Tandem Pictures Co-Heads Push for Sustainability in Indie Filmmaking

Black Bear
Katie Grant

Tandem Pictures CEO Julie Christeas (center left) and COO and co-owner Jonathan Blitstein (center right) on the set of "Black Bear"

The producers of the new Aubrey Plaza film 'Black Bear' — who are joining the board of the Environmental Media Association — had no single-use water bottles or disposable plates and cutlery on a set that was mostly powered by solar energy

With their lower budgets, indie films individually have much less environmental impact than big studio films. But, as an overall entertainment-industry sector, the independent film world has great room for improvement when it comes to sustainability, say Julie Christeas and Jonathan Blitstein, the founder and COO/co-owner, respectively, of independent film studio Tandem Pictures, which has a strong array of green practices in place for all of its film productions.

“It’s so hard to get everyone rallying around it at the indie film level. If you look at the thousands of indie films and indie web series created every year, I would imagine it’s a very small percent that are produced sustainably,” says Blitstein.

Adds Christeas, “It’s not that our colleagues don’t want to behave in a more sustainable way when it comes to putting together their movies, but it is a big ask for independent film productions. Often they take forever — until they don’t. They get set pretty quickly and you’ve just got the hit the ground running.” At the major studios, by contrast, continues Christeas, “[They] have done a decent job of creating positions where they have directors of sustainability, where they have people who are looking at ways to improve.”

The pair tell THR exclusively that’s one of the reasons they are now joining the board of the Environmental Media Association, which created the EMA Green Seal for Production in 2003 to recognize film and TV shows for sustainable practices. “We want to produce movies in a sustainable way but also elevate these practices within the industry and help indie filmmakers understand how to take these on,” says Blitstein.

Their latest film, Black Bear (out today, Dec. 4) — which The Hollywood Reporter in its review called a “twisty meta-exploration of the creative process and its toll on relationships” — stars Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon. On set, each cast and crew member had their own water bottles with their names on them to eliminate the need for single-use plastic water bottles (which also saved the production money.) That was just one of the many ways the production worked to hit its sustainability goals.

Other areas where Black Bear implemented eco-practices — following the EMA’s standards, as well as PEACH (Production Environmental Actions Checklist), a guide developed by the Producers Guild of America Foundation — included:

Energy use: In a major energy saving move, the location scout found a house, the main setting for the film, that had solar panels. “For all of our daylight shooting — the washer and dryer for washing wardrobe, the lights — the power was from the sun,” says Blitstein. “During the night, the house switches over to battery back-up, and when the battery went down, we switched over to diesel. We really avoided using gasoline generators and minimized the amount of carbon we were putting out in the world.” The lights that were used were mostly lower-energy LED models.

Craft Services: The department utilized the dishwasher at the house for washing dishes and there were no disposable plates or cutlery on set. “That’s just wasted plastic,” says Blitstein, adding, “We separated recycling from our compost trash. We were able to minimize the amount of overall physical waste.”

Even coffee was served in reusable mugs. “That is actually a really nice feeling,” says Christeas, “when you are on location, to drink a hot coffee out of a real mug instead of filling a Styrofoam cup you are going to throw away.” At the end of the shoot, all food that wasn’t opened was donated to a local church (and the production made donations of some furniture and wardrobe items as well. “Those donations allowed us to be a low-impact production,” says Christeas.

Wardrobe: “For the costume department, not everything we purchased was new. A bunch of hero looks were created from clothing that already existed in the world,” says Christeas. Many looks were sourced from thrift shops.

Travel: “We tried to limit flights as much as we could and have as much local crew from New York who drove or took public transportation whenever possible,” says Christeas.

Adds Blitstein, “There’s a Harvard study from 2016 around flights [that shows] when you are shooting in the New York or L.A. metropolitan areas, there’s often just teams flying back and forth, a massive amount of crew movement. Air travel is one of the biggest contributors.”

The team used hybrid or electric vehicles to scout locations. No trailers were used on set, which Christeas notes is one of the biggest users of energy on film productions with few solutions currently available. “Finding trailers that are green, that use solar power to run and don’t idle and use gasoline all day long is difficult because the technology is still not there,” says Christeas.

At the end of the shoot, the producers did a full assessment of how it met its green goals. “We were able to assess where each team was adhering to sustainable aspects. We had photographic evidence. We put together a dossier that we deliver to the Environmental Media Association that their team verifies,” says Blitstein. Black Bear received the EMA’s Gold Seal label, “which is the highest recognition from the Environmental Media Association,” says Blitstein. Tandem’s other 2020 film, The Surrogate, got EMA’s Green Seal, as well.

Christeas, who founded Tandem in 2010, got her first taste of what it really means to be eco-conscious on the set of the banner’s first film, 2015’s Wildlike, a drama set in Alaska. “We were the first narrative feature to be allowed to film in Denali National Park. It took a year of preparation, of speaking with all the different parks departments and forestry department, and working with the director to really figure out how we could have the smallest footprint possible and leave no trace. That experience stayed with me,” says Christeas.

As Tandem — which also produces commercial and branded content — grew, says Christeas, “there were many parts of the company that did function in a more environmental and sustainable way.” Still, after Blitstein joined Tandem in 2017, recalls Christeas, “He said, ‘There’s so much we’re already doing, what would it take for us to really go all the way and take this ethos we’re passionate about and do it across all of our work?’ The embers were burning — Jonny really stoked the fire.” Blitstein — who before Tandem worked in production and branded entertainment for Vudu, Sony and Disney had consulted — also previously consulted on a campaign from the Lonely Whale Foundation called Strawless in Seattle. “which led to Starbucks and the Seattle Mariners getting rid of plastic straws. I have a lot of gratitude to Lonely Whale for inspiring me,” he says.

Next up, Tandem Pictures chiefs say they want to get involved with film schools and help educate the next generation of filmmakers on green production practices. They are also exploring creating a producer’s award. “We are working now with the Environmental Media Association and a festival to put together the first-ever producer’s green award,” says Christeas. “Whomever will get this award, that producer will get a really large prize that we hope will incentivize people in the best possible way to implement green practices. We hope that will really inspire people.”

The bottom line, stresses Blitstein, is that Tandem reduced costs on Black Bear by instituting its eco-conscious measures. “What we found and what’s been corroborated through studies, is that the overall sustainable choices save money,” he says. “Decisions you make early in production can save your project money and make everything more sustainable. It’s planning.”