Programming for the Planet

Intriguing characters. Eye-catching locations. Thought-provoking storylines. Silver screen productions are fueled not just by the imagination, but by the naturally intriguing world we live in too. The planet is featured prominently in motion pictures and it’s not just green on-screen—activity behind the scenes is also turning its focus on the environment.

From feature films to documentaries, Earth is a star. The Institute of the Environment has showcased environmentally themed entertainment by hosting screenings of movies like“No Impact Man” (2009), “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy”(2008) and “End of the Line” (2009).

The highest grossing film of all time, “Avatar,” (2009) has a strong ecological theme. Set in the future, humans are aggressively mining a precious mineral on distant world Pandora. The expedition threatens the existence of Pandora’s natives, a tribe called the Na’vi. Director and writer James Cameron stated, “’Avatar’ asks us all to be warriors for the Earth. This beautiful, fragile, miracle of a planet that we have right here is our land—not ours to own, but ours to defend and protect.”

One of the earliest films to illustrate an environmental issue is the classic noir “Chinatown,” (1974) which addresses land and water rights. Since 1974 many movies have highlighted environmental matters. “Syriana” (2005) touches on the fall-out of reliance on fossil fuels. “The Pelican Brief” (1993) also focuses on oil dependence, as well as endangered species. Disaster flicks “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) and “2012” (2009) present the consequences of climate change. “Erin Brockovich” (2000) and “A Civil Action” (1999) are about the environment and public health. “Fire Down Below” (1997) features an Environmental Protection Agency envoy fighting toxic waste disposal.

Animated film “Wall-E” (2008) has a robot left to clean up an abandoned, trash crammed Earth. Two other children’s films, “Hoot” (2006) and “Happy Feet” (2006), touch on animal protection.

The environment is a dominant documentary subject. Successful films to tackle environmental topics include: “Winged Migration” (2001), “March of the Penguins” (2005), “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (2006), “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), “The 11th Hour” (2007), “Fuel” (2008), “Earth Days” (2009) and “Climate Refugees,” (2010) a selection from this year’s Sundance Film Festival that will be screened by the IoE this fall.

Some studios are making it a priority to create green entertainment.

Participant Media was established to make “socially relevant” motion pictures. Participant is responsible for the most well-known global warming film, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Last year Participant Media released two highly acclaimed features about the environment.

“Food, Inc.” focused on the inadequacies of the U.S. food system and how public health has suffered.

“The Cove,” 2010 Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary, investigated the horrific annual slaughter of dolphins in Japan.

In 2008 Walt Disney Studios launched Disneynature. President and CEO of The Walt Disney Company Robert A. Iger said “Disneynature will utilize dazzling technology to create films that will hopefully contribute to a greater understanding and appreciation of the beauty and fragility of the natural world.”

He continued, “Our role at Disneynature will be to tell stories with passion and enthusiasm to the largest public possible around the world and help audiences discover the incredible beauty of our world but also understand the challenges for the future generation.” “Earth” (2007) was the studio’s first venture and “Oceans” premiered Earth Day this year.

What makes this subject matter so compelling? Why do these subjects resonant with audiences around the world? Environmental issues have a global impact, affecting every single audience member. Matters concerning the environment are a universal theme audiences can appreciate.

“Sizzle” creator Randy Olson, a Harvard-educated scientist turned filmmaker, believes storytelling is important and powerful and that environmental messages can be absorbed through entertainment. Olson said “Marshall McLuhan stated, “The medium is the message.” If you craft something engaging it can reach broad audiences.”

The spotlight is also being turned on the environment backstage.


In 2006 the Institute of the Environment Southern California Report Card analyzed the environmental impacts of the film and television industry, looking at energy consumption, waste generation, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and physical disruptions on location. The article examined the industry’s sustainable best practices and surveyed the major trade publications’ coverage of environmental issues.

Since the report’s publication environmental performance has improved. John Rego, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Director of Environmental Sustainability stated, “there is definitely a commitment in the business to environmental sustainability.”

“We work with all divisions across the company to help them understand sustainability and environmental responsibility and be an active resource on this issue. We help departments build strategies, practices and tactics to become a leaner and greener organization. Our approach is broad: employee engagement, by way of different programs and services, working with creative executives, working with productions and with the home entertainment group, on issues like manufacturing: figuring out how to limit virgin material consumption and reducing waste.”

Sony’s goal is to reduce its ecological footprint by pursuing sustainable policies that combat climate change, preserve natural resources and protect the health and safety of the community through initiatives that span facilities, operations, production, consumer products employees and community outreach.

Sony Pictures Entertainment has achieved ISO14000 certification. ISO 14001 is a management system that empowers organizations to address the impact on the environment of their activities, services, products and people, and to take steps to identify significant aspects, and implement environmental management programs to control and improve them.

The other major studios have similar sustainable practices.

Disneynature donates a portion of ticket sale profits to nonprofit nature agencies.

Fox’s Green Guide encourages reusing set and construction materials, limiting air travel, establishing recycling stations on productions, distributing documents electronically, banning water bottle use on set and using reusable water containers.

NBC/Universal has a “Green is Universal” production guide that outlines measures that productions can take to reduce, recycle and repurpose.

Last year Paramount’s Green House exhibit showcased eco-friendly initiatives and business practices throughout the company.

Warner Bros.’ Stage 23 is the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) sound stage in the world. The studio utilizes alternative fuel sources and encourages recycling and composting efforts.

It seems the red carpet might be switching shades soon. Whether a work of art is completely fictitious or grounded in reality, cultivating stories from the natural world stirs not just the mind, but the heart. The various artists that collaborate to bring movies to life are demonstrating a commitment to protecting the very entity that sustains life.