As producers across the country begin to implement more sustainable practices on set and in studio, they’re learning that it’s not just the planet that stands to gain from greener productions
When your business is, in the words of one producer, “the equivalent of a travelling circus”—hundreds of crew running equipment and lights without access to the grid, building elaborate sets, transporting materials and people from one place to another from morning till night—it’s not easy being green.
The unfortunate by-products of your average on-location film and TV production play like B-roll in a hard-hitting climate-change documentary: Thousands of discarded plastic water bottles. Idling vehicles and diesel generators sending toxic emissions into the surrounding area and into the ozone. Barely used construction materials headed straight to landfill.
But that’s an old story, and it’s getting rewritten. Today, a growing number of production companies, aided by a growing number of governmental and non-governmental organizations, are stepping up their sustainability game in a big way. They’re recognizing that, for the production industry to maintain its momentum well into the future, it needs to clean up its act.
“Recent climate-change reports show that we have a very, very limited time to make changes,” says Sarah Margolius, founding president of Sustainable Media Production Canada (SMPC), a brand-new Ontario non-profit with a mission to green the industry. “Because of this, I think there is a growing realization that greening our productions is something we must do. Consequences like flooding and rising temperatures are certainly felt by productions, so it’s about future-proofing our industry too.”
By working to connect producers with resources—green service providers, best practices, case studies—that will help them achieve higher levels of sustainability, SMPC is following a path plotted by Creative BC’s Reel Green initiative. Under the leadership of Julie Bernard of Creative BC and Zena Harris of the environmental consultancy Green Spark Group, Reel Green educates, empowers and inspires producers in BC to make the local industry one they can be proud of from every angle. Reel Green (of which the CMPA is a committed sponsor) offers free carbon literacy courses to producers and crews; uses a carbon calculator to determine a production’s carbon footprint; shares best practices and green vendors; holds a two-day Sustainable Production Forum—complete with Sustainable Production Excellence Awards for green leaders—at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF); and much more.
“British Columbia is known as one of the greenest centres in Canada’s production industry, and I’ve had producers call me and say, ‘I want to go somewhere where they actually have sustainable best practices in place, and not have to start from scratch,’” says Bernard, who works as a production services manager at Creative BC. “Because the big studios in LA are already committed to being more sustainable on their lots, to be sustainable while they’re here. So it made sense to us to create a really robust program in Reel Green.”
But what makes a sustainable production?
“There’s no set definition, because people have different takes on what sustainability means,” says Harris. “But at a high level, it’s a production that works to minimize its environmental impact and be a good community member, and does this within the scope of its budget. Because, of course, it has to be a financially viable production.”
Producers with an eye on their numbers should take notice. Many of the habits, practices and cultural shifts that need to take place to make a production more sustainable are not simply feel-good actions. They’re not even simply actions that will protect the planet and the future of the industry. They have a significant, measurable impact on a production’s bottom line: according to Margolius, the net financial savings on a large feature film have been shown to be more than $80,000.
What follows are just a few of the steps producers can take to make their sets greener—in more ways than one—including reports from producers who have taken them.
Reduce fuel consumption
“It’s no easy feat to shrink your carbon footprint in this business,” says Chris Pavoni, line producer for Warner Bros.’ Supergirl, which shoots in Vancouver and has committed to becoming more sustainable. “But we’ve made the move, because it’s the right thing to do.”
Fuel consumption—both by vehicles and by the generators that power the set—is one of the biggest challenges for the industry. But, as Harris points out, after the up-front cost, switching to hybrid or electric vehicles saves a bundle in rising fuel costs.
Supergirl, for one, is now an idle-free production, with plans to run a completely hybrid fleet of vehicles next season. The crew is also using battery cells by a BC startup called Portable Electric for certain tasks, such as charging batteries on a camera truck—not yet to power the whole production, but Pavoni believes that’s coming. “I think we’ll have fuel cells or battery-powered options that will power our sets without diesel in the next 10 years,” he says.
Ditch the water bottles
Picture hundreds of cast and crew on a 45-day shoot where only disposable water bottles are available, and it’s not hard to see the waste piling up fast. And it doesn’t just disappear: plastic water bottles take 450 years or more to decompose. According to Margolius, “On the set of a large feature film, you can expect to see 100,000 water bottles. So switching to reusable bottles is a quick win.”
