Reel Green in Hollywood North

Leo DiCaprio isn't the only one in Hollywood who's going green. One woman is at the centre of the B.C. film industry's crusade for green business.

Leo DiCaprio isn’t the only one in Hollywood who’s going green. One woman is at the centre of the B.C. film industry’s crusade for green business.

On a crisp October afternoon at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in downtown Vancouver, close to 150 delegates from the first-ever Reel Green BC Forum find their seats. After a brief slide show, the B.C. Film Commission’s Gordon Hardwick – mid-40s, goateed, in suit and tie – introduces the keynote speaker. Shelley Billik, vice-president of environmental initiatives at Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.’s California studios, smiles and calmly approaches the podium.

As top gun at one of the first Hollywood-studio environmental departments, Billik, a brunette middle-aged mom from the L.A. suburbs, is at the centre of Hollywood’s green storm. Following the popularity of documentaries on global warming by Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio, NBC Universal Inc. launched an environmental education program in tandem with parent company General Electric Co. (GE) in May 2007; that same month, Rupert Murdoch went on record promising that his entire company, News Corp., will be carbon neutral by 2010.

Billik’s environmental initiatives at Warner Bros. preceded GE’s and News Corp.’s by a good 15 years – beginning in 1992 as a one-person recycling crew, and evolving into a multi-faceted department that counts solar-powered studios, sophisticated recycling schemes, carbon audits and a building certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard as a few of its recent accomplishments. But for industry players here in Vancouver, Billik represents far more than her accumulated green wisdom: she represents L.A., and L.A. represents 80 per cent of their business. If 80 per cent of your business is talking green, the thinking goes, it’s best to start learning the language.

Reel Green in B.C.

The Reel Green BC Forum is the industry’s first attempt at setting up some lessons. An initiative begun by Hardwick and the B.C. Film Commission in early 2006, Reel Green BC has become the communication arm of an ad-hoc environment committee formed within the Motion Picture Production Industry Association of B.C. The MPPIA is a North American first: an industry-wide organization in which the interests of unions, government, businesses and service providers are collectively represented. Its emergence in 2002 came from the realization that B.C. – not just the individual industry players – was competing with locations around the world and that the industry needed a lobby group to maintain policies critical to local success, such as tax credits for foreign studios.

Increasingly, success also includes sound environmental policy. With American studios now making green policy decisions that affect those with whom they do business, the MPPIA and its environment committee have turned their energy toward lobbying its own members for action. “We have a lot of enthusiasm at the grassroots,” Hardwick tells me on the phone, one week after the forum. “Reel Green is a strategy that acknowledges we have a scattered industry.”

Film production in B.C.

The B.C. industry may be scattered by its diverse and independent workforce, but it is also united by its overall dependence on one big customer. Between 1992 and 2006, money spent on film production in B.C. – including wages, goods, equipment and space rental – grew sixfold, from approximately $200 million to $1.2 billion annually. The billion-dollar gain comes almost entirely from what the B.C. Film Commission officially classifies as “foreign spending” – according to B.C. Film Commissioner Susan Croome, that means American spending, with approximately 98 per cent of foreign spending coming from south of the border.

The influx of American business has earned Vancouver the moniker Hollywood North, but unlike its southern counterpart, Vancouver does business with virtually no deal-makers in town. B.C.’s $1.2-billion film industry employs 20,000 directly and another 10,000 indirectly in large part as a service provider, an outsourcing production centre for the major American studios. But with the Canadian loonie soaring and cheaper production locations springing up across Eastern Europe and Asia, B.C. will soon have to rebrand itself as more than just another cheap production centre. But rebrand itself as what?



Hollywood North goes green

“Google ‘Hollywood Goes Green,’ ” Hardwick tells me. From the L.A. Times to, “going green” is, if nothing else, the hottest topic for the media covering Hollywood’s chattering class. “A bunch of actors and key creatives are demanding that productions go green,” explains Hardwick. “And if the higher-ups are demanding it, we’ll provide it.”

And that’s exactly what the 150 Reel Green BC Forum delegates – hanging on to Billik’s every word – want to know. Are the higher-ups demanding it? While many have undoubtedly come to the conference because of personal interests in the environment, the broader concern of attendees is about the future of their industry – and thus, their jobs. More and more sophisticated production centres are courting the L.A. studios daily. Out-greening the competition might be the local film industry’s only hope for keeping the American studios, and their billion dollars in business, here in B.C.

I meet freelance line producer Warren Carr in a busy Vancouver café on a mid-winter weekday afternoon. The TV pilot he’s slated to work on – Sony Pictures Television’s Kingdom – has gone into hiatus because of the writers’ strike, so he has been catching up on meetings and emails. Short, bespectacled and easygoing, Carr has barely sat down before he launches into his first pitch.


