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“Europe Is Burning” – Can Film Fests Adapt to Climate Change?

A summer of severe weather prompts calls for urgent action: "The industry will need to rethink the way we do everything because this is the new normal now."

Usually, when attending a major international film festival, the thoughts one has on the weather are limited to the question of what clothes to bring. For Cannes, you leave the wool double-breasted at home, for Venice, maybe pack something flowing or a pair of Bermuda shorts.

This year, it’s different.

A severe summer heat wave has scorched Europe, with record temperatures recorded in London, Paris and Rome. Severe drought has contributed to ferocious wildfires in France, Portugal and Spain. In Asia, torrential rainfall led to flash flooding in Seoul, Korea, where more than a dozen people drowned in their Parasite-style basement apartments. On Aug. 13 in Valencia, Spain, one person was killed and 17 others injured when a strong gust of wind collapsed a stage at the Medusa Music Festival. Climate science points to a future where such extremes become more common and more intense as the planet warms.

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So for a film industry rushing to return to in-person festivals after the enforced hiatus of the coronavirus pandemic, the weather no longer is a question of fashion. It’s become an existential crisis.

When temperatures in parts of France topped 104 degrees Fahrenheit in June, local governments banned outdoor public events, including concerts and large public gatherings, a move that would shut down any major festival in the area. Elsewhere, the extreme heat threatened the infrastructure on which any festival relies. Trains throughout Britain were delayed or canceled when record temperatures threatened to buckle the tracks. London narrowly avoided a blackout after electricity surges — driven by the spike in air-conditioning use during the summer heat wave — nearly shut down the city’s grid (London only avoided collapse by quickly buying electricity, at a 5,000 percent markup, from Belgium).

“We all watch the news, we know what is happening, but most in the movie business continue to act as if [the climate crisis] doesn’t exist,” says Julien Tricard, founder of France’s médiaClub’Green, which deals with the impact of climate change on the film industry. “But as the events of this summer have shown, Europe is burning. The industry will need to rethink the way they do everything because this is the new normal now.”

So far, extreme weather has not disrupted the festival season. Cannes was held successfully — and comfortably — in late May, just before Europe’s heat wave hit. Venice, which kicks off Aug. 31, and Toronto’s TIFF, which starts Sept. 8, appear to have avoided the most severe summer climate. Similarly, the weather for the later fall festivals — San Sebastian, Zurich, Busan and London — hopefully will be cooler, and calmer, than what has transpired from June through August.

But the trajectory and the apparently increased pace of climate change has raised concerns that the next extreme weather event is coming. Likely sooner than expected.

The extreme summer heat has led to wildfires throughout Europe, including Albergaria-aVelha, Portugal.
Octavio Passos/Getty Images

“We were lucky this year that we missed the heat wave; the top temperature was around [86 degrees Fahrenheit],” says Evelyn Voigt-Müller, head of communications at the Munich Film Festival, which ran through July 1. “But extreme weather is becoming a more serious issue. It’s something we have to keep in mind if we want to protect our visitors for the future.”

Toronto residents remember 2018, when heavy rain in August, less than a month before TIFF, caused flash flooding, with rivers of runoff rushing down Union Station and into Rogers Arena on Front Street, a few blocks south of TIFF’s Bell Lightbox headquarters on King Street. If a deluge like that hit the Canadian city during TIFF’s opening weekend, it would wash away the festival’s red carpets and could even keep Toronto’s devoted cinephiles away from the theaters.

A summer of extreme heat has led to water shortages across Italy, “affecting the basic life support” of cities like Venice, according to Jane da Mosto, co-founder and executive director of environmental group We Are Here Venice. “We take this heat wave as further confirmation that we are living in the climate emergency and that it is time to really respond,” she adds.

The ancient Italian city is poorly equipped to deal with extreme weather, says da Mosto, pointing to its declining, outdated infrastructure and a dearth of green space.

“I’ve seen lines of people waiting for hours in the extreme heat to board a vaporetto [water bus] without any shade provided [by the public transport service],” she says. “And both visitors and residents are under the same sky. If it’s uncomfortably hot for the residents, it’s going to be less comfortable for the visitors as well.”

Festivals in Venice and many other European cities face an additional problem: Many of their cinemas, and some hotels or local houses used as Airbnbs by festival visitors, were not designed for extreme heat, often lacking AC or other amenities.

“We work closely with the national weather office and try to plan and adjust as best we can,” says Voigt-Müller of the Munich festival. “But in the end, we are really at the mercy of the weather. This year we moved our festival headquarters to a new location with a big outdoor tent. There’s no way to cool that. If it hits [100 degrees F], that’s it.”

THR contacted nearly a dozen major film festivals for this article, and none had concrete plans to deal with the risk of extreme weather.

“We currently have few plans in place to deal with the issue,” the Busan International Film Festival (Oct. 6-15) noted in an email, saying it “takes time” to implement “new agendas.” With COVID-19 still raging in Korea, Busan said preventing the spread of the virus has priority for this year’s festival. “However, this doesn’t mean that we do not care about the impact of climate change and recent extreme weather events across the globe,” the festival said. “At this stage, we are thinking about how to make [the fact of] the climate emergency part of our long-term planning for the festival.”

A wildfire in Athens, Greece.
A wildfire in Athens, Greece. Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

Up until now, the focus of festivals with regard to climate change has been extremely long-term, with a concentration on reducing energy use and waste and limiting an event’s carbon footprint. Every major festival has a “green plan” outlining how it wants to cut back on or, through buying CO₂ offsets or other measures, compensate for the emissions that result from the travel, accommodation and general consumption that are an unavoidable part of any major film fest.

“We do whatever we can to respect the environment, from the recycled paper we print the programs on to providing bikes to get around to offsetting emissions,” says Raphaël Brunschwig, managing director of the Locarno Film Festival, which has been a climate-neutral event since 2010 and last year began publishing an annual sustainability report, documenting progress toward its green goals.

“We have to put our focus on what we can control, regardless of the worldwide conditions,” says Brunschwig, “and I think what film festivals can do, what is in our power, is to raise awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis and to promote and bring attention to films that do just that.”

But there are measures festivals could take right now to help ameliorate the worst effects of severe heat and other climate extremes. After this sweltering summer, unions in traditionally cooler countries in Northern Europe have called on employers to restructure the working day, taking their cues from approaches in the south, where hotter temperatures are more the norm. Suggestions include taking longer lunch breaks or traditional Spanish siestas in the afternoon to avoid working during the hottest part of the day. Transferred to the festival world, this could mean scheduling more screenings late at night or early in the morning, when things are cooler, or loosening black-tie requirements for galas to avoid heatstroke on the red (hot) carpet.

“We have to think out of the box, to completely rethink how we do things, how we plan these events,” says Mathieu Delahousse, a co-founder of Eco Tournage, a consultancy that provides green solutions for production companies and the audiovisual industry. “And we have to act now because the risk, and the cost, is only going to go up the longer we wait.”

Already, Delahousse notes, insurance companies are recalculating the risks connected to climate change, factoring in everything from the destruction caused by extreme weather to the medical costs arising from cases of heatstroke or dehydration at large public events.

“In the next five years there will be a huge recalculation regarding insurance, and policies will go up,” he notes.

But despite the dire outlook, and the climate science that points to things getting worse before they can get better, Delahousse is optimistic the film industry will find a way.

“When we take things seriously, this industry can be incredibly adaptive, incredibly flexible,” he says. “Look at the coronavirus. In six months, we found a new way of doing things that were unthinkable just a year earlier. The moment we take the climate crisis as seriously as we did the coronavirus, we can change.”

This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.