Documentary Spotlight

Michael Bloomberg on the Timeliness of His Coal Industry Doc 'From the Ashes'

Courtesy of National Geographic
'From the Ashes'

"Today, you only get one point of view for all of your news. Here, you are getting the story from the perspective of people who benefited, who suffered, who lived through it, who didn't know about it," says Bloomberg about his "war on coal" film.

President Donald Trump ran on a campaign that promised to bring the coal industry back in America. But to billionaire mogul, former New York City mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, that’s an empty promise, given that long before climate change activists began railing against it, the industry was on a downward trajectory because of technology and cheaper alternatives like natural gas. In 2015, the founder of the privately-held Bloomberg L.P. asked top lieutenant Katherine Oliver to back a film that could explain the issue from both sides — the workers displaced when coal plants close and the health costs of the polluting industry when they remain open. The result is Michael Bonfiglio’s From the Ashes, one of the environmental-themed contenders in this year’s Oscar documentary feature race. The film, which opened in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, dovetails with Bloomberg Philanthropies’ efforts to take coal mines offline (263 plants have been retired through its investment in the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign to date). Oliver, who served as New York’s film czar for 12 years and executive produced From the Ashes, and Bloomberg sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss why they got involved in the project and why consumers and even Wall Street are driving the change.

This film is definitely timely. But when you started out, was anyone really talking about coal?

OLIVER Two and a half years ago, when we decided to start thinking about how to use film to convey our messaging. Mike said, “Let’s start with the environment.” Mike is a U.N. special envoy to cities focusing on the environment. He said, ‘Nobody is talking about coal. We’ve been doing all of this work with the Sierra Club, we need to start this dialogue. We finished shooting right after the [2016 presidential] election and then went into the editing room. We wanted to launch it at Tribeca. And then everybody was talking about coal. Alec Baldwin doing skits on Saturday Night Live with coal miners. We’re just really fortunate about the timing. Mike is the visionary, but it was serendipitous, fortunately. Or unfortunately. 

BLOOMBERG I think the movie is the right blend of looking at both sides [of the coal debate] but putting things in the context of how human beings feel about it with different points of view. Which is nice. Today, you only get one point of view for all of your news. Here, you are getting the story from the perspective of people who benefited, who suffered, who lived through it, who didn’t know about it. 

The film features the mayor of Georgetown, Texas — red state, red city — but he's happy to go 100 percent renewable. So, is this a partisan issue?

BLOOMBERG Oklahoma has more wind than coal, and in Texas, the people are going to renewable faster than anybody in any other state. The public is voting with their feet because renewables are less expensive and less polluting. It doesn’t matter what the federal government does, that’s a trend that is taking place. Government can only tell you to do certain things, in the end it's people making individual decisions. I want to reduce my energy costs. I want to be more environmentally friendly. Why? Because I want to spend my money on something else or I want my kids to breath cleaner air, or I want to drink purer water. It is a very democratic with a small “d.”  The public is driving the environmental agenda, the public and corporations.

Why are corporations becoming more environmentally friendly? 

BLOOMBERG If you try to recruit the best and the brightest out of school, they want to know what you're doing in the environmental space. Your employees want to know what their employer is doing and be proud of their company. Your customers want to shop and buy from environmentally friendly companies. Most of all, your stockholders want you to be environmentally friendly.

That’s a switch from times past. Why?

BLOOMBERG If you think about it, most stockholders are pension funds and endowments. People don't own the stocks individually, they own them collectively. They pressure their money managers to invest socially responsibly. When Fidelity, which manages big money for pension funds and endowments, goes into see Boeing, they say to Boeing, “What are you doing for the environment? Our customers are investors. Our beneficiaries want to know.”

What is Bloomberg Philanthropies doing to effect change?

BLOOMBERG The Sierra Club, with our money, is pushing a lot of other environmental organizations. It is not being driven by the government. That’s the important thing. I have always thought about [my battle as mayor against] sugar drinks. People say, ‘Oh, you lost the sugar drink battle.” And they hold up these Big Gulp cups and make fun of me. If we had won that battle, which we would have if we had appealed in court, it would have been just one issue in one place. The fact is that it became a worldwide thing to talk about. Coke and Pepsi sales are off 30, 40 percent around the world because sometimes you win to lose them. 

John Mellencamp sings the closing credits song for the film. Why that choice?

OLIVER We picked an old miners’ song, "Dark as a Dungeon." He has been a great supporter dating back to Farm Aid by keeping the dialogue going and, in a way, trying to increase awareness.

BLOOMBERG Fifty-four thousand people work in coal mines, there's only 15,000 coal miners. What happened is you used to dig down with a pick-axe and a shovel, then they had mules, then they had machinery, now they just rip the top off a mountain. That is what has killed coal jobs. It all happened before there was decline in consumption of coal. Whether it was because the market changed or it was uneconomical or we had an impact on all that. We had an impact on reduction and use of coal, but the bottom line is that the coal miners’ jobs disappeared a lot before that because of technology.

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