Earth Day 2021: How Hollywood Insiders Drive Investment in Green Businesses
The expanding world of green technologies and innovations designed to combat the effects of climate change is drawing plenty of greenbacks from Hollywood players like Amazon chief Jeff Bezos and Robert Downey Jr.
Environmental-and sustainability-focused investing is not only a popular growth sector; it’s also a path for entertainment industry figures to use their influence to draw attention to an organization, product or service that reflects a larger cause.
The urgent need to slow the rate of global warming, to clean microplastics from the world’s oceans, to guard against deforestation, to protect air and water quality and improve the yield of crops to keep up with population growth — these are among the biggest climate considerations that are also powering investment strategies.
The scale of activity is both global and hyperlocal. Efforts range from the Paris-based biotech group that breeds insects indoors as a sustainable source of future protein for humans — really — to the Questlove-branded line of plant-based frozen Philly cheesesteaks to the veteran TV producer who had the inspiration for a script-reading app that saves thousands of pages a day in printed revisions.
The Scriptation app, which debuted in 2016, is one of many small innovations with potential for wide impact that are directly focused on the work done in Hollywood’s backyard. The Holy Grail is to find something that represents progress from a green perspective and also is a welcome improvement for users. Industry insiders who specialize in the green sector say many in Hollywood are eager to embrace more sustainable work tools, especially if they can make production run smoother.
“If you want to get people to make a change in this industry, you have to point out all the things that they’re doing wrong and all the times that they’re being hypocritical,” says TV producer Steve Vitolo, founder and CEO of the Scriptation app. “But if you have a practical thing that helps them do their jobs better, it makes it so much easier to get the message across.”
Scriptation was born out of Vitolo’s frustration on a particularly tough pilot shoot. He gulped as he realized they were plowing through upwards of 5,000 pages a day in revisions for a 50-page script that needed to be distributed to 100-plus crew members.
“I came at this initially from the perspective of what the heck are we doing; this is insane,” Vitolo says. “I’d hand the script off to the production assistant knowing he was about to destroy the planet.”
After three years of development work, Scriptation went public with features that make it easy for individual users to add notes to scripts and share them with others on the network. Investors in the Los Angeles-based company include actor Rob Morrow and showrunners Kenya Barris, Mike Scully and Julie Scully. The company recently designed a custom app for “Saturday Night Live.” It’s also been used to help create a paperless set on such shows as “Black-ish,” “Bridgerton” and “Modern Family.”
Experts in the field of environmental, social and governance investing (or ESG), say private investment ventures and high-net-worth individuals are having a profound impact on funding an array of eco-friendly R&D and startup efforts. ESG-focused investors take into account the impact of a company’s operations on the environment when evaluating its prospects. The long-term sustainability of operations, products and services is considered amid the backdrop of climate change, as are the independence and accountability of the company’s corporate governance.
Amazon’s Bezos single-handedly moved the needle in 2020 when he pledged $10 billion of his private for- tune to be disbursed to promising organizations. In the first wave of those grants distributed in November, more than $200 million went to nonprofit entities that have investment arms designed to help launch and nurture green business initiatives.
In January, Downey unveiled two investment funds that will operate as part of his Footprint Coalition non- profit focused on addressing climate issues. He has pledged to provide 10% of the capital for two funds at a cap of $1.5 million a year.
Rachel Kropa, former head of CAA Foundation, now serves as an impact adviser to the Footprint funds as well as head of scientific and philanthropic efforts for Footprint Coalition.
“All of this is in the realm of environ- mental technology,” Kropa says of the organization’s focus. “We’re looking for projects and companies that have a really specific innovation or invention that can change industries. That’s our unique additive force that we can contribute to the environmental tech sector.”
So far, one of the most intriguing investments that the Footprint venture has made is in Paris-based Ynsect, which is breeding insects in a 100-foot-tall building that are destined to be fed to farm-raised fish, according to Jonathan Schulhof, a managing partner of Footprint Coalition since its founding in 2019. In the long run, Ynsect hopes to turn the bugs into protein powder for humans. Moreover, the farms themselves are designed to run as ultra-clean carbon-negative operations.
There’s an enormous amount of money and research going into food sustainability amid concerns about population growth. With the number of people on the planet expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 — a 35% gain from today — the volume of production of grain and other basic crops will need to double over the next 30 years. The push for plant-based and vegan food alternatives is growing, because as much as 40% of the world’s grain crops are used as feed for livestock to produce meat and dairy products.
Questlove, leader of the Roots and bandleader for “The Tonight Show,” leveraged his Philadelphia bona fides to launch the plant-based Questlove Cheesesteak in 2019. It’s a charitable initiative aimed at supporting anti-hunger organizations, and it also has environmental benefits. He says his investment in the cheesesteak business is part of a larger vision of using his dollars and his celebrity influence to help make healthy foods less of a high-priced luxury and more accessible to consumers.
“The alternative proteins market has surged over the last six or seven years, and what we have seen in the last five years is even more amazing,” Questlove says. “Alternative proteins are crucial to food sustainability and the future of our planet, but in order for that to happen, there needs to be accessibility and equity in those products.”