Green movie sets

“Coast EcoTimber,” he says, grinning like a schoolboy. “Logs dead on site, wind-fall, river-salvaged – it’s all timber that’s been harvested without cutting down new trees.” His meeting this morning, he explains, was with a few of the people in town who buy lumber for movie sets. They may have limited power, but their choices can make a big difference. Carr is hoping the next time these buyers order wood for construction they’ll use the Coast EcoTimber option instead of the same old stuff, like the lauan plywood the industry has been using since day one. Lauan, a cheap plywood from Southeast Asian rainforests, was originally called Philippines plywood until that country’s forestry industry was shut down in the late ’80s due to over-logging. “They, more than anyone, hate the waste,” Carr insists, referring to the lumber buyers. “Within three days or three months, it’s all in a bin.”

As someone who’s been freelancing in the industry since 1981 – working his way up from assistant director to location manager to department head to his current job – Carr has seen the industry grow from the home of token regional CBC productions such as The Beachcombers to one of the top alternate production centres outside of L.A. With an agent pushing for him in the States, Carr now works as the intermediary between American studios and anyone involved in production on the Canadian side. He’s hired for a project, gets a budget, and then he’s responsible for every dime that’s spent to make it happen.


The green swell

Lately he’s had to factor in more than he’s used to. “Some of the U.S. star actors are writing deals that the cars that drive them to set need to be hybrids – that the company has to donate X amount of money to carbon offset for their travel. It’s coming from every direction – a swell,” he says. As a supporter of Reel Green BC and the MPPIA environment committee, Carr has taken on the role of educating the troops on the ground level. After his meeting with industry lumber buyers, he rounded up a few of his competitors – other line producers in town – for a quick study on how offsetting actually works. “There’s a growing desire to work with it, but people don’t understand,” he says, “I have to walk them through it.”

In Carr’s opinion, the will for change has always been there. Nobody likes watching entire sets go to the landfill. In 1989 he worked on We’re No Angels, a Robert De Niro feature for which crews built three 1920s streets at the Ruskin Dam in Mission. Costing approximately $3.5 million to build, the set included a 50-metre-long, full-scale cathedral, replete with 25-by-50-centimetre hand-milled beams. “We didn’t crunch it after; we offered it to local businesses to be resalvaged and resold,” Carr says. “But even with that, we had 20 or so 40-yard bins of material go to the dump.”

Over the years, motivated individuals have attempted to recycle where possible. Costumers would send clothes to shelters. Administration would send office supplies to schools. One construction department head tried to get an exchange going, where productions could post leftover material for other shows to use. The problem was that the timing had to be perfect: one show had to go down just as another was going up. More often than not, the pick-up-and-go nature of the business meant a lot of waste, a lot of the time. “All of the systems aren’t quite set up,” Carr admits.

Still he remains resolute, if not optimistic. He and other line producers now have a link with Habitat for Humanity International, a non-profit organization that builds affordable housing. Hoping that at least some of their leftover building materials can be donated, Carr and his colleagues are attempting to work only with disposal companies that chip wood and recycle or remanufacture other materials, and there are large-scale efforts to save whatever supplies they can (from computers to paper-cutters) for future use. However, such efforts are still in the very early stages. “We have to get over the ‘why bother’ syndrome,” Carr says. “We have to start planning from the get-go.”


Eleanor O'ConnorEleanor O’Connor

Canadian green leaders

Among the growing numbers of green converts in B.C.’s film industry, Eleanor O’Connor, vice-president of Canadian operations for Paramount Production Support Inc., has emerged as a kind of beacon, an example of someone who has been “planning from the get-go” – and her influence over the industry serves as a warning about how one decision-maker can change the whole game.

O’Connor manages between 30 and 40 employees who handle more than $35 million worth of assets, including a fleet of more than 30 power generators and enough light and grip equipment that Paramount’s 60,000-square-foot warehouse in Burnaby never sits empty. Paramount vies with other Lower Mainland companies for all movie-equipment rental contracts that come to town, with only 10 per cent of O’Connor’s business coming from the parent company’s Canadian-based film and TV work. For O’Connor, being a green operator is not just smart business; it’s also proving popular with the troops. “There’s a tremendous groundswell,” O’Connor says. “A lot of people are dedicated and passionate about this.”

In 2004, after a series of conversations with her employees, O’Connor implemented an environmental action plan for Paramount’s operations in B.C. Having been given the autonomy by her superiors in L.A. to act as she saw fit, O’Connor started converting Paramount’s B.C.-based diesel generators and trucks to run on biodiesel, installed automatic power shut-offs for electric heating and cooling systems, installed a solar-power unit to recharge vehicles in storage, began an on-site composting and recycling program that includes everything from paper towels to wood to fluorescent light bulbs, and replaced all refreshments – coffee, cream, milk – with organic options. Even the Windex was tossed in favour of a more eco-friendly vinegar-and-water solution. All this without generating one word of opposition from her bosses in L.A. “There’s a growing awareness and acceptance of the pursuit of sustainability,” O’Connor says. Even if Paramount simply hadn’t noticed the changes O’Connor had implemented in their Canadian outpost, what impressed the likes of Warren Carr was O’Connor’s immediate impact on those below her in the supply chain. “We spend millions of dollars a year,” O’Connor explains. “We contacted our suppliers and asked them, ‘What packaging do you use? What products?’ We told them, ‘This is acceptable. That’s not.’ Those who were ready to make the shift have maintained our business.”

