Climate Change: While Politicians Ignore It, Hollywood Fights on the Front Lines

Until Hurricane Sandy, it's been an election-year unmentionable, but Hollywood has continued to pump out films with climate change as a principal subject or backdrop

When, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Michael Bloomberg endorsed Barack Obama and his climate-change policies, it marked the first time in the entire election season that global warming emerged as a real talking point.

Despite a few years removed from the national zeitgeist, there is one place where climate change has remained front and center — movie theaters.

Whether documentary or fictionalized, Hollywood has continued to pump out films with climate change as a principal subject or backdrop.

One of the likely nominees for Best Picture is “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which depicts a waterlogged Louisiana devastated by Hurricane Katrina and rising water levels. 

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Also Read: James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub Producing 8-Part Climate-Change Doc for Showtime (Exclusive)

Another probable awards contender, the Matt Damon-starrer “Promised Land,” immerses viewers into the world of fracking, a controversial method of extracting natural gas.

Fracking, in fact, has become something of a cause célèbre for Hollywood, with actor Mark Ruffalo (right) leading the charge.

On the documentary side, Oscar-winning producer Paula DuPre Pesmen is back with “Chasing Ice,” an examination of man’s impact on glaciers in the arctic. It screened at Sundance in January and opens in limited release Nov. 16.

And then there’s a project TheWrap broke on Monday: an eight-part documentary James Cameron and Jerry Weintraub are producing for Showtime titled “The Years of Living Dangerously.”

Well known actors will serve as reporters, seeking out victims of drought, hurricane and pestilence, underscoring the connection between those tragedies and a shifting climate.

"Public interest in climate change has been hampered by the economic downturn and a handful of influential scientists who've clouded public understanding of these facts," Jim Berk, CEO of Participant Media, which co-financed "Promised Land," told TheWrap. "Films have become a bit of the fourth estate in trying to counteract manipulation in parts of the media with specific economic and political interests."

"We see a need and interest in making sure there's content that continuously is reminding people in an emotional, entertaining and inspiring way that this problem doesn't go way just when a storm clears."

And there's the rub. The challenge for Hollywood has been maintaining public interest and sustaining a continuous output of films. 

Also Read: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Borrowed Obama's Grassroots Strategy to Land Young Star Quvenzhane Wallis

As Berk and many others noted, the push for environmental reform has faced a rigorous counterattack since the movement's high-water mark in the mid-2000s when a series of high-profile films appeared in theaters across the country.

Roland Emmerich’s disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow,” released in 2004, remains the most profitable movie ever to deal with the subject. Foretelling a world in which man’s abuse of natural resources spawns a lethal storm, the film grossed $544 million. It also featured a few impassioned monologues calling for reform.

Two years later, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Davis Guggenheim’s documentary chronicling Al Gore’s global campaign to educate people about climate change, set the bar even higher.

It grossed almost $50 million worldwide and became the first documentary to win two Oscars — for Best Documentary and Best Original Song. Hollywood’s biggest event of the year became something of an environmentalist convention. DiCaprio and Gore took the stage to announce it would be a carbon-neutral broadcast while winner Melissa Etheridge praised Gore as an inspiration.

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After winning for Best Documentary, Guggenheim invited Gore on stage and the former Vice President made a brief statement imploring everyone to take action. A year later, DiCaprio released his own documentary, “The 11th Hour." 

"We went from polls showing that less than 30 percent of Americans believed in global warming to, eight months after film's release, 87 percent of Americans saying it was an issue of concern at a minimum," Berk, whose Participant executive produced and co-financed "Truth," said.

But then came the blowback. The coal and oil industries reached out to the select few scientists who don't believe in climate change, and many conservatives advanced the belief that climate change's veracity was contestable.

“There’s a backlash against global warming, and ‘An inconvenient Truth’ was a poster child for it,” Nadia Conners, who co-directed "The 11th Hour," told TheWrap. “There’s been a real campaign to confuse people about the issue. It’s an insidious way in which the fossil-fuel industry has created confusion that allows for business usual.”

"There's no question there was a high-water mark around 'An Inconvenient Truth,' and since then the various sci ops being waged by its opponents have taken a toll," Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, told TheWrap. “But it hasn’t stopped people in Hollywood from continuing to be committed.”

Being committed, though, is different than bringing that commitment into the box office. Though Berk's Participant Media has flooded the marketplace with "social problem" films like "The Cove" and "Food Inc." — and has pushed "An Inconvenient Truth" into the classroom, engaging with tens of thousands of teachers about including it in their curricula — there has been something of a drop-off in films that focus on the issue.

Part of the reason is that material circumstances hindered the movement. The economic crisis became the dominant topic on everyone's minds, and pushing for more expensive forms of energy — though considered beneficial in the long-term — fell on deaf ears.

Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney discussed climate change in any of the three presidential debates this season, nor has the public shown a willingness to pay more for gas or electricity to solve the problem.

"We watched the backslide after 'An Inconvenient Truth' in attention and programming at that time," Berk said. "When programming diminished, we watched the percent of public awareness starting to decrease."

Conners also attested to a decline in films about the issue both as a result of the campaign attacking climate change and the topic's inherent banality.

“Global warming is the result of cumulative behavior of mankind, and that’s not that sexy of a film,” she said. “It’s like death by 1,000 paper cuts. It’s why that subject is not as interesting and other subjects have taken over.”

But that fallow period seems to be ending — even before Sandy came on the scene.

In some cases, climate change is a dominant theme of upcoming projects, like "Chasing Ice." In some cases, such as "Promised Land," it's a backdrop.

Berk said both are needed.

"The story in this particular case isn’t an environmental story; that's just context," Berk said of "Promised Land." "Any time you can take a large, complex issue and tell the story in a way that provides the audience with a way to understand a highly complex issue in a clear and transparent way, then they become engaged." 

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In the same way, while “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is not about climate change, it’s hard to watch that film without thinking about it. Same goes for “The Impossible,” a recent film about the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia starring Naomi Watts.

The industry now has a golden (if tragic) opportunity in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

"Sometimes it takes a catastrophic event. Katrina moved the dial a little and it feels like Sandy has finally shaken and flooded people awake,"  Laurie David, an environmental activist who produced "An Inconvenient Truth," told TheWrap via email. "The speed with which climate came up after the storm is a very good sign that the time has come.”

Also Read: NYC Indie Film Companies Dig Out From Hurricane Sandy

The challenge is sustaining public outrage with an unrelenting flood of films. Perhaps no project illustrates this better than “The Years of Living Dangerously.” Cameron, whose 2009 blockbuster “Avatar” dealt with the subject allegorically, has long been an advocate of climate-change legislation.

And now he’s being quite literal.

“That Cameron and Weintraub Showtime thing is a big deal,” Kaplan said. “They are spending a lot of money on it, getting major talent to be in it. That strikes me as big a project with as much potential as anything in the past.”