In 2021 a consortium of media and entertainment (M&E) companies known as the Sustainable Production Alliance (SPA) released its first report on the carbon footprint of the TV, film, and streaming industries.
Unfortunately, the results were not positive.
So with that, let’s explore the environmental impact of film production and highlights some much-needed sustainability best practices that can help reduce waste and emissions. 🌎
Table of Contents
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The Environmental Impact of Film Production
The SPA report of 2021 analyzed production carbon footprint averages for the consortium’s member companies between 2016 and 2019, comprising more than 150 feature films and 250-plus TV series.
And these member companies are the largest names in media and entertainment:
- Amazon Studios
- Sony Pictures Entertainment
- WarnerMedia Discovery
The report’s findings — which included direct (i.e. fuel) and indirect (i.e. purchased electricity) emissions — weren’t exactly positive:
|1-hr scripted dramas||30-min scripted single cam||30-min scripted multi-cam||Unscripted|
|77 metric tons (mt)||26 mt||18 mt||13 mt|
You read that correctly — the average one-hour scripted drama is responsible for nearly 80 metric tons of carbon emissions.
That’s greater than 1,500% more than a year’s worth of emissions from a typical gas-powered passenger vehicle in the U.S. (at 4.7 mt per year).
|Tentpole films||Large films||Medium films||Small films|
|3370 (mt)||1081 mt||769 mt||391 mt|
According to the report, the largest M&E emissions source was fuel, which represents around 50% of film emissions and nearly 60% of scripted TV drama emissions.
Indeed, movies with budgets exceeding $70 million billow an average of nearly 3,000 tons of carbon per production, according to Forbes. For context, a carbon footprint of this size will take about 3,700 acres of forest to absorb in one year.
The 24/7 data centers that house streamed video content are also environmentally damaging. One study found that the average European carbon footprint of one hour of streaming is around 55 grams of carbon dioxide equivalents (gCO2e). CO2e accounts for more than just carbon dioxide and includes other greenhouse gases (GHG) such as methane and nitrous oxide.
And the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has estimated that just one hour of TV content is responsible for around 13 tons of CO2 emissions.
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Sustainable Trends in the Film Industry
Just because Netflix and chill isn’t quite as environmentally friendly as you may have thought, however, doesn’t mean all is lost.
As mentioned, the entire filmmaking and video production industry has recently gotten wise to its rather girthy environmental footprint and is looking to make a change.
So what are they doing? And as a filmmaker, video producer, or post-production specialist, what can you do to encourage green production?
1. Adhere to ratings and certifications
Ratings and certification systems for sustainable films now exist, such as:
- The Green Film rating system.
- The Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI)’s Code of Best Practices for Sustainable Filmmaking
- The Studio Sustainability Standard
- SPA’s Green Production Guide.
These initiatives provide a detailed roadmap for those navigating sustainability issues, and filmmakers can use them to get their projects certified sustainable.
These roadmaps often rely on detailed checklists that encourage sustainable trends in the film industry across all video production departments. Checklists used by SPA’s Green Production Guide, for example, include:
- Production Environmental Actions Checklist (PEACH): Offers a set of measures each department can take to reduce its carbon footprint.
- Production Environmental Accounting Report (PEAR): Allows productions to measure their environmental impact based on fuel (vehicles and generators) and energy (on stages and in offices) consumption, combined with emissions from air travel and accommodations.
- Production Lumber Material (PLUM): Tracks a project’s plywood use, particularly Lauan/Meranti plywood, while ensuring it is sourced responsibly.
In general, the following criteria is considered vital towards improving the carbon footprint of a video project.
2. Go digital over physical
As mentioned, data servers have the tendency to leave a wicked mark on the environment. However, compared to physical alternatives, going digital is far more environmentally friendly. Here are a few examples:
- Using a cloud-based large file transfer tool to share media files instead of shipping a hard drive.
- Using remote desktop software to access a machine in another location without physically being there.
