From materials to labor and other equipment, TV and film production can often have a huge carbon footprint.
A recent report found that big-budget feature films had a carbon footprint of over 3,000 metric tons each, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is equal to more than 7 million miles driven by a regular car. On the other end, small films have a carbon footprint of nearly 400 metric tons, equivalent to about 1 million miles driven.
That report comes from the Sustainable Production Alliance, a group of TV and film companies committed to making the industry more sustainable. Their report factors in housing, air travel, fuel and utilities to reach the overall carbon emissions total. For all sizes of films, the biggest contributor to emissions was fuel, mainly used for vehicles and generators.
This is true for TV series, too. It accounts for nearly 60% of emissions for one-hour scripted dramas and half hour single-camera scripted shows.
Since the Sustainable Production Alliance report was released, the organization has prioritized transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, including electric and hybrid cars and battery powered generator technology. There are some limitations though; it may be hard to find charging stations, for example, but it’s a work in progress.
Earth Angel is a company that helps make TV and film production more sustainable by providing a strategy and the staffing needed to help crews reach their environmental protection goals.
"There's a lot of different actions that you can take, and I think it can feel overwhelming to people," said Emellie O'Brien, Earth Angel CEO. "But really dialing in on: Okay for this project, we want to focus on eliminating single use plastics for this project. We want to focus on getting as many hybrid and [electric] vehicles as we can onto this project, like really zoning in on what's available to your project."
Companies like Amazon studios, Disney, NBCUniversal, Netflix and Sony Pictures Entertainment are part of the Sustainable Production Alliance, and they’re working on these efforts as they bring us more of our favorite content.
Netflix has set a goal to reduce internal emissions by 45% below 2019 levels by next year, NBCUniversal has a plan that will make them carbon neutral by 2035 and Sony is working to have no environmental footprint throughout the life cycle of their products and activities by 2050.
"We're guests in the communities that we're filming in, and I think that there's a real responsibility for our industry to leave these communities better than how we found them as well," O'Brien said. "So, not just a do less harm, but also a do more good component."
Production companies are also taking steps to cut back on travel by using virtual reality to create production studios and sound stages. They use LED walls and green screens to bring different locations to a set and help replace physical props.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is a good example of a film that was applauded for its sustainability efforts. Earth Angel worked on that set, and the movie won a Green Seal award from the Environmental Media Association in 2014.
The movie’s production team had 49 tons of materials that could be donated or reused, avoided using plastic water bottles on set and gathered materials for the costumes from farmer’s markets — keeping 52% of production waste from going to the landfill. They were also able to give back to the community by donating nearly 6,000 meals to shelters.
All of this saved over $400,000, proving that sustainable productions don’t have to be expensive.
"I think that in terms of like barriers to acceleration here, there's a few different factors at play," O'Brien said. "One of which is that there are no fiscal incentives that are encouraging people to take these actions currently. The other thing is we don't have the consumer demand factor, unlike the fashion industry for example or food industry, where people are demanding more sustainable. And then I think lastly, it's just a conversation around like how is who whose job is this like? And that's always been something that I think the industry has really struggled with."
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