Sustainability in Hollywood Backslides Amid COVID: "It's Everything We Told Everybody Not to Do All These Years"

Backsliding on Sustainability Illustration by Violet Reed
Illustration by Violet Reed

While plastic waste explodes amid the pandemic, remote work has reduced greenhouse gas emissions and many companies are embracing  such practices as paperless call sheets and battery generators.

For the past decade, sustainability in Hollywood has revolved around a handful of environmental pillars: reducing waste, conserving energy, curbing the carbon footprint and donating leftover food and goods. Then came COVID-19.

"So many of the advances that we've had — especially around craft services — have just been shattered," says Environmental Media Association CEO Debbie Levin, who has worked with studios on their green practices since 2003. The pandemic has overturned what once was considered de rigueur for many film and TV productions: Sets are axing reusable water bottles and going back to single-use; shifting buffet-style craft services tables to individual meals wrapped in plastic; restricting food and clothing donations because of possible contamination; and generating an unexpected level of medical waste with masks, gloves and coronavirus tests. As Levin notes, "It's everything we told everybody not to do for all these years."

Jurassic World: Dominion executive producer Alexandra Derbyshire witnessed those challenges firsthand, as the Universal feature was among the first major films to resume shooting after the spring 2020 shutdown. "We had lots of plans, and we could follow through on some of them," she says of the production's sustainability program. The set scrapped reusable bottles for compostable plastic cups, and transported cast and crew in individual vehicles, instead of carpooling, in order to comply with social distancing rules. As the first tentpole back, she says, "We did have to be completely overcautious with what we were doing in terms of anything being shared."

Nonetheless, the fight against climate change and pollution has not stopped. Derbyshire says that Jurassic succeeded in going paper-free for call and time sheets, while the catering department eliminated beef dishes. (Emissions from livestock production account for about 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.)

One bright spot is the rise of remote work. "I'm sure everyone remembers the beautiful sunsets and clear air that happened in Los Angeles right at the beginning of all of this," says Joanclair Richter, an organizer for Al Gore's Climate Reality Project, who formerly served as a sustainability consultant for production companies. That smog-free landscape was a result of the work-from-home shift and was reflected in a 10 percent drop greenhouse gas emissions nationwide in 2020, according to an estimate from the Rhodium Group.

"In the entertainment industry, I was always surprised by how often people were flown out for one day for a meeting," Richter says. "Being able to take out at least a portion of it while you're not shooting, whether it be the table read or some postproduction work, the reduction of the carbon footprint is really crucial." A 2006 UCLA study found overall greenhouse gas emissions from the entertainment industry were equivalent to 15 million tons of carbon dioxide in the U.S., out of a total of 5.8 billion tons nationwide that year. The average tentpole production ($70 million-plus) generates 3,130 tons of CO₂, with 50 percent of that from fuel use.

Many companies are finding new sustainable practices to embrace. At WarnerMedia, the studio has shifted to paperless production offices and new technology like LED set lighting that can be operated remotely, thereby both reducing energy consumption and making it so "you don't have to enter the stage and risk exposure to make adjustments," says the company's director of sustainability, Mike Slavich. WarnerMedia also has started using battery generators on location to cut emissions, and some of its productions have adapted to bring back reusable water bottles through "a special kind of bottle where the receptacle doesn't touch the dispenser and has foot pumps," Slavich says.

Sony, says vp sustainability John Rego, is focused on reducing its carbon emissions and having zero environmental footprint by 2050 through its "Road to Zero" initiative. The studio also has worked with productions to set up no-touch water stations, "trying to make sure that we don't simply eliminate this behavior that we've been pushing for so long as a society, which is around reusables," Rego says. Sony has teamed with Rock and Wrap It Up, an anti-poverty nonprofit that has figured out how to handle food donations safely. And there has been training on how employees can make their homes more sustainable while they're out of the office.

Tandem Pictures — the independent film studio behind the 2020 film Black Bear, led by Julie Christeas and Jonny Blitstein — has long used green set practices, including composting, rechargeable batteries and hybrid and electric vehicles. During the pandemic, the duo found compostable PPE for use on set with the Canadian-made, fully recyclable AVRO Mask, and are looking at shooting locations closer to New York and Los Angeles that would cut down on transport. "It's about making strategic decisions up front," says Blitstein.

Mari Jo Winkler, executive producer on FX's Y: The Last Man and co-founder of the Producers Guild of America's PGA Green committee, says that the pandemic, which has at times caused shortages in everything from coronavirus swabs to toilet paper and flour, has opened Hollywood's eyes to the idea of conservation.

"There was a pre-COVID tendency for the film industry to just make decisions with all available resources and have everything at their fingertips, and now it's more deliberate because we have to do more planning ahead of time," she says, noting that there's now less food waste on her set thanks to individual meal orders placed to catering via an app. While consulting on other productions in 2020, Winkler says she sees a lot of stress around " 'I have so much to worry about with COVID — how could I possibly add sustainability to it?' But if you look at production processing, the processes on every production are exactly the same. You still have waste management, you still have to think about how you're feeding the crew, you still have to think about transportation. If you implement sustainability early on … it's no different than what you would have done without sustainability."

Now, in 2021, with vaccines being rolled out and a Biden administration that will prioritize climate change, the past 10 months of peril may have laid out a clearer path for sustainability in the years ahead. "We've seen an amazing mobilization of our industry to meet the challenges of a pandemic, and I think that the same could apply to sustainability," says Slavich. "I think that there does need to be systemic change to what we're doing."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.