2023 cohort
Water and drought

As climate change becomes more apocalyptic, why isn’t art imitating life?

The box office has long been dominated by many super hero or action films that do not address environmental issues.

Jaimie Chun

August 31, 2023

Credit: Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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The list of major motion movies that tackle some of the most dire issues at present — water, drought and climate — is comparatively short in Hollywood. 

Only about 3% of all film and TV scripts from 2016-2020 include any climate-related keywords, according to a 2022 study by non-profit consultancy Good Energy and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center Media Impact Project. 

The box office has long been dominated by many super hero or action films that do not address environmental issues.

The highest-grossing domestic film for 2022 was “Top Gun: Maverick” that tells the story of the U.S. Navy pilots and the year before that, Marvel movie “Spider-Man: No Way Home” took the top spot, according to online database Box Office Mojo. In July, “Barbie” generated massive audiences at theaters and while it addressed the patriarchy, drought concerns in Barbie Land were nowhere to be found. 

“The biggest problem is coming up with stories that you can tell about these issues that are going to be able to compete in the extraordinary entertainment environment right now, which is so dominated by really big blockbusters,” said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of media, film and radio.

Though cinema has historically been a powerful force for social issues, it’s difficult incorporating climate into film and TV narratives, said Rae Binstock, associate director for workshops and editorial at Good Energy. 

“People were very worried that it was a political issue,” Binstock said. “They were worried that it would be polarizing to write about it.” 

Another obstacle was writers felt they had to be experts in order to tell climate-related stories, she added. 

“They felt like if they didn’t have everything perfectly right, then they would be torn apart or that they would do a disservice to the movement itself,” Binstock said. 

Binstock and other Hollywood creatives are working to change those conceptions around environmental stories. In June, hundreds of them gathered at the third annual Hollywood Climate Summit to discuss activism within the industry. 

Noteworthy examples of climate or environmental-related films and TV series in theaters or major streaming services do exist. For example, “Avatar: The Way of Water” warns against environmental destruction, Netflix Korean sci-fi series “The Silent Sea” foreshadows the grim path of droughts and dark comedy “Don’t Look Up” shows the perils of ignoring scientists who warn of a doomsday scenario. Even movies released decades ago like the mystery film “Chinatown” address issues related to water.

Demand among audiences for more entertainment that addresses these issues is also growing. Nearly half of audiences who are aware or believe in climate change would like to see more fictional movies and films address the climate crisis, according to a survey cited in a report by Good Energy and USCs Norman Lear Center. The survey did not include people who are skeptical or don’t believe in climate change.

More awareness of these issues generated through film and TV could help change consumer behavior toward the environment. Businesses such as Macro Oceans, a startup that uses seaweed to make carbon-negative products, believe that more examples in popular culture can make a significant difference.

“Hollywood is a very powerful engine of creating awareness among consumers as well as the general population about issues that are important,” said Matthew Perkins, founder and head of Macro Oceans.

While films aren’t the solution to the water or climate crisis, they have the ability to create discussion and touch people’s conscience, Thompson of Syracuse University said. 

“Hollywood is effective in many ways to really get people to latch on to something and have it become part of what they think about and what they care about,” Thompson said.

About the author

Jaimie Chun is a 2023 JCal reporter from Orange County, CA.

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