Hollywood's response to climate change includes donations, protests and other activism. But it's apparently missing out on an approach close to home.
Only a sliver of screen fiction, 2.8%, refers to climate change-related words, according to a new study of 37,453 film and TV scripts from 2016-20. A blueprint for ways to turn that around was released Tuesday.
“Good Energy: A Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change" was created with feedback from more than 100 film and TV writers, said Anna Jane Joyner, editor-in-chief of the playbook and founder of Good Energy, a nonprofit consultancy.
“A big hurdle that we encountered was that writers were associating climate stories with apocalypse stories,” she said in an interview. “The main purpose of the playbook is to expand that menu of possibilities....to a larger array of how it would be showing up in our real life.”
Among those who provided funding for the playbook project are Bloomberg Philanthropies, Sierra Club and the Walton Family Foundation.
Waves of celebrities have been sounding the climate alarm, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Fonda, Don Cheadle and Shailene Woodley. DiCaprio also starred in Don't Look Up, the 2021 Oscar-nominated film in which a comet hurtling toward an indifferent Earth is a metaphor for the peril of climate-change apathy.
But the playbook is asking writers and industry executives to consider a variety of less-dire approaches, Joyner said, with examples and resources included.
“We describe it as a spectrum, everything from showing the impact with solutions in the background,” such as including solar panels in an exterior shot of a building, she said. Casual mentions of climate change in scenes also can be effective.
“If you’re already attached to a character in a story and it authentically comes up in conversation for the character, it validates for the audience that it’s OK to talk about in your day-to-day lives,” Joyner said.
Dorothy Fortenberry, a TV writer (The Handmaid’s Tale) and playwright, said the industry needs to broaden its view of who it writes about, not just what.
“Climate change is something that right now is affecting people 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 kinds of people, there would be opportunities to seamlessly weave climate in.”
The entertainment industry’s failure to use its storytelling powers more effectively on the issue seems unsurprising to Joyner, who's been working on climate-change communications in various sectors and communities for 15 years.
For the first decade, it felt like “screaming into the void” because of the lack of response, Joyner said. But there is evidence of increasing concern among Americans regarding climate change, she said, including those who are in Hollywood.
“We've all gone through a kind of awakening,” she said. There are a number of documentaries and news programs about climate change, she said, expressing optimism that fiction creators will make steady progress.
Good Energy funded the script analysis 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 that's yet to be released in full, researchers checked for references to 36 key words and phrases including “climate change,” “fracking” and “global warming” in TV episodes and movies released in the U.S. market.