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Hollywood Studios Target Sustainability as Big Production Goal

Sony’s commitment to sustainability began as a pledge to plant a tree in the community where it shoots for each day of production. It’s a commitment to the environment that most Hollywood studios are taking very seriously, collaborating and sharing ideas on how to conduct the business of production in a sustainable way.

Today, Sony aims to reach a zero environmental footprint by 2050 and sets science-based targets every five years to ensure that it gets there.

“It required us to bring in things like carbon emissions as a true focus,” says John Rego, VP of sustainability at Sony.

The studio is certainly not alone. Through the Producers Guild of America’s Green Production Alliance, more than 10 major studios signed up to work together to help accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices and technologies within the industry, also offering a Green Production Guide with tools and resources to help any production looking to reduce their environmental footprint.

“Sustainability really only works if there is a shift in the cultural mindset,” says Dave Ambroz, executive director of corporate social responsibility for Walt Disney Television. In 2009, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures production introduced the full-time position of environmental steward to each of the studios’ live-action feature film crews. They are not only tasked with establishing sustainability programs on set, they are also meant to “serve as the leader in environmental advocacy to educate the cast and crew on the best practices and habits to embrace as we forge our way to a greener world.”

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And the studios are coming together. “You’ve got to work as an industry on that,” Rego says. “And there’s an industry collaboration group with us and all the other content creators who have really partnered to make sure that we are focusing on the same thing.”

“I think we’ve been collaborative for a long time,” says Shannon Bart, sustainability director, NBCUniversal. “What’s been really cool is that that that alliance has grown to be inclusive of smaller productions and even some of the new streaming services.”

Local film commissions can be a valuable partner in a changing landscape too. “We’ve had dialogue with them and they’ve been supportive of our work of trying to make sure the vendors are all going sustainable, because no matter whether you’re a film commission, state or city, everybody is increasingly looking for those sustainable options within their economy,” Rego says.

Film commissions often act as a resource, providing guidelines on best practices, engaging in dialogue with the industry, as well as offering contacts for sustainable vendors, recycling and upcycling services, potential community partners and other resources.  Representatives from productions approved by the California Film and TV Tax Credit Program are also required to attend an orientation meeting that includes an overview on sustainable practices and environmental regulations set by the California Environmental Protection Agency. Such items as reusable water bottles, sustainability officer wages and solar cells are eligible as qualified expenditures under the state’s tax credit program.

“I think that there’s a strong momentum behind supporting sustainable production practices,” says Colleen Bell, executive director of the California Film Commission. “I think there’s a strong expectation behind that, too, and people [in the industry] are really stepping up in order to do their part.”

The Environmental Media Assn. (EMA) has also been a strong driver in the industry, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The organization provides Green Seals to TV and features that meet its criteria and provides a sustainability checklist.

Its focus isn’t merely on what studios do during production, but also on making sure that green practices are reflected on the screen.

“The studios were always step one for us because we were founded as an organization that was trying to affect change with content, but we [couldn’t] do that without production,” says Debbie Levin, CEO of the org.

When Levin started working with EMA some 20 years ago, there were merely a few sustainability departments with teams of one. “All the studios didn’t even have them,” she recalls, “However, we bought them onto the board and we created the EMA Green Seal for productions in 2003, so it’s been quietly brewing for a long time. We actually got the [sustainability folks] all together for the first time in our conference room about 10 years ago. They were all doing things by themselves and they were all on our board, but they weren’t meeting together and sharing. And now they have weekly meetings and they’re so collaborative, they share all kinds of new technologies and new ways to do things.”

In addition to studios, Levin says she’s seeing an increasing number indie productions submitting their films for the EMA Green Seal. “I think that for indies, at this point, it’s actually cheaper to do things sustainably than not to,” she says.

EMA’s attention is now shifting to talent. “We have so much talent that would love to make sure that when they sign on, there’s certain sustainability practices that they’d love to see,” she says.

