July 21, 2024

Illustration of film shell wrapped in a leafy vine

The vision

“There’s our carbon footprint to think about, and then there’s also our cultural footprint — both of which are important, but this industry is uniquely positioned to have a large cultural footprint.”

— Sam Read, executive director of the Sustainable Entertainment Alliance

The spotlight

Dear Gentle Reader,

One thing about me is that I love a good (or medium-good, or just plain rubbish) TV show. last summer, we’ve covered the rise of climate references and plotlines in mainstream movies and shows – something I started witnessing as a casual viewer.

But recently I’ve also been thinking that the shows I so eagerly consume have their own carbon footprint, just like any other product we consume. Producing a piece of media requires energy, transportation, filming and sound equipment, food, wardrobes, props and a host of other resources.

Just as filmmakers and studios are increasingly considering how to weave climate stories into their projects, the industry is also grappling with the challenge of decarbonizing behind the scenes.

“The biggest source of emissions for our industry, at least in terms of production, is fuel,” said Sam Read, executive director of the Sustainable Entertainment Alliance. This includes not only vehicles that bring equipment, catering and people to set up, but also a source you might not immediately think of: diesel generators. TV and film productions often shoot on location, including in remote areas, and rely on a set-up of trailers. Diesel-powered generators have long been the industry standard for powering these sets. And diesel is a particularly dirty fuel, causing air pollution with a range of known health effects.

The Sustainable Entertainment Alliance (formerly the Sustainable Production Alliance), a coalition of leading studios and streamers working towards sustainability in the industry, provide tools such as a carbon calculator for productions and a checklist for implementing sustainable practices – such as donating uneaten craft services food, using responsibly sourced plywood to build sets, or buying used items for set decoration.

And a big one is swapping out those old diesel generators for a variety of cleaner alternatives, including hydrogen and solar power, some of which recent productions have begun using.

In many cases, switching to greener practices isn’t just about helping the climate. These modern technologies are also healthier and more efficient. “There are so many advantages to the alternatives to diesel generators – one of which is emissions, of course – but they’re also quieter and less polluting,” Read said. For this reason, they can be located closer to “video town” (where the director sits on a film set and observes the action from several monitors), eliminating the need for long cables.

The alliance, which already includes major players such as Disney, Amazon Studios, Netflix and Paramount Pictures, is working to expand its membership. Read sees a growing appetite for decarbonization in the entertainment industry, driven in part by advocacy from unions like The Producers Guild of America, which helped create the sustainable production checklist. (Look at the 2022 Hollywood Reporter Report on Sustainability (for more stories about how studios have embedded climate goals into productions.)

The alliance and other groups are also advocating for more climate stories on screen. But in another part of the industry, the distinction between what happens behind the scenes and on camera is a little more blurred, creating unique opportunities to both decarbonize and model sustainability to viewers. This is reality TV — my truest and guiltiest pleasure.

“This is such a good year for sustainability on TV,” said Cyle Zezo, an executive producer and the founder of Reality of Changean initiative focused on sustainability and climate storytelling opportunities in unscripted entertainment, including documentaries, reality TV, and game and competition shows.

Zezo said, the footprint of an unscripted show is likely to be smaller than a scripted production. Producers of these shows may struggle with some of the same issues — such as the need for clean energy to power equipment in remote filming locations. But generally speaking, the clean production practices on a reality show or documentary simply reflect the way real people live their lives.

When we spoke for my story last yearfor example, Zezo highlighted compost bins on the set of a cooking show called Recipe for Disaster, and how the team deliberately showed them during filming. Also last year, Netflix has announced a partnership with General Motors to use more electric vehicles in shows like Love is blind and Queer Eye.

“I’m going to make a prediction, and I hope I’m right, that climate and sustainability concerns are only going to grow in this area over the coming years,” Zezo said.

