Sustainability in the screen industry: slow but steady progress

It’s not easy to change the way an entire industry thinks and works. But, when it comes to addressing environmental concerns, the needle is starting to move.

gary's magic fort (cbc)The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last November wasn’t perfect by any means, but it did inject some much-needed urgency into the debate around sustainability. In some ways, that’s analogous to the situation in Canadian film and television – where there is clearly positive momentum, but still a lack of visibility on how far the industry has progressed towards critical carbon-zero targets.

At the forefront of the industry’s efforts is public broadcaster CBC, which launched a five-year action plan called ‘Greening Our Story’ in June 2021. It committed the broadcaster to a 25% reduction in carbon emissions by 2026, with reduced energy usage, travel cutbacks, sustainable procurement and a shift toward an electric/hybrid fleet among its key subsidiary targets. This past January it introduced a new carbon footprint requirement for all original Canadian English-language productions above $400,000.

“The CBC has been moving in the right direction for the last decade,” says CBC executive director, business & rights and content optimization, Lisa Clarkson. “But this heralds a new era of sustainable production and
broadcasting. As we start to get information back from the carbon calculator, we can identify issues and develop industry best practice.”

Introduced last fall, the carbon calculator is based on the albert system devised by BAFTA in the U.K. “It can be used as a tool during production,” says Clarkson, “allowing producers to adjust as they go. It allows ‘a green pause’ in every element – assessing the impact of materials, costume, transport, etc.”

CBC began experimenting with the carbon calculator on in-house productions like Gary’s Magic Fort (pictured above) and Family Feud Canada. While the broadcaster is keen to drive change, there are no plans to penalize producers that are slow to sign up or whose carbon footprint is too high. “The key to progress is collaboration,” says Clarkson, “which is why we’ve also introduced a new sustainability lead role. My sense is that there is a real coalition for change building among all stakeholders.”

Clarkson says the key will be to make sustainability “as easy as possible” so it becomes second nature – and, to this end, CBC will soon start inviting producers to seminars to explore techniques. Is she concerned that producers may balk at the costs involved in changing processes? “The evidence from the BBC and ITV in the U.K. is that sustainability doesn’t actually increase costs,” she notes.

christa dickenson

Telefilm has also created its own eco-responsibility action plan, which focuses on internal organization, production and promotion. “Inspired by Indigenous practices, as well as the progressive work done by industry partners in Canada and around the globe, we have made a commitment to take greater action,” explains Christa Dickenson (pictured right), Telefilm executive director and CEO.

Like Clarkson, Dickenson can point to various initiatives over the years, such as greener Canada pavilions. But now, she says, “we are setting clear objectives, timelines and performance indicators to enhance accountability.”

Powered by a “science-based” plan, Telefilm shares the CBC’s objective to achieve viable carbon reduction targets on production. It also plans to establish a multi-level consultation plan to advance sustainable industry practices. But in terms of tangible results, Dickenson says it’s a little too early: “I’m absolutely seeing a genuine desire for action. But the life cycle of a production is so long that we’re probably going to have to wait another year for results.”

Zena Harris, president of sustainability consultancy Green Spark, believes there’s still “a long way to go” on reshaping industry behaviour – but she has seen solid progress. “A few years back, we would focus on what we could see – which was waste. As data collection has become aligned, attention has shifted to fuel consumption. Electrification of the fleet and equipment is the top issue.”

Harris knows producers who have been serious about sustainability targets for years, but she also encounters continued resistance. In some respects, it’s a reaction exacerbated by COVID, which has left many production staff exhausted and overworked. “For some, sustainability seems overwhelming,” she notes, “so the first step is about breaking patterns. Part of that is about pre-production planning, so that people don’t fall into bad habits when things get busy.”

She echoes Clarkson by saying collaboration is key: “We need this industry to start sharing assets and resources more so that we’re using less virgin material. That means a circular economy involving key decision-makers, like production designers, construction managers and materials suppliers.”

One advantage Canada has is multiple production hubs that can learn from each other. B.C., for example, is a leader in eco-friendly production through its Reel Green initiative. Over a decade old, it has trained more than 1,000 crew in sustainable production and has strong advocates on boards like Vancouver-based Martini Film Studios.

endlingsSimilarly, 2020 saw the launch of Ontario Green Screen through Ontario Creates. This has provided a focal point for best-practice case studies. Sinking Ship Entertainment’s Endlings (pictured left), for example, introduced a range of initiatives from composting to carpooling.

Cream Productions, meanwhile, committed to going carbon-neutral in 2021. On horror anthology series The Haunted Museum, it introduced a waste audit and deployed albert to measure carbon emissions. That exercise showed that more than 80% of emissions came from vehicles.

According to Cream, the biggest takeaway has been that “tracking emissions is actually pretty easy to include in our daily efforts,” says Patrick Cameron, Cream’s SVP of operations. “It’s also not hard to find the money – with production budgets, this is a fraction of 1%.”

Beyond Canada, Netflix is aiming to be carbon zero by 2022, while in Sweden regional film offices have just signed up to a digital planning tool developed by sustainability experts Greentime AB, in co-operation with Film i Väst.

Still in Europe, NBCU-owned studio Sky has launched a ‘Sky Zero’ initiative and claims it is already influencing production. romulus2_ep01_17052021_0143

Season two of epic drama Romulus (pictured right), produced by Cattleya and Groenlandia in Italy, set itself the target of being “the most environmentally sustainable Sky Original Italian production to date.”

The U.K. is also influential. Aside from delivering a carbon calculator, albert teamed up with the British Film Institute and design firm Arup to create a comprehensive 61-page report on sustainability solutions and specialists.

chloeOne U.K.-based company leading the way is Bristol-based Eco Shoots, which has recently provided services to Wonka (Warner Bros.), Chloe (BBC/Amazon Studios; pictured left), Sanditon (BritBox UK/Masterpiece) and upcoming sci-fi series The Last Bus (Netflix).

Co-founder Monty Till says Eco Shoots “provides shoots with equipment and services to help them work more sustainably. We own and supply a range of kit, from clean generators to hydrogen-fed lighting towers as well as waste and recycling, reusable floor protection and bamboo signage.”

On Wonka, Eco Shoots provided Warner Bros. with clean generators to power their video village. “And on a recent high-end fashion shoot, we transferred food waste to an aerobic digestion plant rather than tossing it into landfill.”

Like Green Spark, Till believes planning and education are key. But he also believes the time is probably right for the sustainability agenda to have teeth. “A broadcaster mandate and one supported by law would make the biggest difference. Many people are onboard but there is still hesitation by others.”

While there is undoubtedly some post-COP26 progress, the impression right now is that the industry still needs to decide what it is willing to sacrifice to make a real impact. Ultimately zero carbon may require zero tolerance to be truly effective.

This article originally appeared in Playback’s Spring 2022 issue