Go green: Netflix, ABC, SBS, Paramount among early backers of Sustainable Screens Australia

The 16 seed funders and founding members of Sustainable Screens Australia.

Film and television production has a significant carbon footprint.

UK research suggests just one hour of TV produced creates 13.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – the equivalent of running three homes with gas and electricity for a whole year.

It has been recognised for some time that in terms of sustainable production practices, the Australian screen industry lags far behind the US, UK and Canada, where there are long-established systems, resources and training to assist productions to lessen their environmental impact.

For instance, almost every major studio in the US has aims to be net zero by 2035 or sooner and are members of the PGA-backed Sustainable Production Alliance, and in the UK, any project made for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, UKTV, Sky, TG4 or Netflix is mandated to measure its carbon footprint.

However, Australia should soon be brought into line with its international counterparts with the launch of membership-based organisation, Sustainable Screens Australia.

Netflix, ABC, SBS and Paramount ANZ are among the 16 seed funders and founding members of the initiative, which will provide education, tools and resources to measure and reduce the local screen industry’s environmental impact.

Other early backers include Screen NSW, VicScreen, Screen Queensland and Screen Tasmania, production companies BBC Studios, CJZ, Dreamchaser, Film Art Media, Matchbox Pictures and Regen Studios, as well as Docklands Studios Melbourne and Shark Island Foundation.

These supporters have enabled SSA to raise sufficient funds so that it can launch to the wider industry in early 2023. Also supporting SSA via pro-bono services are Moneypenny (accountancy), Shiff & Company (legal) and NIXCO (public relations).

Co-chairing SSA are Regen Studios producer Anna Kaplan and Dreamchaser COO Sara Horn, who are joined on the management committee by treasurer Kate Pappas, executive producer Wildbear Entertainment; secretary Alex Wasiel, business and legal affairs executive, Endemol Shine Australia; The Goodways founder Tanzy Owen, Environmental Film Festival Australia sustainability manager and props master Jennifer McAuliffe and producer Tamasin Simpkin.

Among SSA’s plans are an online hub for best practice checklists and toolkits, industry specific carbon literacy training, a vendor/services database, a bespoke carbon footprint calculator, and social impact partnerships to support the industry in ensuring a standardised approach. The aim is to embed sustainability and environmental responsibility into everyday production practices.

The organisation is also aligned with UK’s albert, a BAFTA-owned, industry-backed consortium – globally recognised as the leading screen industry organisation for environmental sustainability.

Founded in 2011, albert helps productions to calculate their carbon footprint, offers resources and facilitates official sustainable production certification – displayed as a logo in the end credit roll. Jeffery Walker’s The Portable Door, which is financed in part by UK’s Sky Studios, was the first Australian project to operate under its system.

Having albert on board means SSA isn’t starting from scratch, Kaplan tells IF.

“We saw a great opportunity to, rather than reinvent the wheel… adapt, localise, stand on their shoulders and adopt the best practices that they’ve developed over the last 12 years,” she says.

The journey to today’s launch has been in the works for some time.

When producing 2019 doco 2040, which examined the effects of climate change and how today’s technologies could reverse them, Kaplan wanted to “walk the talk” to ensure the production had the lightest possible ecological footprint. She devised a carbon management plan, the production used environmentally-friendly alternatives and recycled whereever possible, and the team planted a small native forest to further sequester carbon at the end of the shoot.

Kaplan readily admits this was a steep learning curve, and her efforts weren’t perfect; it was doing this process on her own that led her to realise the need for a local framework to support practitioners in similar work.

She was then awarded the Natalie Miller Fellowship in late 2019, using it to research what was happening overseas in terms of sustainable production.

Her work connected her with Owen, who was then sustainability manager at Endemol Shine Australia, and McAuliffe, who had started the Sustainable Screens Australia Facebook group to help share information, resources and awareness with others in the industry.

The trio formed an unofficial working group of sorts to try to develop an albert-style model in Australia, with their grassroots efforts leading to what SSA begins as today.

With a lot of public focus on climate change in the wake of the Black Summer bushfires, they convened an industry roundtable in October 2020 with around 50 stakeholders to get feedback into their proposal.

“We got a very strong consensus that the time is now and we need to be doing this,” Kaplan says, with further agreeance that a national framework was needed and there was a leadership vacuum in this area in Australia.

“Sustainable Screens was us putting our hands up to to do that.”

Those who attended the roundtable were then invited to a working group to meet bi-monthly, and a subcommittee was established to determine governance for the organisation – a member-based, industry-owned model was key.

Kaplan says the initiative gained momentum ahead of the federal election in May, with Labor committing to a 43 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

Many of the seed funders have also started their own sustainability journey internally; ABC has a sustainability manager, Pamela Longstaff, and SBS has recently completed its first assessment of its carbon footprint. Netflix globally has reported it will be net zero by the end of this year; its carbon footprint in 2020 was 1 million metric tonnes, approximately half of which came from physical production.

The recent influx of international production to Australia has also put sustainability keenly on many organisation’s radars – with the US studios having green mandates, they have a level expectation about services, infrastructure and working practices.

One of the main concerns around sustainability is that it will increase the cost of production, but Kaplan counters that many things will save a production money.

For instance, some infrastructure may have a large upfront cost, but will amortise over time; that was the experience of NBCUniversal on La Brea, which used a hybrid lithium-ion battery system to power its unit base. In the long run the production saw a significant cost benefit as it saved up to an estimated 20,000 litres of diesel fuel a month (diesel being around  210 cents per litre). Even LED lighting, which might cost more upfront, will see an eventual energy bill saving – they need to be replaced far less often.

With the current partners SSA has attracted, Kaplan is confident there is will to embed sustainability measures into standard practice.

There will be two membership tiers to SSA, industry and affiliate level, with the latter aimed at smaller businesses, sole trader producers, service businesses and crew. However, many resources, including the tool kit and training will be available for three.

“For crew, the disconnect between the impact our work has on the natural world is often a real conflict. As more and more people are understanding what we’re facing as a as collective, being able to actually do tangible things that are helping to transition us into much more Earth-friendly practices is actually really good for people’s health and wellbeing,” Kaplan says.

“There’s been a lot of research on the impact of the pervasive messaging around how bleak things are for the planet and the impact that has on young people and their mental health. There’s really strong evidence to show that getting involved in climate action is actually the best thing that you can do to help you deal with the emotional toll of the reality of what we’re facing.”