I asked Zezo, Read and others to point me to some recent shows and movies that have embedded sustainability into their productions in new or interesting ways. These series and movies may not all seem climate-related, but they can all help decarbonize your summer watch list.


Clean power on set

Bridgerton. That’s right, dear readers. This steamy romance series set in Regency-era London took a more modern approach to sustainability in the production of its third season. In a fixed tour, two actors from the show describe how the cast trailers and work trucks were all powered by a hydrogen power unit supplied by British company GeoPura. The production also omitted beef from craft services due to its excessive carbon footprint.

The Decameron. This upcoming show (premiering July 25), loosely inspired by the short story collection of the same name, tells the story of a debauched retreat in the Italian countryside as wealthy nobles, and their servants, try to avoid the bubonic plague. This show also pursued clean energy in its production; his base camp ran on batteries charged by solar panels, according to Netflix.

Bosch: Legacy. A third show that replaces diesel generators on set, this is the next chapter of a seven-season police procedural drama following the career of Detective Harry Bosch. The show was among the first to use mobile battery units designed by a company called Moxion.

Sit in Bars With Cake. This 2023 movie, starring Yara Shahidi, Odessa A’zion, and Bette Midler, is about friendship, navigating life in your 20s, and, as the title suggests, cake. It also used Moxion’s mobile cleantech batteries on set.

The Gilded Age. In the second season of this historical drama, producers took a more holistic approach to get the show of diesel power. “They actually installed power lines — like they put in power poles and a whole power system in the backyard area where they were shooting,” said Heidi Kindberg, the vice president of sustainability at Warner Bros. Discovery, said The Hollywood Reporter. This allowed the show to be generator-free while filming its second season in New York.

True Detective: Nightland. The fourth season of this critically acclaimed crime drama is set in the Arctic — it was filmed in Iceland, where the production was able to draw on the country’s nearly 100 percent renewable energy grid. Where remote power was needed, the show launched an electric battery generator called the Benerator. According to a report from the Producers Guild of America, the show’s creators also cut down on waste by placing recycling and compost bins and water filling stations around set. And this season has a climate-related storyline.

Subtle solutions on screen

Homemade. In this series, now in its fourth season, Atlanta-based farmer and food activist Jamila Norman helps homeowners transform their yards into urban farms, while discussing the many benefits that farms and gardens can bring to communities. Zezo loves how it invites viewers in and shows them how anyone can do the things shown on screen.

Building outside the lines. This quirky building show follows father-daughter duo Jared (“Cappie”) and Alex Capp as they tackle custom design and construction projects, largely in their South Dakota community. Zezo noted that his sustainability themes are subtle, showcasing the use of electric power tools and unconventional or recycled materials, such as shipping containers.

OMG Fashun. This competition show, co-hosted by Julia Fox and Law Roche, is all about new fashion – it’s Project Runway meets Chopped. The show is incredibly on-message with its themes of sustainability and reuse, Zezo said, without coming across as stuffy or preachy. “It’s just so sharp and creative and, like, absolutely wild fun.”

Family Switch. OK, this is a holiday movie — so maybe save it for a few months (or for a night when you just need something cozy). It is a Freaky Friday-inspired family romp with Jennifer Garner and Ed Helms, and according to Netflix it ran on electric vehicles. Four EV passenger vans transported the crew, another brought the catering and production items, and an electric van pulled the director’s trailer. An EV also makes an appearance on screen – it’s short, but the family’s Polestar 2 appear in at least one scene.

– Claire Elise Thompson

A parting shot

In March, the advocacy group Gas Leaks Project launched an awareness campaign about the health hazards of gas stoves – in the form of a reality TV show trailer. The made up show was dubbed Hot & Toxica swashbuckling version of a house full of hot-and-melodramatic-young-singles style of show, where the house is that of a new and unsuspecting homeowner, and the singles are personified forms of the cancer-causing chemicals that spray . from her stove.

An image of a nice house with palm trees in front, with the title Hot & Toxic and a play button displayed over it

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