Big-budget blockbusters produce 2,840 tonnes of CO2, though their environmental impact is often ‘underreported’, study reveals
A landmark BFI study has called for the film industry to step up attempts to address its environmental impact – including the possible mandatory reporting of carbon emissions.
“It is clear that resource consumption and associated carbon emissions are underreported by productions, and in some cases not reported at all. The industry needs to take significant steps to change this,” concludes A Screen New Deal, the first wide-ranging survey since a 2006 UCLA study that has so far been virtually the sole yardstick for the sector’s ecological toll.
Blockbuster films with budgets of over $70m (£53.5m) produce an average of 2,840 tonnes of CO2 per production, the new report reveals – a figure equivalent to the amount absorbed by 3,700 acres of forest in one year.
Devni Acharya, senior consultant on the circular economy at Arup, the company that conducted the research for A Screen New Deal, says that an accepted standard for measuring a production’s footprint is still lacking. “The first step is to creating a consensus for reporting [emissions], and the second step is perhaps to make it mandatory,” she says. “But there’s a few steps before we get to that point.”
The study gathered data from 19 tentpole productions in the US and the UK, related to two different production companies, and interviews with 50 people from across the industry. But this data was anonymised; even for Arup, not just in terms of what was published, demonstrating the continuing reluctance within the industry to be fully accountable for the ecological side. Accusations have followed from this that current sustainability practices amount to nothing more than greenwashing.
Around 51% of emissions were related to transport, the report found, with 30% of that accounted for by air travel and 70% by land. The rest was due to energy consumption, with 34% of the average blockbuster’s CO2 emissions going on mains electricity and gas, and 15% on diesel generators.
The report is restricted solely to film production – and does not account for later stages in a film’s life cycle, such as distribution. With the current exponential demand in streaming video – responsible for producing 300m tonnes of CO2 in 2018, approximately the same as the national output of Spain – there is growing concern around its ecological cost.
Acharya says the report focuses on production in order to provide the best possible blueprint for change in this area – and is hopeful this will happen. “I feel very optimistic, especially at this point in time,” she says. “Nations and specific industries are all talking about a green recovery, and we have a really unique opportunity to create change in the industry from here onwards. I hope the report provides real direction for that.”
Many of the report’s recommendations on digital production processes, such as use of collaboration platforms for planning schedules and even shooting scenes, have already seen increased uptake during lockdown and as global film production resumes. The Russian production company Bazelevs has been promoting its platform Screenlife, which allows directors to stage drama inside a panoply of text browsers and video chat windows. In the UK, footage horror Host, shot using remote methods, has been a critical success.
As well as such digitised methods, the report gives recommendations and case studies for sustainable practices in four other areas of film production: production materials, energy and water, studio building and facilities, and studio sites and locations. This guide has been designed to allow film-makers to address their ecological impact in a more systematic way that has so far been attempted.
Many film productions currently employ eco-consultants to ensure their set is run on ecological lines, through the likes of recycling production materials. But their effectiveness is often limited, as the report points out: “In reality, the people appointed to these roles often lack the agency to integrate with the decision-making power of production managers, who perceive their recommendations as an imposition.”
“One way to empower eco-consultants is to get them involved in the pre-planning phases, where key decisions are made: the sets to be constructed, how supplies are procured, locations,” says Acharya. “Getting them involved from the beginning where they can change those decisions would be really great.”
The report expands on a previous BFI study, Green Matters, but such panoramic overviews remain rare, partly because of the difficulty of auditing a secretive industry. The €2m European Green Screen initiative, which ends this year, offers advice on good practice, but has not attempted to comprehensively measure the footprint of film production on the continent.
The 2006 UCLA study estimated that Hollywood produced 15m tonnes of CO2 annually – though the industry has grown considerably since then.