As the world turns and temperatures shift, sustainability has become an urgent issue across all industries, including entertainment. Hollywood, known for its dissemination of images and messaging, is on the front lines of a cultural sea change, dedicated to prioritizing the environment and the challenges it faces, said a group of industry leaders Thursday at The Hollywood Reporter‘s Pictures for the Planet event, presented by Walmart at the Environmental Media Association Impact Summit.
The keynote conversation at the confab, which took place at the Pendry West Hollywood, centered on award-winning filmmaker Eli Roth’s documentary End, which follows Roth and a team of scientists, researchers and activists around the globe to unveil the truth behind the death of millions of sharks (100 million per year). Moderated by environmentalist Philippe Cousteau Jr. and joined by underwater photographer Michael Muller, the conversation found Roth speaking about the five years he spent making the film in hopes to combat the “fear propaganda” that surrounds sharks.
“I grew up in Boston, and jaws was my favorite movie,” Roth began, but it wasn’t until he was asked to be the host of Shark After Dark during Discovery’s Sharkweek, and was sent on a dive that changed his life, that made him realize the scary underwater creatures “were so much like dogs.” Muller’s relationship to sharks — and advocacy for them — began about 20 years ago when he locked eyes with a Great White for the first time.
The trio discussed the global human rights issues plaguing the billion-dollar fishing industry as well, noting international fishing vessels that illegally deplete local fisheries. Health is a concern as well as squalene — a compound in shark liver oil commonly found in skin-care products — is highly unregulated.
Of sharks, Roth said: “We’re not supposed to see them…. That’s what the fishing industry is counting on.… There’s so much else to worry about; why do you care about sharks? [Because] It’s a billion-dollar industry…and they’re actually keeping our air safe and water clean. It’s about education.”
The morning opened with remarks from Debbie Levin, CEO of EMA, who welcomed guests by saying: “We’re all here because we know that being respectful and responsible to our natural resources does not limit innovation or lifestyle.”
Alan Fuerstman, founder, chairman and CEO of Montage International and Pendry Hotels, called EMA “a powerful force with positive change” and expressed excitement at this being the second year the summit took place at the Pendry’s Sunset Boulevard location. Much like guests at a hotel, “we all are guests of the earth,” he said.
The daylong event, which was fueled by an assortment of call-to-action discussions with committed change makers in the environmental and entertainment industries, happened in tandem with the launch of THR‘sinaugural, digital Sustainability Issue — dedicated to exploring a greener future for Hollywood. Nekesa Mumbi Moody, editorial director of THR, said in her remarks Thursday: “The talent, executives and content we are showcasing this morning represent some of our industry’s most compelling achievements in the environmental storytelling space. Their stories are remarkable in their shared mission to sound the alarm on our planet’s gravest threats, but also remind us of all the beauty that still surrounds us.”
The first panel of the day asked the question: How can talent take the reins to ensure that productions are green? SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher — who ran her campaign for president actively addressing sustainability and has started a “green council” during her presidency, designed to create “eco responsible entertainment” — said she plans to make “an industrywide ban on single-use plastic [in productions] our first effort on which to build our legacy.”
“What we have to take responsibility to do as an industry is to normalize eco-responsible living,” she said. “We are the greatest influencers on the planet.”
Asher Levin, EMA’s creative director and the panel’s moderator, introduced the organization’s talent rider, described as “a list of things that we can push forward in negotiations when an actor wants to have a cleaner set.”
Hart Bochner, actor, director and EMA board member, shared ideas for what a more sustainable set can look like: less waste (like paper script sides for every actor) and turning off trailer generators when not in use. And John Rego, vp sustainability at Sony Pictures Entertainment, spoke about the promising future of virtual production (used for shows like The Mandalorian), which is the next iteration of a greenscreen backdrop — a completely virtual version of reality used to create new worlds.
The next panel, moderated by THR deputy editor Degen Pener, focused on storytelling about our shifting planet. In the last few years, largely thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, documentary and feature films about our natural world have increased in popularity among viewers. “They really missed what they couldn’t have.… They couldn’t travel. They wanted space, they wanted that patch of grass, their backyards became something of a sanctuary,” said Janet Han Vissering, senior vp production and development, natural history content for National Geographic and for NatGeo on Disney+, who also shared tips for filmmakers on how to secure funding for projects like these. “They used our films as an escape and the vacation they wanted to have.”
“Natural history is definitely having a moment,” added James Honeyborne, executive producer of the series Our Great National Parks, narrated by former President Barack Obama). “[We must] help audiences care and connect with nature — that’s why we have to show the beauty and wonder of nature.”
Howard Swartz, senior vp documentaries and specials, factual networks and streaming at Discovery, shared insights about the impact that initiatives like Shark Week have had on people’s relationship to the environment. “The first year was in 1980; it’s now grown to be what is essentially our Super Bowl every year — it’s a pop culture phenomenon,” he said. And John Chester, filmmaker and subject of the documentary feature Tea Biggest Little Farm, spoke about his experience meeting visitors from both sides of the political divide at his and his wife’s Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, California, saying: “Shame and fear is what polarizes and divides us a people, as a country, as a planet…innovation is spawned by confidence and hope.”
All of the films and series discussed on the morning’s panels, which included Tea Biggest Little Farm (National Geographic/Disney+), Our Great National Parks (Netflix) and Roth’s End (Discovery+), “make the case for the importance of protecting our planet,” Jane Ewing, senior vp sustainability at Walmart said, adding: “They underscore the need to preserve and restore our natural resources and the biodiversity of our ecosystems that we know how deeply we all rely on.”
Ewing acknowledged the role that both mega-corporation Walmart and Hollywood play in inspiring real-life change in society. “We have the same customers, the people that are watching the entertainment industry — films, documentaries — they’re walking into our store and buying online; we serve 130 million customers every single week,” Ewing told THR after her opening remarks. “So we’re talking to the same people…. Hollywood specifically has an opportunity to inspire and engage in a really powerful way, and if we can be consistent with similar types of messages as they shop with us, I think we can drive behavior change.”
The final event of the early afternoon was a first-ever live recording of Phil Rosenthal’s (creator and host of Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil) and Peabody- and Emmy-winning television writer and producer David Wild’s naked lunch podcast, featuring special guest Wolfgang Puck (whose new restaurant, Merois, is on the Pendry Hotel’s roof). The hosts asked Puck several questions about moments seen in the new Disney+ documentary Wolfgangwhich tells the story of the world-renowned chef’s early life and ascent in the world of food.
When Rosenthal asked if his superstardom (thanks, in large part, to the success of LA staple Spago) has superseded people’s view of him as a terrific chef, Puck said: “In the kitchen, I don’t think about stars. I think they are really good cooks and business people.… We do our craft — maybe part of it as an art — but this Hollywood thing with stars and stars and stars is a little [messed] up.”
Wild called Puck the “Sinatra of chefs,” to which Puck replied: “I want to be The Weeknd of the chefs,” with his characteristic warm grin.
This event was held in accordance with local health and safety guidelines.