- Similarly, you can spin up a virtual instance of a desktop without purchasing physical hardware, finding space in your home or office, or implementing cooling systems. You can learn more about the green benefits of virtualization here.
- Use virtual production technology to reduce the amount of filming on location and cut down on waste, either by having fewer people on set or by creating environments and effects (such as explosions) via a game engine.
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3. Use green alternatives at physical locations
Video professionals can take several steps to limit energy use and save money in the process. A good first step is to find greener alternatives at various physical locations, such as on-set and post-production offices.
Heat and electricity
- In the production office, ask your landlord if they can source renewable energy.
- Lower blinds during hot days, turn off lights and adjust temperature at end of day.
- Replace all lighting with LED.
- Use solar-powered trailers and equipment while on location; use two- or three-room trailers to reduce energy use.
- Use low-carbon fuels for generators.
- Source battery-powered or hydrogen units instead of diesel generators.
- Install electrical submetering to accurately track consumption.
- Use smart sensors to control lighting and HVAC.
- Provide water dispensers/coolers instead of single-use plastic bottles.
- Capture and re-use gray water at your office or stage locations.
- Always encourage responsible waste management rules, including the recycling of waste, and set up clearly labeled recycling and composting bins in high-traffic areas.
- Dispose of batteries and electronic waste responsibly.
- Donate any used/leftover food from craft services to a local not-for-profit.
- Provide a sustainable practices memo/checklist to all departments.
💡 Read More: How To Protect Your Film & TV Production Company
4. Be mindful of transportation and accommodation
We mentioned earlier that fuel consumption is by far the leading driver of M&E-based carbon emissions, which is why taking stock of your transportation footprint is so important. Filmmakers can take steps to minimize or consolidate travel to improve its efficiency, including the following steps:
- Better travel planning to cut down on unnecessary trips.
- Video conferencing instead of in-person meetings.
- Virtual production sets.
- Carpool to the set.
- Hire local cast and crew.
- Find alternatives to jet and other motorized travel; encourage the use of bicycles or public transit when getting to set location.
- Provide bike racks at office/stage locations.
- Enforce a no-idling policy for all vehicles.
- Rent fuel-efficient vehicles or hybrids/electric vehicles (EVs); provide EV charging stations.
5. Source reusable materials
From on-set food choices to the range of other materials and props used during production, how you source your materials matters. Some best practices to keep in mind include:
- Source food that creates minimal waste and CO2 emissions while encouraging the use of recycled or re-used materials where possible.
- Eliminate single-use plastic items; use paper or aluminum if you must use disposable items.
- Provide washable dishes and cutlery and paper to-go boxes.
- Always use 100% recycled paper and distribute information digitally. Don’t print unless you have to!
- Source used materials for set builds and dressing.
- Track the origin and certifications of plywood purchases (try to use FSC-certified plywood); use recycled building materials.
- Use rechargeable batteries where possible.
6. Purchase Carbon Offsets
While it’s of course not possible to entirely eliminate your project’s carbon footprint, you can attempt to mitigate its impact by purchasing carbon offsets.
Carbon offsets are a way for individuals and organizations to balance out their carbon emissions by investing in projects that reduce or remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Just keep in mind not all carbon offsets are created equal, and some are even outright scams.
But verified carbon offsets can provide legitimate benefits by funding projects that either lower emissions or sequester atmospheric carbon (such as carbon capture projects). The Gold Standard (GS) carbon offset was developed in 2003 by environmental NGOs, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Offset projects to which filmmakers can contribute through Gold Standard include:
- A 400 MW solar power project in Rajasthan, India;
- Cambodia’s National Biodigester Programme;
- The Kenya Biogas Programme;
- And the Mozambique Safe Water Project.
