

Shepheard says a challenge the film industry faces is waiting for technology to catch up. 

“The film industry heavily relies on [diesel-fueled] generators when filming on the streets or outside locations…. Municipalities across the Lower Mainland … are working on getting electricity hookup points installed to allow film productions to tap into hydro rather than use generators,” he says.  

MFS follows a strict recycling and waste management policy with facilities to properly recycle materials. The studio also installed solar panels on the roof of their stages so they can generate their own electricity for services and facilities. 

“We had a major investment program of switching out all of our light fittings in the studios to be low power LED lighting, vastly reducing our hydro consumption for lighting up the stages — which are massive warehouses,” Shepheard says. 

“We invested in a network of EV chargers. We have 20 EV chargers on our site. So again, allowing film and TV productions to hire or bring electric vehicles into the fleet that they need for production as opposed to having gas vehicles,” he adds. 

In addition to training, Creative BC is encouraging creators and filmmakers to incorporate a climate focus in their stories.

“Sometimes it could be a story where the narrative is about climate change, or it’s the story showing characters that prioritize the environment so they’re biking instead of driving, not throwing things in the garbage but recycling. Normalizing that within productions as well,” Gill says. 

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity around climate storytelling, but also within all of this, using an intersectional lens on telling climate stories so that it’s authentic. The negative impacts that we know can be intensified through race, class, age, disability, and other characteristics,” she adds. 

Rich Murray and Jason Mackay, partners at rich&jay production, recently helped film a short documentary about ReFeed Farms in Langley, a company that provides grocery chains with a sustainable food disposal service. 

“It’s just the amount of resources that go into it is painful. To see what [ReFeed does] and how much food [is recovered] and the tonnage, it was just spectacular. We [felt we had] to get involved and we need to tell this story,” Murray says. 

Murray and Mackay say they’ve seen a conscious movement in the film industry that they work with to be more sustainable, even something as simple as staff bringing their own water bottles. 

“We used to go through cases and cases of water bottles per day, or plastic water bottles. But now, you can see everybody’s got their reusable ones,” Mackay says. 

“It’s really important for [Murray] and I at this time in our lives, and the company that we’re trying to build, to surround ourselves with companies and people that are trying to do work like this in the world,” Mackay adds. 

“It’s what we want to do, we want to educate and help educate people,” Murray says. 

“A stat the albert folks put out said that the words ‘climate change’ have been used over 12,000 times on TV. So it’s just becoming another thing we talk about that characters are referencing and really educating screenwriters about the issues and the science behind climate change,” Gill says. 

“There’s a real opportunity here to help tell a story that could do some really great things not only locally, but the vision is to take it much, much further and across Canada and maybe globally,” Murray says. 

Gill says the film industry wants to build a circular business model that reduces their carbon footprint and has an evidence-based approach. 

“Nobody on earth is immune to the impacts of climate change. We’ve all contributed to it already, and we want to [change that],” she says. 

“I think the industry is showing a lot of leadership and not just checking boxes, but trying to change the practices because, ultimately like in all aspects of our lives right now, we have no choice.”