Guest “Hooray for Hollywood” by David Middleton
A couple of days ago, CTM forwarded a reader suggestion to me. “Cassandra” wanted to know what the carbon footprint of the movie industry was, from movie production to the theater. With “all those annoyingly loud celebrities going on about the dangers of CO2,” it would be fun to see how big their carbon footprint was.
I found a couple of articles from 2019 and 2020, both of which linked to a 2006 paper, which appears to be the only “scientific” study of this subject.
Oil Price Dot Com, October 2019
An Inconvenient Truth: Hollywood’s Huge Carbon Footprint
By Julianne Geiger – Oct 17, 2019
Leonardo DiCaprio may have devoted his celebrity platform to zealously cheerleading on behalf of the environment, but he has fallen prey to criticism about his own carbon footprint – which is rather extensive and includes traveling around the world in private jets and yachts to educate us on how we are wrecking the planet. But DiCaprio is being upstaged by another hypocritical climate crusader – one with even deeper pockets: Hollywood. And when it comes to carbon footprints, it is giving even the oil industry a run for its money.
Hollywood cheered. After all, they are one of the loudest voices on the planet when it comes to environmental causes, and their message is sandwiched into many of the movies and much of the TV that we watch every day.
But Hollywood, more specifically the film industry, is a significant source of pollution and is considered one of the least green industries. And Leo is only part of the problem.
The movie industry is huge, complete with its own pollution. But this hasn’t stopped them from lecturing movie-goers on a wide range of issues including income disparity, social injustices, mining, and its new favorite – the environment. And if this sanctimony seems like a new trend, a quick browse through IMDB should set you right.
According to a 2006 two-year study by UCLA, the Hollywood film and television industry produces more air pollution in the five-county Los Angeles region than almost all of the other five sectors studied. In other words, Hollywood creates more pollution than individually produced by aerospace manufacturing, apparel, hotels, and even semiconductor manufacturing. Only the petroleum industry and its fuel refineries contributed more emissions.
But it’s not just Hollywood. According to BAFTA, the British film organization, one hour of UK television—fiction or nonfiction—produces 13 metric tons of carbon dioxide. This is about what the average American uses every year.
[…]Oil Price Dot Com
As a petroleum geologist, I have no doubt that our industry, particularly refining, contributes more GHG emissions than Hollywood, but we actually produce a useful product, essential to our economy and human well-being. While I am a YUGE fan of Marvel’s The Avengers and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, given a choice between oil, gasoline, natural gas & petrochemicals vs. Marvel movies, I’d give up the movies in a heartbeat. It’s difficult to watch movies while freezing in the dark… Although, most movie theaters are dark and cold… hmmm.
The other article was actually from the Grauniad…
The Grauniad, January 2020
Vegan food, recycled tuxedos – and billions of tonnes of CO2: can Hollywood ever go green?
Thu 9 Jan 2020
Two schools of thought regarding Hollywood environmentalism were on display at last weekend’s Golden Globes ceremony. In the blue corner were those determined not to stand idly by in the face of the mounting climate crisis, such as Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe drawing attention to the Australian bushfires. Or Joaquin Phoenix, “not always a virtuous man”, who urged his fellow stars to look at themselves, too, and ditch the private jets.
In the red corner was the lone, but unfailingly hectoring voice of host Ricky Gervais, railing against Hollywood hypocrisy. Should any of the winners find their minds drifting to politics while on the podium, they should “accept your little award, thank your agent and your God, and [frack] off”.
It could be that the now near-regulation Gervais Golden Globes roast, playing to the court, is in fact an added layer of hypocrisy in the great Hollywood pageant. But it did at least draw attention again to the gap between good intentions and daily practice in the entertainment industry. Film and TV production has a hefty ecological footprint: a landmark 2006 University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) study estimated that the industry produced 15m tonnes of CO2 a year. That might seem piddling next to the several billion tonnes emitted by the US economy that year, but in its principal sites of operation, such as Los Angeles, Hollywood was a big polluter – more so than the aerospace, clothing, hotel and semiconductor industries.
Who knows what something like Avengers: Infinity War racks up in production and beyond? If everyone’s favourite mauve Malthusian, Thanos, had really wanted to do his part for the environment, then finger-snapping half the people on the film’s jet-setting international press tour would have been a good start.
Unfortunately, it remains virtually impossible to meaningfully audit Hollywood’s eco-credentials because of a lack of overarching information. Only two of the big six traditional studios made their emissions totals freely available online in 2018: Disney (1.93m tonnes) and Sony-Columbia (1.34m). Along with those two, the others make varying corporation-wide pledges, but they remain as airily aspirational as a J Lo romcom: Universal, for example, touts its fuel-efficient transportation fleet as leading its zero-emissions drive, but will not put a date on zero-hour. Before its buyout by Disney, 21st Century Fox announced it was carbon-neutral in 2011, but the term then disappeared from later reports on the subject.
The UCLA study, 14 years old and predating the recent sustainability boom, is still the only major overview available.
In the meantime, the disconnect between publicly declared environmentalism and daily practice in Hollywood continues. Not only is blockbuster film-making a resource-intensive activity, but it is part of a bigger superstructure of capitalist enterprise that is inherently ecologically costly.
“The thing you have to remember is that entertainment is market-driven. Frankly, [audiences] don’t want to hear about climate change,” the director James Cameron – who is planning to make his Avatar sequels solar-powered and vegan-catered – recently told Variety. He remains doubtful about the impact of ecologically themed films: “I think you can insinuate these ideas into your storytelling. I’ve certainly done that with Avatar, but, frankly, Avatar came out 10 years ago. And in that time our population has grown by almost a billion people, and the effects of that alone on our environment and climate change are devastating. Does [storytelling] do that much good?”
