The film industry may be eager to alert audiences to the dangers of climate change, but it seems dangerously unaware of the consequences of its own actions.
In an interview with Little White Lies, Denis Villeneuve, the director of the recent science fiction epic Dune, said that he wanted the film to act as a call to action against climate change. Unfortunately, Villeneuve’s penchant for filmmaking on a grand scale shows a casual disregard for its dangers. He is, however, far from alone. If the film industry genuinely wants to make a difference, then it needs to put its money where its mouth is and start actively working to change the way it makes movies.
The simple fact is that the current crop of big-budget blockbusters are environmentally disastrous, no matter how climate conscious their scripts may be. Dune was shot across four countries: Norway, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Hungary. Assuming that the crew consisted of at least a small plane's worth of people - an extremely conservative estimate for such a large project - the carbon footprint would be 12,760kg. For context, it would take 3700 acres of rainforest roughly a year to absorb that much C02.
That calculation assumes that none of the actors took private planes, which seems unlikely given that Dune features international superstars including Jason Momoa and Timothèe Chalamet. It also doesn’t include the carbon footprint of constructing and transporting Dune’s enormous sets. For all the bluster about creating an environmental parable, there is little evidence that any thought went into the real-world impact of making this film.
That’s not to mention the countless press junkets and multiple movie premieres that precede any major movie release, nor does it include the more localised impact of building massive man-made sets in the middle of otherwise natural ecosystems. There are countless examples of blockbuster films having a negative impact on nearby ecosystems. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) featured so many cars driving over the Namibian desert that it endangered local wildlife, including lizards and cacti. Meanwhile, the crew of 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, were accused of dumping toxic waste into a creek on the Gold Coast of Australia. To make matters worse, Hollywood continues to use lauan - a lightweight plywood - to build sets, despite the fact that the material is often harvested from the Amazon rainforest, leading to wide-scale deforestation.
"Hollywood must be made to understand that it's not enough to persuade others to take action: it needs to completely rethink the way it goes about making and promoting films in the future."
It would be unfair to hold Villeneuve solely responsible: he is merely the product of a culture that doesn’t see the inherent contradiction of flying a private jet across continents to deliver a talk on the need for climate change. Hollywood must be made to understand that it's not enough to persuade others to take action: it needs to completely rethink the way it goes about making and promoting films in the future.
Of course, there is still room for movies, both large and small in scale, to talk about climate change. Raising awareness is a key part of the campaign for a greener world, and films can be an especially powerful tool for changing people’s minds. Roland Emmerich’s 2004 environmental disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow was a huge success, becoming the highest grossing Hollywood film to be made in Canada and revitalising the debate around climate change. Its impact was tangible; a study that same year found that people who had watched it were more likely to be worried about global warming than those who had not. More importantly, audiences who had seen the film were also more willing to take action, both on a personal and social level – respondents said that they would change their behaviour to be more environmentally friendly, and, crucially, would encourage others to do the same. In short, The Day After Tomorrow did exactly what Emmerich wanted it to do; raise awareness of the dangers of global warming whilst still earning phenomenal amounts of money.
Yet merely influencing others is not enough for directors working on such huge projects. In a 2020 study, the British Film Industry discovered that, on average, films that cost over $70 million to make produce 2,840 tons of CO2. The Day After Tomorrow cost $125 million. At the very least, that’s over 200 times more carbon dioxide than the average American generates over the course of a year. Day After Tomorrow’s social impact may have been broadly positive, but its environmental impact was anything but.
"I love big-budget blockbusters as much as anyone, but even I question whether their entertainment value is worth the destruction of our planet."
A compromise needs to be made. I love big-budget blockbusters as much as anyone, but even I question whether their entertainment value is worth the destruction of our planet. A potential solution is a greater focus on smaller, more localised productions. Not only would this lessen the impact of travelling, but it would also provide more opportunities for young filmmakers to get their work seen by large audiences. Such an approach could lead to a more diverse cinematic landscape, if filmmakers are encouraged to emphasise what makes their homes special, rather than being consumed or crushed by the current prevailing culture. It might even benefit other local industries, bringing new business to smaller towns and cities, as opposed to a select few metropolitan hubs.
In this scenario, the continued evolution of digital communication can be harnessed as an asset rather than a necessity of the pandemic. The last year and a half have demonstrated that interviews can be done with relative ease on virtual platforms such as Zoom or FaceTime, as opposed to in person. Likewise, CGI may be much maligned, but it is undeniably better for the environment than trying to rebuild Ancient Rome from scratch. Will it have the same magic? Perhaps not, but it's a relatively minor sacrifice to make in the face of irreversibly harming the planet's ecosystem.
Filmmakers have consistently campaigned to raise awareness over climate change. However, that awareness needs to be paired with a willingness to re-evaluate how major studios do business, and to make genuine changes where necessary. As Villeneuve himself said, “I think it’s time to get into action.”
Find out more and book tickets for EIFF Youth Eco Weekender at Filmhouse, with captioned screenings of The Day After Tomorrow and Geostorm! Tickets cost only £2.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Filmhouse/CMI.