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The Future of Sustainable Film Production
Considering the ever-growing focus on the carbon footprint of all industries, not just the filmmaking industry, it’s fair to say that sustainable trends in the film industry are here to stay. Along with being the right thing to do, the issue is too important to the majority of consumers of video content (along with many actors and industry people) for studios to ignore.
Fittingly, sustainability in film production has quickly become embedded across the industry. Film festivals such as Berlinale now market themselves as sustainable by using old fishing nets to create a “red” carpet (actually green), eliminating disposable plates and cutlery, and using recycled materials to create merchandise. Even blue-chip film festivals, such as Cannes, have recently added sustainability features such as plans to re-use treated water from the city’s wastewater treatment plant and a zero plastic plan.
But the future of green production largely revolves around the prevalence of virtual production workflows powered by LED volumes and 3D technology.
Virtual production can eliminate travel or the need to produce physical backdrops and props. Virtual production also helps reduce time spent in post-production, which can greatly impact energy consumption and related carbon emissions.
Source: Playback Online
Here’s an example of what we mean: This report by Sony Pictures compared the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of two one-hour scripted dramas shot using on-location and virtual production techniques.
The results were pretty stark:
|A. On location||A. Virtual||B. On location||B. Virtual|
|3.09 MT CO2e||0.61 MT CO2e||16.47 MT CO2e||4.01 MT CO2e|
Production A’s on-location shoot resulted in a 407% increase in carbon emissions over its virtually produced counterpart. Production B’s on-location carbon increase was 311%.
Sustainable film production isn’t just good for the planet, however — it’s also usually good for a production’s bottom line.
Indeed, while some of the steps mentioned in the last section may seem onerous when there are a million other production items to get to, it’s worth noting that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 saved nearly $500,000 through sustainable practices. The production acquired textiles from farmer’s markets, for example; re-used or donated more than 49 tons of materials from its sustainable sets; and donated nearly 6,000 meals to local shelters, achieving a 52% waste diversion rate.
MASV: Part of Your Sustainable Production Workflow
Test time! What’s more sustainable:
- Sending hard drives halfway around the world via gas-guzzling truck and jet plane?
- Transferring your large video files quickly, securely, and reliably using MASV’s large file transfer service?
Answer: It’s MASV by a country mile.
International shipping in general is responsible for 3% of global GHG emissions, after all, while MASV is built on AWS infrastructure, which has been shown to be 3.6 times more efficient than an average U.S. data center.
AWS can also shrink workload carbon footprints by as much as 80% compared to other data centers — a number projected to reach 96% when AWS moves to 100% renewable energy by 2025. Currently, several AWS regions (including parts of the U.S., Canada, and Europe) are powered by 95% renewables.
Filmmakers still rely on physical shipping because most cloud services cannot handle large volumes of raw data. However, MASV can send any amount of data over the cloud quickly. It can even leverage the strong gigabit-level bandwidth connections found in many studios and on set.
So sign up and give MASV a try. Get 20 GB to transfer at zero cost. You’ll help your team meet your deadlines on your next sustainable movie while doing the planet a solid 👏
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Frequently Asked Questions
How sustainable is the film industry?
The traditional film and video production industry isn’t very sustainable: A one-hour scripted TV show is responsible for nearly 80 metric tons of carbon emissions,more than 1,500% more than an entire year from a typical gas-powered passenger vehicle in the U.S. But that’s changing as the industry begins to add more sustainable elements to its workflows.
How can film production be more sustainable?
There are several main ways film production can be more sustainable, including around energy and other resource consumption, transportation, materials selection and use, and compensation (or carbon offsetting using a verified service). Virtual production workflows can dramatically reduce carbon emissions by cutting down on or eliminating travel and on-location filming, and reducing the amount of physical props required.
What are some examples of sustainability?
Some examples of sustainability in film production include the use of renewable energy and sustainably sourced materials; responsible waste management rules like recycling; carpooling/cycling to the set; using video conferencing instead of in-person meetings and sending media files using a tool like MASV instead of shipping a physical hard drive.