Hollywood’s response to climate change includes donations, protests and other forms of activism. but apparently lacks a near-home approach.
According to a new study of 37,453 film and television scripts from 2016 to 2020, only a fraction of on-screen fiction, 2.8%, makes reference to words related to climate change. A master plan on ways to turn the tide was released on Tuesday, April 19.
“Good Energy: A Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change” was created with input from more than 100 film and television writers, said Anna Jane Joyner, playbook editor and founder of Good Energy, a non-profit consulting firm. .
“A big hurdle we ran into was writers associating climate stories with apocalypse stories,” she said in an interview. “The main purpose of the playbook is to expand this menu of possibilities…to a wider range of how it would appear in our real life.”
Among those who have funded the playbook project are Bloomberg Philanthropies, Sierra Club and the Walton Family Foundation.
Waves of celebrities have sounded the climate alarm, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Fonda, Don Cheadle and Shailene Woodley. DiCaprio also starred in Don’t look upthe 2021 Oscar-nominated film in which a comet hurtling toward an uncaring Earth is a metaphor for the peril of apathy in the face of climate change.
But the playbook asks writers and industry executives to consider a variety of less disastrous approaches, Joyner said, with examples and resources included.
“We describe it as a spectrum, from demonstrating impact to behind-the-scenes solutions,” like the inclusion of solar panels in an exterior shot of a building, she said. Occasional mentions of climate change in scenes can also be effective.
“If you’re already attached to a character in a story and it comes back authentically in the character’s conversation, that confirms to the audience that it’s okay to talk about it in your daily life,” Joyner said.
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Dorothy Fortenberry, TV screenwriter (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and playwright, said the industry needs to broaden its view of who it writes, not just what.
“Climate change is something that’s affecting people right now who aren’t necessarily the people that Hollywood tends to write stories about. It’s affecting farmers in Bangladesh, farmers in Peru, farmers in Kentucky,” Fortenberry said. “If we told stories about different types of people, there would be opportunities to integrate climate seamlessly.”
The entertainment industry’s inability to use its storytelling powers more effectively on the issue comes as no surprise to Joyner, who has worked on climate change communications in various sectors and communities for 15 years.
For the first decade, it was like “screaming into the void” because of the lack of response, Joyner said. But there is evidence of growing concern among Americans about climate change, she said, including those in Hollywood.
“We all went through some sort of awakening,” she says. There are a number of documentaries and news programs on climate change, she said, expressing her optimism that fiction makers are making steady progress.
Good Energy funded analysis of the script by the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
As part of the study, which has not yet been published in full, researchers checked references to 36 key words and phrases, including “climate change”, “fracking” and “global warming” in the TV episodes. and films released in the US market.