The Power of Sustainable Storytelling in Film and Television

Credit: albert

Storytelling is a powerful narrative that can be used to communicate the climate message. As a member of the BAFTA committee for sustainability, Poppy Delbridge explores how it can best be harnessed in film and television, and what the Albert are doing with their new ‘Planet Placement‘ campaign. 

This year’s BAFTA ceremony has had everybody talking about sustainability in the film industry. Alongside recently announcing that it has become carbon neutral, the ceremony itself included sustainably sourced menus, a recyclable red carpet and a Dare to Rewear campaign for all the attendees.

But while this year’s award season has put sustainability in the spotlight, it’s arguable that what is happening behind the scenes is just as important. Much less talked about is how the climate question is being confronted in the film and TV industry itself, and how this huge media outlet us using its influence to raise awareness.

As a TV Exec and owner of a collaborative TV development company, I’m interested to see how much we can do to support the situation from a media insider perspective. Over the past few years, I’ve been honoured to be part of a small team for BAFTA’s sustainability arm to brainstorm how the industry can navigate change, and one thing that stands out is the ability to harness the power of story and narrative.

When then Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science announced its decision to serve a vegan dinner at this year’s Oscars ceremony earlier this year, the reason they gave was simple: “The Academy is an organisation of storytellers from around the world, and we owe our global membership a commitment to supporting the planet.” I like this idea of ‘storytellers’ because everyone involved in the Film and TV industry is, in their own way, contributing to a social narrative by storytelling.

Image: Chandler tries to quit smoking in Friends, Credit: Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions

How can storytelling be used to advocate change?

Remember when Friends had Chandler stop smoking? 

He was spluttering and coughing. He was treated like a social outcast. He was desperately embarrassed to be inhaling the fumes. Why? Because it was carefully woven into the script as a story. I wonder how many of us would have tuned into a one-off doc on how smoking is killing us? A niche audience yes, but perhaps not the mainstream. The fact that Friends was a hit TV comedy show already meant that it packed a punch when we saw our ‘friend’ kicking the tobacco because it was ‘gross’. 

As a result, it remains one of the most effective anti-smoking campaigns in media history and the reason, I believe, is because it wasn’t a single-note documentary. It was treated with a light touch; humour, even. 

Bold moves embedded into story can affect the way we consume, showing that fictional storytelling can be an important platform to spread awareness about real-life issues. Look at James Bond’s all-electric Aston Martin, for example. He’s cool-ified that image of a boring old Toyota Prius, hasn’t he?

The good news is that work of the industry’s own sustainable body is gaining traction. Even Prince William came to speak to channel heads recently about the importance of becoming more aware. All this work is passionately spearheaded by Aaron Matthews, Head of Industry Sustainability for BAFTA, who’s on a crusade to wake up the industry. “The climate story must be one of success, justice and opportunity,” he explains. “And the TV industry is best placed to write that script and share it with the world.”

The Sustainable team at BAFTA advise that it’s both the ‘behind-the-scenes’ measures and what we’re conveying on screen that can make the difference. Albert, the environmental sustainability autority for film and TV has launched the snappily named Planet Placement program to encourge the media to think about the planet through scripts and storytelling, and ast year, for the British TV industry we used the ‘Planet Placement BAFTA’ event to gather awareness around the message. There is now a sustainable handbook created now for production companies to understand what can be done – and reducing catering waste or unnecessary travel is a good start. 

Image: James Bond will drive the all-electric Aston Martin Rapide E in the next Bond movie Shatterhand, Credit: Aston Martin

What is working at the moment? 

Many production companies have been encouraging change both on and off screen, such as MTV’s Ex on The Beach where they placed solar panels on their villa to cut their carbon footprint, or Love Island, who helped to make reusable bottles popular with a young demographic. Just like Bond’s car – this helps to make sustainability sexy again, moving away from the assumption that the message can only be relayed via natural history programming, or dystopian disaster movies. It also shows how off-screen efforts can be organically placed into what we watch as viewers. 

While factual and documentaries are currently leading the charge with shows like Blue Planet II, Drowning in Plastic and Stacey Dooley’s investigation into Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, shows like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror have also been applauded for their fictional scripts, imagining the future in times of climate change. In the show’s sixth and final episode, Hated In The Nation, BAFTA made a point of welcoming how it was “pointing out the irreplaceable role of bees in the protection (or in this case destruction) of our livelihoods.” 

And then there’s comedy. Humour gives us the chance to normalise the debate and The Last Leg has been noted in particular for addressing topics such as fracking, the IPPC report and the danger of climate deniers in power. If we can weave the narrative into more of these shows, perhaps we will appeal to the unconverted, or better yet… the uninterested?

The BBC’s Blue Planet showed the beauty, complexity and fragility of life under the sea, Credit: BBC

What can the industry be doing better in the future?

According to National Geographic, the past decade has seen us wake up to a stark reality: climate change is here, and it’s happening now. So while there is always a place for dystopian dramas, we need to have the a positive message about what we can be doing to help carefully (and lightly) scattered around too. That’s where the power of plot and story comes up trumps for 2020 and beyond. 

Aaron makes a powerful point, saying that “authenticity is key, communicating a message rather than clunking the words ‘climate change’ into a show. It feels like a time when we can empower the industry’s scriptwriters, developers, producers and joke-writers to help shape our screen-time and, as Aaron says, “to lean into the space and invite people to follow along.”

From my work with the brilliant BAFTA team, it seems that the message isn’t new (the planet is still burning) but the way we show up as messengers can be. In light of the quite massive green shift that this year’s awards season has brought, it seems that sustainability is certainly on topic. But when the glitz of award season is over, consistently placing our planet firmly into storytelling is how the industry can really make a difference.