Hollywood eagerly embraces environmental cause

In the early 1990s, some 100 environmental activists stormed an Indonesian freighter bringing rain forest wood to the major studios. ( Reuters )

"We pulled up in a small Zodiac," recalls Atossa Soltani, now executive director of Amazon Watch. "People used climbing equipment to rappel up the side of the ship and unfurled a huge banner that said, 'Rainforest Wood Out of Hollywood.'"

That scene now seems like ancient history.

Studios that once ignored green demands now have flotillas of staff catering to them. Actors, agents and executives who formerly made indulgence their mantra are among the leading environmental activists. And the watchdog groups that once hounded the industry are increasingly singling it out as a relative do-gooder.

But is Hollywood doing enough good? Is the industry - and above all, are the studios that are central to it - truly doing everything it can?

Richard Turco, a professor at UCLA who co-authored a controversial study two years ago lambasting Hollywood's environmental activities, points to the sheer waste that takes place on most film sets, along with the excessive use of polluting fuels.

"Obviously, there is a move by the industry toward greener practices," Turco says. "But they have not thrown out their old diesel generators. It is an industry; it still uses huge amounts of material."

Even some who praise the studios say they could be doing more. "More people could be using biodiesel generators on their honey wagons (mobile bathrooms) and their sets," says Lauren Selman, who runs Reel Green Media, a company that helps productions go green. "More sets could be recycled, more (productions) could be offering healthier foods."

Selman points to four major areas where further action could be taken: accommodation, travel, waste generation and shipping - the four environmental "bads," as she calls them.

But, she notes, "the difficulty of greening the entertainment industry is that it is so woven into various subcontractors and other industries. In order to green the movie industry, you are essentially greening every contractor related to that industry."

Selman's view is still far more positive than that of the UCLA report, "Sustainability in the Motion Picture Industry."

"With a few notable and inspiring exceptions, environmental considerations are not high on the agenda in the film and television industry, and more could be done within the industry to foster environmentally friendly approaches," was the verdict of UCLA professors Turco and Charles Corbett, who teach atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and environmental management and operations, respectively.

That report drew the studios' ire back then, and it still does today.

"It relied on data that was more than 10 years old, and the economic modeling it used was based on 1997 baseline numbers." says Melissa Patack, vp state government affairs for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, a trade group representing the major Hollywood studios.

Most environmentalists tend to agree with the studios.

"The UCLA study was misconstrued; it is not really true," says Gary Petersen, the environmental appointee to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, the state's recycling commission and the very organization that commissioned the report. "Generally, (the studios) are doing a fabulous job, and in fact, some of them are models for other industries."

If they are indeed models, there are solid reasons for that.

The studios have had to comply with state legislation limiting their emissions and mandating a greater level of recycling. But they have also taken a leading role via a number of prominent environmentalists who have become influential industry figures. A-list actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Edward Norton have stumped for environmental causes, and agencies have followed. The William Morris Agency's new Beverly Hills office building will be constructed entirely of sustainable materials, and is set to earn a rare Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification upon completion.

In the executive suites, Warner Bros. president Alan Horn is one of the founders of the Environmental Media Assn., which for nearly 20 years has mobilized the entertainment community on green issues. Sony Pictures Entertainment chairmen Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal are also strong environmentalists - one reason why Sony has invested in solar panels and is making a major new building operation environmentally sound.

"Michael and Amy, it's a big thing for them," says Jon Corcoran, vp corporate safety and environmental affairs for Sony. "That is a key factor why the big building is going to be (LEED) certified."

The result of this activism is that almost every studio has enacted a specific pro-green initiative and now employs a cadre of executives in charge of reducing its carbon footprint.

Disney has 30 full-time staffers devoted to its "Strive for Five" environmental initiative, which aims to cut energy use by 5% annually across its four theme parks, 18 hotels, several golf courses, water parks and its huge downtown Disney entertainment complex. Disney is also completing a yearlong, top-to-bottom study of how it can improve environmentally.

Other studios are equally invested. "The programs we have are a manifestation of creating a culture within a company," says Shelley Billik, vp environmental initiatives for Warner Bros., who notes that the studio has seven full-time laborers charged with picking up recycled material alone. "Whether you are a producer or a procurement person or an accountant, we are trying to make you a more environmentally conscious citizen."

Over at NBC Universal, the company has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 3% by 2012 and greenhouse gas intensity by 30%, following guidelines laid down by parent General Electric. In November alone, Universal collected 143,000 pounds of hazardous waste at a specially organized event, including 63,000 cans of paint, 41,000 pounds of electronic waste and 11,000 pounds of automotive waste.

Its 2007 comedy "Evan Almighty" was the first completely carbon-neutral film production, and its upcoming "The Incredible Hulk" followed EMA's guidelines on going green even though that meant spending "20%-30% extra on wood" alone, according to producer Gale Anne Hurd.

Hurd and star Norton also bought carbon offsets to make up for environmental damage caused by their airplane flights.

Fox has done its part, offering employees up to $4,000 in incentives toward purchasing a hybrid. It also commissioned a top-to-bottom study of carbon use in one key product: DVDs. The report analyzed the 20 different companies that take part in the making of a DVD, says Kyle Tanger, founding principal of Clear Carbon Consulting. Tanger concluded that the total carbon emission per DVD was .75 pounds of carbon dioxide. "That is like having your computer on at the office all day," he says.

What was particularly notable about the Fox DVD study was the studio's willingness to share it with rivals.

"It is not like that in most industries," Tanger says. "(The studios) don't see energy efficiencies as giving them a competitive advantage against one another, (unlike) a mining or metals company."

Still, despite its eye on the environment, entertainment remains among California's worst-polluting industries.

"That is true," says actor and activist Ed Begley Jr. "But the reason it is the second-biggest (polluter) is, it is the biggest financial engine in California. When you look at it nationwide, it drops to a much lower level."

But activists agree much remains to be done: Polluting fuels can be found on almost every film set; thousands of plastic water bottles and Styrofoam cups litter studio garbage bins; and nonhybrid cars are still the order of the day on every studio lot.

"It is a business that was built upon excess, built upon the notion of the lavish lifestyle, and it is hard to change that overnight," Begley reflects. Still, "I am very proud of what many of them have done."

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