Perhaps the problem is the kind of storytelling. Maybe ecologically progressive thinking is too challenging to the capitalist paradigm of which Hollywood remains a central part.
Comrade Hoad was doing OK right up until he declared that the only solution is the get capitalism out of the movie industry. Clearly, instead of making movies the public will pay hard-earned money to see, Hollywood should make instruction videos to teach us how to fix the weather… Instruction videos we would be forced to watch… Probably in reeducation camps.
So, I downloaded the “landmark” 2006 “study” and found a few interesting things.
To put this in perspective, consider the following. As we discuss later, in the environmental best practice section on The Day After Tomorrow, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of that film were estimated (by Future Forests) to be 10,000 tons CO2-equivalent.26 Using data from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Vogel (2001) shows that the MPAA member companies released 218 films in 199927, at an average cost of $51.5 million.28 The budget for The Day After Tomorrow was estimated at $125 million. Scaling greenhouse gas emissions proportionately to the films’ budgets would mean that the average release in 1999 caused 10,000 x 51.5/125 = 4120 tons of GHG emissions; multiplying this by the 218 releases in 1999 would give an estimated total of 898,160 tons of GHG emissions directly associated with production of feature films. This estimate is clearly extremely rough and possibly an underestimate; for instance, it is possible that the methodology used by Future Forests only counts GHG emissions that are directly caused by a project, not the indirect emissions associated with office space for ancillary services and other indirect emissions.
Note from the graph that the total GHG emissions of the motion picture (and television) industry in the Los Angeles metropolitan area are approximately 8 million tons of CO2 equivalent. The figures for California and the U.S. are 8.4 million tons and 15 million tons respectively.
The difference between the estimate of 898,160 tons of GHG emissions associated with feature films in 1999 and that of almost 8 million tons of GHG emissions associated with the motion picture industry’s activity in the Los Angeles metropolitan area suggests several causes. First, television production is most likely a significant factor that is not included in the estimate of GHG emissions associated with feature films. Second, GHG emissions that are caused by the industry but not associated with specific films or television shows are likely to be a significant factor. This would include GHG emissions associated with studio offices, buildings and other offices operated by other service providers (lawyers, advertising agencies, catering firms, etc.), possibly employee commuting, etc.Corbett & Turco, 2016
This gives us an idea about the size of the carbon footprint of movie productions. But, what about theaters and moviegoers?
The Day After Tomorrow’s Carbon Footprint
The American scientific film, The Day After Tomorrow, premiered on Memorial Day weekend, 2004.
|Date||DoW||Rank||Daily Gross||Theaters||Avg.||Total Gross|
The movie ultimately grossed over $550 million worldwide, but almost half of its domestic gross occurred that first long weekend, when it took in $85.8 million.
Projection and sound system
The energy consumption of a theater’s sound system largely depends on its age. In the last 15 years or so, manufacturers have cut the amount of energy their systems consume in half, mostly by converting electricity to noise more efficiently. The best models now consume about 1.7 kwh during the course of a 105-minute movie. Unfortunately, few theaters have adopted the new technology. More probably, your local theater is using the previous-generation system, which would use about 2.8 kwh. The combined projector and system therefore account for 12.4 kwh, and 16 pounds of CO2.Slate
The example above was for Green Lantern… (I have heard it was awful… So awful, that in the post-credits scene of Deadpool 2, Ryan Reynolds goes back in time to hilariously prevent himself from making it). Applying these numbers to The Day After Tomorrow, each screening put 18.9 lbs of evil CO2 into the air.
In 2004, the average movie ticket price was $6.21. Using that average price, about 13.8 million tickets were sold over the first four days. That’s about 1,000 tickets per theater per day. If we assume the average cineplex offered 10 showings per day, about 100 tickets were sold for each screening. Most people drive to the movie theater… at least most people in the real world do. If we assume an average of four movie-goers per vehicle, driving a 10-mile round trip to the theater and back, the first four days of The Day After Tomorrow triggered almost 3.5 million 10-mile round trips, or 34.5 million vehicle-miles.
Putting it all together
|16||lbs CO2||0.15||lbs CO2 /min|
|The Day After Tomorrow||124||minutes|
|10-mile round trips||3,454,402|
|lbs CO2||27,289,774.31||Miles drivien|
|lbs CO2||29,878,422||Projection/Sound + Miles|
|Theaters (4-days)||14,939||tons CO2|
Assuming my ballpark math is right, the theater carbon footprint of The Day After Tomorrow was 1.5 times as large as the production’s carbon footprint. Referring back to this quote:
Scaling greenhouse gas emissions proportionately to the films’ budgets would mean that the average release in 1999 caused 10,000 x 51.5/125 = 4120 tons of GHG emissions; multiplying this by the 218 releases in 1999 would give an estimated total of 898,160 tons of GHG emissions directly associated with production of feature films.
Factoring in theaters and moviegoers, 898,160 tons of CO2 emissions from movie production would equate to 2.2 million tons of CO2 emissions. Is that a lot? If the average car is driven 12,000 miles per year, it equates to 472,561 car-years. And that’s not even factoring in the carbon footprints of popcorn, hot dogs, Cheese Whiz nachos and 128 ounce carbonated soft drinks.
Disclaimer: This post was intended to be humorous. I threw it together very quickly and it is loaded with assumptions. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were at least a few math errors. My spreadsheet is here: https://debunkhouse.files.wordpress.com/2020/02/hollywood-carbon-footprint.xlsx