J.J. Johnson, founding partner of Sinking Ship Entertainment in Toronto, decided to make a concerted effort to green his company during the creation of Endlings, a new kids’ series with an environmental bent. On set, everyone was given a reusable water bottle. But, since a similar initiative had met with failure on a previous show—in the bustle of production, most bottles had been lost “within a week, and we were back to one-use water bottles very quickly”—Johnson hired an environmental coordinator to oversee the program and keep bottles filled.
Says Pavoni, whose crew also drinks from reusable bottles: “We’ve spent several thousand on water bottles for everybody. But this way, you’re not putting plastics that we can’t get rid of into landfills, and you save oodles of money over the long term.” He adds with a grin: “These days, if you got caught on our set drinking a bottle of water, you’d get a dirty look.”
Become energy efficient
While switching out fluorescent fixtures for LED panels in, say, your office is a great way to save energy as well as cut down your hydro bill, Margolius points out that not every sustainable action needs to involve heavy up-front costs.
“It’s the winter. You’re in a studio. The loading doors are open. Who’s accountable for that?” she asks. “An energy-efficient studio is great, but really, best practice is how we manage our time in those studios. It’s amazing what we can accomplish by simply paying attention.”
Supergirl has been a paperless production for two years, spurred on by a significant media leak. “It’s so much easier to have information leaked if you have sheets of paper floating around,” says Pavoni. “So everything is digital now. You cut down on copying and paper costs significantly.”
And what producers are finding is that paper just isn’t necessary on set anymore. Shooting schedules? Start packs? There’s an app for that (Shot Lister and Circus, respectively).
Divert and donate
A comprehensive waste management system is key, but as Sinking Ship’s Johnson notes, “It can really be as simple as making sure that disposal containers are clearly labelled and reminding people where to put things.”
Diverting waste includes donating construction materials the production doesn’t need anymore. In partnership with Keep It Green Recycling, Reel Green has established Sustainable Lockup: this service picks up construction material from sets and stores it in a temporary storage facility, free for the taking. This also saves the production the hassle and cost of hauling the material away.
Donating uneaten catering food to a shelter is another way to reduce waste and “do something good for the local community,” says Harris. It’s a practice that Pavoni and crew have implemented: “Local shelters come once a day and pick up all the leftover food. And it cost us nothing but a used fridge on Craigslist.”
Skip the meat
Speaking of food, another easy, cost-efficient way to curb a production’s footprint: serving meatless meals one, two, even five days a week.
“The production of red meat has a very high carbon dioxide footprint,” explains Harris. “And reducing that on the catering menu means you are not paying for meat, which is more expensive. That’s an immediate cost savings right there.”
Sinking Ship is trying one vegan meal a week. Says Johnson, “The fuel energy that goes into a single pound of meat versus an equivalent amount of grain is staggering.” He adds, laughing, “But the vegan thing has been a tougher pill to swallow for some.”
The production industry is an endlessly resilient one. After weathering massive technological changes, it’s still fighting fit. Those championing sustainable production argue that going green is the same—it’s adapt or die. And producers are experts at adaptation.
“This moment is a great opportunity to be creative,” says Harris. “To shift the way we do things and transform culture. And because this industry is quite a compelling one, it has the opportunity to be a fantastic role model—for audiences and for other industries.”
“Nobody would suggest that you should be in this industry if you’re not flexible,” says Margolius. “But we do need to overcome the barriers to adopting these practices. It’s not always going to be easy.” But, she adds, “I believe that what we call green production today is not going to be considered green production for much longer. It will be called production, period.”
Best practices for going green
If you’re a producer who’d like your set to be more sustainable, the following best practices will help you on your way:
ESTABLISH A CLEAR ENVIRONMENTAL MISSION and supporting goals. It’s okay to start small, and build out from there.
MAKE IT PUBLIC. Spread the word about your mandate to crew, cast and service providers, especially when hiring them.
SET EXPECTATIONS. Make sure everyone knows that greening the production is a team effort.
IDENTIFY AN “ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARD.” This person can coordinate and track your sustainability efforts, and be a point person for questions from crew.
PROVIDE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT. Let everyone know when you’ve reached your goals, or are well on your way. It’s not a chore, it’s a challenge!
GO FORTH AND GREEN! For example, adopt a sustainable paper policy: go paperless or purchase Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper. Adopt an energy conservation policy: turn off all equipment at the end of the day. Reduce your fuel consumption: incentivize carpooling or start a shuttle service; instate a no-idling policy; add some hybrids to your fleet. There are so many places to begin.