He adds that about half of his personal investments are in companies focused on alternative proteins. He sees it as “a mission to democratize these ‘better for the planet’ foods.”
Efforts by prominent individuals like Downey or Questlove have outsize impact on the public consciousness. For devoted impact investors, anything that draws attention to the ticking clock of climate problems is meaningful.
“Institutions are moving much slower than individuals,” says Sonia Kowal, president of Boston-based Zevin Asset Management, a long-established social impact investment firm. “Individuals are much quicker to put their money where their mouth is, especially when people see that there is money to be made.”
Footprint has also invested in a tree-free paper company (Cloud Paper), a maker of a plastic-alternative “biovanescent” material (RWDC Industries), a producer of immersive environmental storytelling installations (Arcadia Earth) and a socially conscious “neo-bank” (Aspiration).
Footprint Coalition’s Schulhof says Downey and his wife and business partner, Susan Downey, have been clear from the start about the overarching goal. The couple have invested not only their own money but a great deal of philanthropic energy. And they are banking on Downey’s celebrity standing, which is not without risk for the actor.
Another Footprint investment: short-form content, narrated by Robert Downey, to call attention to basic environmental concerns and pathbreaking work done by scientists and investors.
“We do two basic things: We mobilize people and we mobilize capital and funds for important work,” says Schulhof. “We do that through the amazing connection that Robert has with a global audience. And we do that through storytelling and the creation of content.”
Downey’s ability to focus attention on green tech is a key asset. The actor is known for his big-screen alter ego, Marvel’s Tony Stark, the billionaire industrialist who moonlights with the Avengers as Iron Man. Downey put a klieg light on the work of Ynsect in February when he ingested a scoop of bug-based protein powder during an appearance on CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
“It can be totally transformational for businesses and scientists who are doing this work to have recognition for what they’re doing,” Schulhof says. “It helps open up connections that they may not have even known existed. You can stimulate much more in the way of unanticipated benefits by getting a huge audience to be aware of a subject.”
The green business movement has also been welcoming to entrepreneurs with far fewer resources but just as much passion.
Like Scriptation’s Vitolo, Emellie O’Brien founded the Brooklyn-based Earth Angel production consulting firm in large part out of the desire to reduce the astonishing amount of waste that she saw on film sets.
She was a few years out of NYU film school when she was tapped to help run a green production initiative for Focus Features. She parlayed that experience into working at P.A.-level wages as the sustainability adviser for Big Beach, where she earned the nickname Earth Angel. The name stuck when she formally launched her own banner in 2013.
O’Brien entered film school with an activist’s motivation to become a storyteller who sheds light on important social issues, with climate change at the top of the list. “It’s a powerful medium to create change and motivate behavior,” O’Brien says. “I wanted to motivate that for good.”
Today, Earth Angel has operations in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, and O’Brien leads a team of 13 staffers. The company creates a soup-to-nuts sustainability plan for production that covers everything from training key crew members in green processes and procuring sustainable building materials to organizing recycling partners and data collection that helps analyze usage patterns and calculate a production’s carbon footprint. Earth Angel’s pitch to clients is that there are cost savings to be harvested in the long run as best practices become ingrained in crews and producers.
O’Brien is fulfilled by her work because she can see the cumulative impact made by Earth Angel and similar efforts.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find an experienced crew member who hasn’t worked on a green set at this point,” she says.
In O’Brien’s view from the trenches, one of the biggest challenges to making Hollywood a greener place to work is the project-by-project nature of the work.
“We are trained in the industry to be short-term thinkers: What is required for the next day of shooting? What is required for this three-to five-month-long production?” O’Brien says. “What we’re trying to do is lay the foundation for sustainable infrastructure that will outlast this one production.”
O’Brien says the rate of progress in the production community is improving at a rapid clip thanks to innovation in other sectors. She cites the work of companies like Vancouver-based Portable Electric, which is working on electric power alternatives to diesel generators for location shoots, as well as others’ efforts to improve energy-efficient LED lighting alternatives to the traditionally powerful forms of lighting long favored for shoots.
“I have a member of my team focused on supply chain research all of the time, so if there’s a product or a green solution out there, we try to see if its adaptable for the film industry,” she says.
The embrace of environmental goals by high-wattage members of the entertainment industry has been important in raising general awareness of the geo- political crises that loom as a result of climate change.
Zevin Asset Management’s Kowal asserts that the strongest hand for Hollywood’s environmentalists to play — even more than injecting money into the green tech economy — is to use their public influence to pressure corporate giants and governments to make specific operational choices that do the right thing by the planet.
“It’s not as sexy, but it has much more impact,” she says.
There’s a movement afoot among activist ESG investors to press public firms to tie sustainability goals to specific metrics spelled out in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
“We need to push companies not to just set airy-fairy goals but to commit to real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” Kowal says. “If these large institutions don’t change, no amount of investment in climate change technologies is going to matter.”