A Gilded Hollywood: The Dirty Truth Behind its Silver Screen

Hunter Vaughan’s forensic accounting uncovers Hollywood’s secretly unpaid debts to the environment, demonstrating ecocriticism’s power to connect political economy to movies’ themes and styles, for analysis and for future makers. More than compelling: entertaining and inspiring.

~ Sean Cubitt, author of Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies

Our Earth Day awareness campaign continues this week with a series of guest post from Hunter Vaughan, author of Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret. This new book will capture the attention of all movie enthusiasts–virtually the general public–and environmentalists alike. In this post, Vaughan explores the often unconsidered impacts of some of Hollywood’s staple films— environmental damage and excess waste of resources. This “secret” that he uncovers urges the audience of any film, or the spectators at any award show, to think beyond a cinematic story’s seductiveness and to instead consider the true narrative behind the silver screen—one potentially filled with real, destructive consequences and long-term impacts.

Enter our Earth Day giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the book.

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Another awards season has come and gone, and with it another round of reminders that the silver screen’s self-definition hinges on spectacle and excess. The Oscars is the culmination of Hollywood’s sleight of hand: multi-camera coverage invites us into the most exclusive party that pop culture throws for itself, while the velvet ropes and price tags remind us that we are but spectators. However, the reality crystallized in these virtually proffered red-carpet events is but a nightmare of our own making; the true scandal, Hollywood’s dirtiest secret, lies in the environmental impact of our media practices, and through the thickening air of accelerating climate change it is necessary that we bring this secret into focus.

Tying All About Eve for the most Oscar nominations (14) and Ben-Hur for the most wins (11), James Cameron’s 1997 epic disaster film Titanic is a perfect case study in the ecological and environmental justice problems that fuel our movies, at once integral to the industry and completely erased from its narrative. The eternal love of Jack and Rose, which catapulted the careers of both stars and earned Cameron a directing Oscar and the first billion-dollar box office throne, garnered headlines well before it was on screen. From the production process to Cameron’s Oscar speech, Titanic was a model of Hollywood excess; however, the hidden environmental and local costs were severe, and never recuperated among the film’s oceanic profits.

Titanic was a model of Hollywood excess; however, the hidden environmental and local costs were severe, and never recuperated among the film’s oceanic profits.

Moving from principal photography in Nova Scotia to a full-size Titanic liner built in an inlet in Rosarita, Mexico, the film’s production left an indelible footprint that has been erased from Tinseltown lore. A high achievement of NAFTA’s economic logic, Cameron indulged in a lavish production that, due to its employing local out-of-work local media professionals, garnered him an Order of Aztec Eagle and a photoshoot with Mexico’s president, Ernest Zedilio. What is left out of the photoshoot are the sea urchin population decimated by the gigantic constructed water tanks meant to stand in for the frigid Atlantic and the local Popotla fishing community permanently crippled by the production’s disturbance of surrounding ecology and wildlife.

Titanic is not the only such story, but because of its critical and commercial success and the trajectory of its director as the self-proclaimed auteur of green narratives (both on and off screen), it is the most salient. Ferngully: the Last Rainforest was funded by dirty coal, and Danny Boyle’s film shoot of The Beach destroyed a natural dune that, having acted as a monsoon buffer, exposed the Thai coast without a first line of defense against natural disaster. Environmental impact forms the backbone of movie history. We can thank the southern California water wars and the starvation of Owens Valley for Hollywood as a geographical possibility, while the movies were recorded onto celluloid made possible by the Kodak Park Plant that, syphoning off millions of gallons of water from Lake Ontario every day for decades and circulating it post-use into the Genesee River, became the largest source of pathogens in the state and of New York and rendered Rochester the most carcinogenic city in America. From the gas-fueled explosions of screen pyrotechnics to the water-intensive simulation of rainstorms, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has stood atop the shoulders of natural resource gluttony and, like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, flung the elements and exploded the real with neither regulation nor accountability. The Hollywood blockbuster is just what it claims to be: breaking blocks, incinerating material objects, and sacrificing nature on the altar of spectacle. If there were a prize for the most environmentally disruptive culture industry, there is no competition: and the award goes to. . .

Environmental impact forms the backbone of movie history.

This merely reflects Hollywood’s incomparable aptitude to reflect our social values: just as movies and movie stars succeed in gauging the zeitgeist and becoming bigger, brighter, and louder than reality, so its environmental sensibility only takes our collective irresponsibility to the logical extreme. And we pay its way, buying in at every turn.

The digital revolution has ushered us into a new age, replete with claims to immateriality and the environmental rebranding of a green-friendly Hollywood. However, CGI films still make use of living humans, material costumes and sets and props, and now necessitate the proliferation of energy-dependent processing and storage technologies. Server cinema and the Internet of Things may allow our communications and entertainment to stream seemingly unbridled through the ether, but the reality is a system of undersea cables, orbiting satellites, and whirring servers stashed in warehouses well out of sight.

No matter how hard the studios greenwash their image, it is still business as usual. Just watch the awards ceremonies: blazing lights, one-off gowns, and a spectacle of excess meant to dazzle our critical sensibility. An industry historically adept at avoiding external regulation through image-construction and bodies of self-regulation, Hollywood has managed to survive the rise of environmental awareness and policy relatively unscathed. By installing water coolers and electric buggies, by going paper-free and digital, the studios have once again escaped the watchdogs that affect other businesses.

No matter how hard the studios greenwash their image, it is still business as usual. Just watch the awards ceremonies: blazing lights, one-off gowns, and a spectacle of excess meant to dazzle our critical sensibility.

With us, the binge-streaming audiences, turning our eyes to the newest Marvel formula and away from the child labor, sweatshops, and digital dumping grounds that mark the life cycle of our screen devices, culture industries have little reason to enact major change, though tech companies like Apple are increasingly erecting solar farms to power their server farms. And, as long as the digital wizards behind Middle Earth and Pandora keep one step ahead of the more-or-less-disbanded EPA, and in step with the soft environmentalism of an audience unmotivated to change its cultural norms for the sake of environmental responsibility, the truth of our screen entertainment’s impact will remain hidden. The studios have a checklist for sustainability platforms and the star system has caught on to the public image value of environmental messaging, but real commitment would involve circulating those billions of box office dollars—and hundreds of millions of captive viewers—into committed lobbying and demand for significant policy change.

A green carpet would also mean a shift in how movies are made, and how we value them in relation to the natural world from which their spectacles are made. It is time to bring the reality of Hollywood’s environmental impact out into the open. The envelope, please.

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