Tinseltown is going green. The characters in Home Improvement discuss emissions trading. A West Wing episode centers around energy efficiency and garbage disposal. The cast of Friends pours milk out of reusable glass bottles. Daughter Cassie on Family Law conducts an energy audit of her family for Earth Day, prompting mom to trade her sport-utility
vehicle for a hybrid. From props to plots, Hollywood is getting greener, thanks to the Environmental Media Association, a four-person nonprofit in Los Angeles.
“You have to realize that people sit in their chairs, and every week these television shows come into their lives,” says Patie Maloney, director of special projects at EMA. These programs can be incredibly powerful. As an example, she points to Jennifer Aniston of Friends. “Every time she cuts her hair, within twenty-four hours everyone is in the beauty shops trying to copy it. If a haircut can do that, you can also have recycling bins in kitchens or electric vehicles in driveways.”
EMA is the brainchild of two Hollywood power couples: Lyn and Norman Lear, and Cindy and Alan Horn. Norman Lear broke television ground in the 1970s producing the series All in the Family, one of the earliest shows to address racism, sexism, and other hot-button issues. Alan Horn is chief operating officer of Warner Brothers. In the late 1980s, when both couples were expecting their first children, they started thinking about the world they’d be bringing their sons and daughters into--and decided to put the power of the entertainment media to work for the environment.
Since its creation in 1989, the Environmental Media Association has
become a major Hollywood player. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that its board members--like Michael Eisner, John Travolta, Jane Fonda, Wendie Malick, and Ed Begley Jr.--have clout, and that Hollywood is famously predisposed to support traditionally liberal causes.
When a writer needs statistics or help with fact-checking, or a set
designer needs assistance tracking down props, such as Earth Day posters or curbside recycling bins from the actual town in which a shoot takes place, they call EMA. In addition, the group holds several well-attended workshops each year on key environmental issues.
The group’s most important work, however, comes out of one-on-one meetings with writers and producers. Like door-to-door salesmen, the staff pitches tailored story ideas, characters, and stage sets with environmental themes that can be subtly woven into existing story lines. Because television episodes and films devoted entirely to environmental issues (like Erin Brockovich) are rare, the group focuses on subplots, such as a conversation in a coffee room. One example of EMA’s outreach is the Nash Bridges character Harvey Leek, who drove an electric roadster part of one season and refers to conventional cars as “gas guzzlers.”
Sometimes, however, the prop just speaks for itself. That’s because producers take pains to make sure every set is realistic, explains EMA’s Jennifer DePeralta. So putting recycled paper next to the copy machine and using mugs instead of disposable cups at the coffeemaker, she says, “are all ways to get viewers to think about these things and see that something like recycling can be routine behavior.”
DePeralta’s group also offers the perfect Hollywood-style incentive: a gala awards ceremony complete with a gourmet dinner of organic food and wine. At the tenth annual EMA awards last December, the 700-plus guest list included actors Sharon Stone and Chevy Chase and talk-show host Bill Maher.
EMA also looks at the way shows and films are actually produced. Called “the Greening of Hollywood,” this effort is aimed at the people behind the scenes--camera operators, set constructors, production assistants--to reduce backstage waste by reusing sets, printing daily script revisions on both sides of the sheet, using recycled paper, and so on.
The green crusade is paying off. “The number of shows and movies with environmental themes has increased over the years, and part of it is because of advocacy groups like EMA,” says Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. According to Kaplan, using fictional vehicles like serial dramas is far more effective than simply airing public-service ads. “When people are caught up in a story, they tend to pay more attention to those kinds of messages.”
Those plugs don’t have to compromise plot or character. “The actors, the directors, the writers--they’re all stepping up to the plate and realizing this is a very easy thing to do,” says Maloney. It’s a good thing too, she adds. “We realize that thirty years of hard work could really be set back with the Bush administration.” It’s an irony of the times that people could do better for the earth by following the lead of fictional characters instead of their president.