It was a simple equation with ominous results. If O’Connor has this kind of direct influence on purchasing decisions on a regional scale, wouldn’t the Rupert Murdochs and Leonardo DiCaprios wield a similar influence for purchasing decisions on a global scale? In other words, if the big American studios maintain their commitment to the environment, inevitably leading to greener purchasing decisions down the line, could B.C. maintain – even gain – market share by preparing for the green wave to come?

O’Connor thinks for a moment before answering. “I don’t know a single competing production jurisdiction – L.A., Toronto, New York – that is sufficiently dedicated to the environment – dedicated to make the depth and breadth of changes required at this time.”


Film industry environment committee

If the roots of B.C.’s billion-dollar-a-year film-service industry could be boiled down to one person, it might just be Pete Mitchell. Between 1995 and 1999, before his current stint as executive vice-president and COO of Vancouver Film Studios (VFS), Mitchell acted as B.C.’s Film Commissioner. With a background more in business than production, Mitchell guided the commission away from what he terms a cultural mandate (indigenous Canadian films) to a financial one. “I shifted the focus down south,” he explains, sitting in his office overlooking the VFS lots. That big-budget U.S. focus hasn’t changed, which is why Mitchell – like Carr, O’Connor and Hardwick – decided an industry environment committee was needed.

About once a month, the committee meets to discuss strategies to engage the local industry in better environmental practices. The Reel Green BC Forum came out of the committee’s need to bring all the different players together under one roof. As a result of the forum’s efforts, the B.C. Film Commission is now in negotiations with BC Hydro to create temporary power drops – short-term hydro-electricity feeds that avoid the use of generators – in downtown Vancouver and is in early discussions for an industry-wide recycling and reuse program. “Still, there are some people in town who are not convinced that the demand is as real as I think it is,” Mitchell says. “People ask, ‘Will being green actually make the difference?’ I don’t think the community has gelled.”



In February VFS announced that it had become the first carbon-neutral production facility in Canada. Mitchell has hired Offsetters Climate Neutral Society to look at VFS’s fuel and energy consumption and make recommendations as to how they can be reduced. Once these recommendations are in place, he’ll buy offsets to compensate for whatever carbon use his business can’t avoid. He has instituted a centralized recycling program for on-site materials and is working on a centralized composting program for sometime this year. He hopes that eventually there could be a third-party environmental auditing program for the film industry – equal in repute to the industry’s current financial auditing programs – that could annually evaluate his and other companies’ environmental performance.

“It’s important that the production community realizes there’s a tidal wave of green coming towards us,” Mitchell says, as I stand up to go. “It’s demand-driven. Major studios are making serious changes. We better be with them, or we’ll drop off the map.”

On the April 2004 cover of Time Warner Inc.’s company magazine Keywords is a photo of Shelley Billik, keynote speaker at the Reel Green BC Forum. She’s smiling proudly outside of Warner Bros.’s first LEED-certified building. It’s a special Earth Day issue for the in-house publication, featuring glowing interviews of Billik and her colleague David Refkin, director of sustainable development for Time Inc., a Time Warner publishing company.


Living up to the appearance

Clearly, for Time Warner – as with so many companies these days – the appearance of being green is as important as the act itself. It’s difficult to read through Keywords – or the corporate website, www​, where the Earth Day article is archived (along with Warner Bros.’s environmental track record and a Bugs Bunny-guided “eco-tour”) – without being hit over the head with the self-congratulatory tone. Environmental initiatives are regularly accompanied with bromides such as “It takes creativity to entertain the world while conserving resources on our planet” – the message that first greets visitors to the aforementioned website.

To speak with Billik herself, I’m forced to jump through one PR hoop after another, finally convincing the Warner Bros. communications department – after weeks of emails, phone calls and written explanations – that the intent is not to tarnish its carefully crafted environmental image but to answer a simple question: if all this effort is being made by Warner Bros. to go green, will it help the B.C. film industry if they do the same? They don’t think I’ll get what I’m looking for, but the Warner Bros. gate­keepers agree to let me have the interview.

At the appointed time, I get put through to Billik. We wade through the necessary questions – her history, the work she’s done – until finally I approach her gently with the question. If the B.C. film industry could out-green other production centres around the world, would it actually mean more business? Billik takes her time to respond. “From my perspective, that’s hard to answer,” she says, weighing each word. “Public consciousness is at a tipping point . . . but we make the tipping point.”

We make the tipping point. Her boss’s boss is us: the viewers of the movies, and in the end, we are driving them. In this age of marketing and spin, the environment may actually have found its ally.

The B.C. film industry doesn’t have a choice in the matter. The public is demanding that something be done about the environment; movie companies make their money from public demand; and if the public expects its movie suppliers to go green, it’s only a matter of time before those studios start demanding the same from their suppliers. With B.C. generating a billion dollars a year on contracts from L.A.-based movie studios, our film industry can’t afford to say no.

Additional photos: Peter Holst