The “greening” of film production distribution and exhibition had been jump-started by the success of digital films and 3D blockbusters such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (2011) (1.3 billion in worldwide ticket sales) and Avatar (2009) (2.75 billion in worldwide ticket sales). This success now forces far greater beneficial environmental results throughout the whole process of filmmaking and film viewing. The digital age may reduce the carbon footprint of film companies in major ways that are still being calculated. Although, as Alimurang suggests, the shift to digital will have negative consequences for independent theatres, projectionist jobs, and classic film distribution, it may also help “green” the movie business.
Digital filmmaking also makes it possible to produce low-budget independent films. The digital cinematography used in the powerful anti-mountaintop removal mining films of B.J. Gudmundsson and the humorous call to address climate change found in Jon Cooksey’s How to Boil a Frog lower their budgets, making them more financially feasible to produce and distribute. Even larger budget documentaries such as The Last Mountain and Blue Vinyl lower production costs using digital filmmaking processes. Technologies such as digital cameras, computer generated editing for both image and sound have made the whole process of filmmaking truly democratic.
Yet making those films accessible to a wider audience creates other economic and financial problems. New York Times reporter Nancy Ramsey highlights the hidden costs of documentaries in her exploration of Jonathan Caouette’s distribution experience with Tarnation (2003). Although the film cost as little as $218 to make, once the film gained distribution, costs exceeded $500 thousand, with rights to the music included in the film accounting for $230 thousand of the total. The difficulty attaining distribution also limits low-budget documentaries’ accessibility. Peter Judson’s Nobody Wants Your Film (2005) provides a, sometimes, comic perspective on the problems director Alexandre Rockwell and writer Brandon Cole face when attempting to market their film, Thirteen Moons. Nobody Wants Your Film collects and augments footage shot on the set of Thirteen Moons, as well as a series of interviews with cast and crew members and e-mails between Rockwell and possible distributors to provide a semi-fictionalized story of difficulties gaining distribution, illustrating the problem many of the films explored here face when their films are only available through a small distributor’s website.
Of the twelve mountaintop removal mining films we watched, for example, only two gained a wide release: Coal Country, as a regional festival favorite, was broadcast on PBS in the fall of 2009, perhaps because it was directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Phylis Geller, the filmmakers who brought The Appalachians to PBS in 2005. With Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at its center, Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain acquired a limited theatrical release after premiering at the Sundance and Seattle Film Festival. Another documentary examining mountaintop removal mining, On Coal River (2010) is becoming a festival favorite like Coal Country and The Last Mountain, but it has chosen a different distribution route: iTunes. The film is available as a DVD for schools, libraries, and universities, but individual films are only available through the iTunes library. Even though only two of these films have found limited distribution success, however, all twelve draw on the experiences of the nearly the same anti-MTR activists, including Maria Gunnoe, Joe Lovett, and especially, (before her death), Julia/Judy Bonds. They also all highlight MTR incidents primarily in and near Boone County, West Virginia, even though other parts of Appalachia are suffer the results of MTR, including Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and other counties in West Virginia.
Which brings us back to the original question: Can the film industry and environmental movements mix? With cautious optimism, we can give only a qualified “yes” to the new attempts because of the enormous energy expenditures used to create film and the yet uncalculated waste levels associated with its distribution and exhibition. Hollywood film studios are making the move to “green,” partially because of economic issues, partly because of California’s environmental laws which regulate greenhouse gas emissions more stringently than the federal government, and partly because Hollywood film stars from George Clooney to Leonardo DiCaprio demand it. As the Warner Brothers website declares, “It takes creativity to entertain the world while conserving resources on our planet.”