Levin is pushing for talent riders that would include certain sustainability requirements. “Now, I think the consciousness is so high in the entertainment industry. It’s still a huge machine, and there’s so much that has to be done, but intent-wise, it’s there.”

Studios are keen to be good corporate citizens.

FX’s “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace” donated $60,000 worth of furniture building materials and appliances to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles. Sony’s “The Good Doctor” participated in Reel Thanksgiving, donating $15,874 and among the studio’s North American features, as many as 89% of productions donated provisions to a food bank or charity. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” gave to the Latrobe Community Revitalization Program to sponsor a lamplight bench and plaque in honor of Mr. Rogers in downtown Pittsburgh. “Little Women” contributed to the Concord Land Conservation Trust to protect undeveloped landscapes in Massachusetts and preserve the areas surrounding the home of author Louisa May Alcott. NBC/Universal’s 53 TV show productions across 13 cities donates 43,300 pounds of food to provide around 36,000 meals to local charities.

Technological advancements are, of course, a major driver for studios looking to reduce their carbon footprint. Screen Gems’ “Think Like a Man” was the first major studio film shot entirely using LED lighting. But LED has really taken off in the past few years, quickly becoming a standard, reducing the amount of power needed and keeping sets cooler.

“Our sets get more efficient as we keep getting more LED lighting and our power needs [decrease], and then we’re able to power for that by things like solar on the stages,” Bart says.

NBC/Universal recently acquired Cineo Lighting and continuously invests in LED. This year, Cineo will release a hard light product called Reflex, which will be much more energy-efficient compared to lights currently used to create the same effect.

Solar has become popular with Hollywood as well. In fact, solar-powered Ecoluxe trailers are in such high demand that they can be hard to secure.

Universal Studios is installing solar panels on the rooftops of its soundstages. Its 548-kilowatt system will generate enough power to provide for more than half of the energy that’s used annually at the stages. Sony also expects its solar panels (with technology by SunPower) to go live by February. The 1.6 megawatt Rooftop PV system is expected to offset 8% of the studio’s electricity consumption. All in, their lot will have 1.85 megawatt of solar installed.

Sony is also exploring using renewable diesel, which burns cleaner than the traditional variety and reduces net carbon emissions.

“That’s a fabulous way to lower [our carbon] footprint and become more of a cleaner industry and cleaner society,” says Rego.

ABC Studios in Los Angeles has switched to using diesel made from renewable resources such as plants, used cooking oils and agricultural waste in production vehicles and generators.

Battery technology innovation is another major innovation area. “Instead of lugging around both fuel trucks with diesel generators,” says Rego, they are incorporating battery systems within the production infrastructure.

On the latest season of “The Magicians,” NBC/Universal used a technology called Sim Urban Power Source, which is essentially a mobile electric battery power source that’s cleaner and silent. They were able to replace the diesel generator used for the catering truck and tents.

With the advancements in EV technology, Ambroz is excited about the eventual possibility of fully electric production vehicles at Disney and the resulting reductions in carbon emissions. “And as battery storage continues to improve and become less expensive, it will allow us to replace more and more diesel generators with clean, alternative sources of power on set,” he says.

Materials for building sets are being re-thought too.

Screen Gems’ “The Possession of Hannah Grace” used Emagispace, which are eco-friendly building blocks for creating sets that can be taken apart afterwards, similar to Lego pieces. “That’s a big innovation. It’s a complementary part of being more sustainable, but also actually being a better material and more adaptable material for production, which is really great,” says Rego.

Sony has also been experimenting reducing their carbon footprint even further by using virtual sets on parts of the series “Shark Tank.”

“I think that [sustainability] is more relevant and top of mind for folks [these days],” says Bart, “People are seeing the impact on our day-to-day life. … More than ever, I think people, and not just producers but our crew across the board, all want to chip in and do what they can.”

Rego agrees, “The best ideas often come from the people on the production. And if you can inspire them and talk to them about the purpose behind doing this type of stuff, it often gives you the best results.”

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