Film industry and sustainability in the era of Covid-19

By Mariana Liz

One average tentpole film production – a film with a budget of over US$70m – generates 2,840 tonnes of CO2, the equivalent amount absorbed by 3,709 acres of forest in a year.” This is the damaging conclusion that guides the Screen New Deal report, published in September 2020. Although commissioned before the pandemic, the report already hints at new ways of working on set and on location in the era of Covid-19. 2020 has been characterized by massive changes in the film industry, from production to distribution, and particularly, exhibition. The coronavirus pandemic has seen fewer people travel by air, which is very positive in terms of carbon emissions. For instance, there have been accounts of scenes directed through Microsoft Teams and other online platforms. Several pre- and post-production activities can be done remotely, from scouting to casting, editing and special effects, and this should be encouraged as a practice even after the end of travelling restrictions.

Masks on set: shooting of Salgueiro Maia – O Implicado (dir. Sérgio Graciano), the first film to restart production after the end of the state of emergency in Portugal.
Author’s photography, 21 June 2020

The adaptations that will need to be implemented in film shootings as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic should not erase, but rather make more prominent, the climate emergency. In fact, as the Screen New Deal report also suggests, the kind of strategies and behaviours the industry will need to adopt in order to avoid the spread of Covid-19 are, in many ways, similar to those needed to tackle the climate emergency: “more planning” and “tighter controls about materials and people who enter and leave spaces” are the two main measures identified in the report. In order to make sustainability a reality, the film and TV sector will need a “new physical infrastructure, new digital infrastructure and new working practices”, which are also needed as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

The analysis of the relationship between the film sector and climate change is not new. Earlier approaches tended to be focused on matters of representation. Although not many Hollywood blockbusters – precisely the kind of films which production strategies are least sustainable, as the Screen New Deal report suggests – have addressed this topic, a growing number of documentaries, science-fiction films and animation features have represented the climate emergency. Some of the better-known examples include An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006), The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004) and Ice Age: The Meltdown (Carlos Saldanha, 2006).

Beyond mainstream cinema case-studies and critical approaches that adopt an often-simplistic view of cinema as text, the notion of “eco-cinema” has been important to raise scholarly attention to matters of film form and film reception. Eco-cinema studies have grown steadily over the past few years. For Pietari Kääpä and Tommy Gustafsson, eco-cinema is “an interpretative strategy”. As Stuart MacDonald has put it, “the job of eco-cinema is to provide new kinds of film experience that demonstrate an alternative to conventional media-spectatorship and help to nurture a more environmentally progressive mindset”. For these and other scholars in the field, eco-cinema is about prompting and encouraging certain behaviours on viewers. In Portugal, the international film festival CineEco, in Seia, is an example of an event that adopts a similar view, by bringing together filmmakers, producers, critics, biologists and activists to screen films and host debates on the climate emergency. Its 26th edition was held in October 2020.

While eco-cinema literature has turned from textual analysis to reception studies, matters of film production and film finance are not often considered beyond industry reports and publications such as the one mentioned at the start of this post. However, it is important to link the growing academic and public interest on eco-cinema with the concerns of policymakers at national and international level, to ensure informed changes take place in the film and audiovisual sector.

Three national initiatives in Europe are worth mentioning. In the UK, Film London has set up the Green Screen project, through which an official audit precedes production and awards a Green Screen stamp, which can be used in the film’s end credits. In Italy, the Trentino Film Commission’s T-Green Film also awards and certifies productions applying environmental protection measures to their works. In Belgium, guidelines of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund require productions to receive “eco-coaching” and meet carbon-footprint standards before receiving the last 10% instalment of support. The fund has uploaded a CO2 calculator onto its website, for film and TV productions to assess their compliance with the criteria.

At European level, the Green Screen initiative launched by the European Regional Development Fund in 2017 set up a partnership between these and other local film commissions to share best practice in sustainable production across Europe and  develop regional policies to support sustainable practice. While the Hollywood example is very important because of the media attention it attracts and its potential impact on the society’s awareness of the global footprint of the film and TV sector, it is crucial to give prominence to European examples. Film production in Europe is very different to the Hollywood model – and certainly very different to the Portuguese context.

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, several restrictions were imposed on film production activities. In order to inform production companies of new practices and regulations, two important documents were produced in Portugal. The first one, produced by the Portugal Film Commission, was issued in May 2020. The guidelines described met those issued by the national health authorities, stressing in particular the need for physical distancing, frequent hand washing or disinfection, and the use of individual masks. Proposals to replace seated catering with take away meals, wrapped individually, and to use disposal cutlery rather than washable, were not, however, very environmentally friendly. The second document, by APTA, was also released in May and included many of the same recommendations. APTA also suggested the use of more vehicles, as fewer people should travel together by car – in another example of contradictions between health and climate protection.

Interviewed on TV about the opening of the festival’s 26th edition, the director of CineEco started by noting the sanitary crisis is taking away attention from the climate emergency. A brief analysis of the guideline documents issued in May seems to suggest the same. However, as the Screen New Deal highlights, and as several scholars have been arguing, the two crises should be tackled together, and the debate about how filmmaking will adapt to the pandemic is in many ways an opportunity to focus on how filmmaking can also become more sustainable. It is vital that new health procedures, together with public policy and funding initiatives, are accompanied by tools and regulations that promote sustainability, so that the relaunch of the sector, in Portugal and across the world, is just as green as it is clean and safe.


Mariana Liz is a Research Fellow at ICS-ULisboa. She is currently an adviser for the Secretary of State for Film, Audiovisual and Media.

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