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This story is part of The Hollywood Reporter’s 2023 Sustainability Issue (click here to read more).
On Super Bowl Sunday, Netflix and GM ran a joint ad, “EVs On Screen,” which featured Will Ferrell driving through a variety of Netflix shows in a variety of General Motors electric vehicles: a Cadillac Lyriq in Bridgerton, a Sierra EV in Army of the Dead, and a Chevy Silverado EV in Stranger Things, among other cross-promotions.
The partnership with GM is one element of the streamer’s broader strategy to increase the presence of EVs and the visibility of climate issues within its shows and films, an initiative Netflix has called “Entertain to Sustain.” And it comes at a moment when the automaker is betting big on electric vehicles to achieve its goal of a zero-emissions future.
Conversations between the automaker and the studio began a year ago, said Deborah Wahl, General Motors’ outgoing CMO. “Both Netflix and GM wanted to look at how we merge our strengths to influence culture, and excite and prepare customers for an all-electric future. Teaming up with Netflix is just one example of how we are approaching partnerships and relationships differently to advance our vision of an all-electric future. We are creating a blueprint for the entertainment industry to normalize EVs.”
Emma Stewart, Netflix’s sustainability officer, said increased public concern over climate issues is helping to drive the changes the streamer is pushing for onscreen. “What we’ve understood from our consumers and the market research is that this is a topic that is top of mind. Our membership is a pretty good representation of the population writ large, and if you look at either third-party studies of global public opinion polls or studies specifically of audiences in various countries, they are saying, ‘Look, these issues are now part of my daily experience,'” says Stewart. “This is really us supporting our creative partners, where and when they want to authentically and accurately reflect that changing reality onscreen.”
As part of the Entertain to Sustain initiative, Netflix endeavors to give film and TV creators access to everything from sustainability consultants to EVs for use onscreen and even renewable energy sources on-set.
For example, for Rob Lowe’s new comedy, Unstable, about a biotech company that creates a carbon-sequestering cement, Netflix gave the production access to mobile batteries instead of diesel generators, and E-transit vans.
“We are here as a sounding board so that creators who want to reflect what can be a pretty intimidating set of topics that spans policy to lifestyle to very advanced technology,” says Stewart.
Netflix is one of several studios to have set ambitious goals to reduce their carbon footprint by 2030. Disney aims to achieve net-zero emissions for their direct operations by 2030, while NBCUniversal has vowed to be carbon-neutral by 2035. Apple TV+ and Amazon Studios’ parent corporations don’t break down each division’s goals, but Apple is shooting for net carbon neutrality by 2030 and Amazon for net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. Warner Bros. Discovery is in the process of updating its carbon reduction goals for the newly combined company, and Paramount Global has yet to report goals as assertive as some of its counterparts.
Netflix, for its part, hopes to halve its carbon output from 2019’s 78,000 metric tons — the EPA equivalent of a gas-powered car being driven for about 193 million miles — to 43,000 metric tons by 2030, all while growing as a global company. Adding climate-centric storylines to films and TV shows is one path toward that goal, but the work of curbing emissions requires an industry-wide commitment. “We use our framework, called OED — not the Oxford English Dictionary, but Optimize, Electrify, Decarbonize. I like to joke that I use this in my house, and you can also use the framework to decarbonize Netflix,” says Stewart.
Studios are increasingly encouraging the use of alternative fuel sources on-set, and the replacement of diesel generators with battery-powered ones. California-based Moxion Power and Vancouver-based Portable Electric are both growing rapidly to compete in the race to augment renewable power on film productions. “One mobile battery is equivalent to removing 32 vehicles off the road. We plan to manufacture 11,700 units over the next three years,” says Alex Meek, co-founder of Moxion Power.
But the limited availability of battery-powered generators remains a challenge. David Abbitt, vp production, TV, at Entertainment One, who works on ABC’s The Rookie, The Rookie: Feds and Netflix’s The Recruit, is skeptical about the practicality of their widespread use in the near term. “Battery-powered generators replacing gas generators is something we all have an interest in, and I think as more electric options become available the industry will engage,” he says. “But there are considerations and limitations to their use, and to be honest, I haven’t seen them used yet.”
Abbitt, who previously worked at Netflix, nevertheless remains optimistic about Hollywood’s ability to meet its broader decarbonization goals, given the strides it has already made in recent years. “What started out a decade ago as reporting on our usage so that we could get a better idea of our carbon footprint has now become objective-based engagement tactics,” he says. “In terms of the sustainability initiatives, the reduction of paper is the biggest one. I used to measure the size of a production by the amount of paper they would generate — we’d typically receive upwards of 125 boxes filled with paper. Now, it’s all digital and it’s not there anymore. It’s just gone.”
Asked how she expects to gauge the success of Netflix’s climate initiative, Stewart says, “It’s a relatively new service in-house, so I’m not sure we’ll have a totally satisfactory answer in terms of our consumers’ reaction yet. We have a few indicators — like the Super Bowl ad announcing EVs onscreen with GM that performed very well, and we were happy about that. Our aspiration is to make our creators feel empowered and well-informed, and that we can go away and do research for them.”
“Ultimately,” adds Stewart, “we’re trying to drive viewership and conversation and at some point, an affinity for Netflix as a brand, and we’re trying to respond to that research but do so in a way that is creator-friendly and creator-led.”
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