Despite a Twister Remake, the Climate Crisis is Still Woefully Underrepresented Onscreen.
A recent report created in partnership by the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center and Good Energy Stories contains sobering news. Only 2.8% of the 37,453 scripted TV shows and movies released between 2016 and 2020 mentioned climate change. Contrast that with a Pew poll showing two thirds of Americans demand the federal government do more to combat the climate crisis.
I talked with both groups to better understand what needs to be done to bring more climate stories to the screen.
“For some of us climate change has been an important issue for a long time. When we started working on climate change with shows and writers it took us a good couple of years to get writers heads around the idea,” said Kate Langrall Folb.
Folb is the Director of Hollywood Health and Society, part of the Lear Center. HHS provides the entertainment industry with accurate and up-to-date information for storylines on health, safety and security.
“It’s not like heart disease,” Folb said. “It’s easy for a writer to tell a story about someone going into the hospital with heart disease.”
“The trick of storytelling is that it has to feel authentic and to do that you need really great storytellers. To be a great storyteller especially in the medium of television and film takes very hard work and immense talent. You can’t skip over that part. So yes, we need more stories, but we need more high-quality stories,” said Anna Jane Joyner.
Joyner is a climate story consultant and founder and director of Good Energy Stories. Good Energy aims to “make it as easy as possible to portray the climate emergency on-screen in entertaining and artful ways, in any storyline, across every genre.
“Hollywood has a reputation for being difficult to break into for good reason. But because we are doing something that people care about, there’s been a lot of positive reception to the report. The old guard in some cases are still suspicious of climate change stories – they think it’s too political or too boring or people don’t care. The truth is we are all learning how to tell these stories,” Joyner said.
She also echoed Folb’s comments about the higher bar for climate change narratives. “It’s not like war or hunger or racism or any number of other social ills that we have countless shows and movies to reference.”
What barriers exist for writers looking to include more global warming narratives in their projects?
“We try very hard to not tell a writer or showrunner how to do their jobs,” Folb said. “Some writers feel hypocritical. Like ‘I’m not that green and it makes me feel preachy to write about it when I’m the worst offender.”
“I was very intentional about telling our team – story is first and very valuable to us. The fear is we are asking people to write propaganda or shoehorn chocolate covered broccoli into their diets. If it feels forced into a story it won’t likely get made and if it does get made audiences won’t respond well,” Joyner said.
“I also think the fossil fuel industry has done a very good job making us feel guilty for our individual climate footprints. They are phenomenal at storytelling they’ve been investing in that for decades,” Joyner said.
Do the divisive politics over climate change and fears by studios of losing eyeballs have an impact?
“I do think so,” Joyner said. “There are some recent examples, Florida’s LGBT laws and Disney conflict. These are businesses that don’t want to alienate their customers, but the vast majority of Americans believe in climate change and are worried about it. A big demographic focus for content creators and distributors are Millennials and Gen Xers and you look at those audiences and break down the numbers it’s pretty easy to dispel the notion that climate change content is going drive viewers away.”
“Also, you run the opposite risk with audiences that do care. Our research shows that audiences believe they care more about climate change than the characters they see onscreen. At some point that becomes a problem. If the world of your story is not the world we live in, that disconnect of a lived experience by the audience is not good for the story. It’s not just about doing something right, it also makes the story you’re telling authentic to the world we live in,” Joyner said.
Despite the low numbers in the report, there is evidence 2023 might be a boon for climate crisis themed screen entertainment. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a heist-style thriller – premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and was immediately purchased by Neon. In Amazon Prime’s The Rig, one character summarizes the situation as “we keep punching holes in the earth, eventually it’s going to punch back.” The star heavy cast of Apple TV Plus’s Extrapolations aims to tackle climate change as an anthology series. In HBO Max’s The Last of Us, the zombie causing fungi is fueled by our over-heated atmosphere.
And then the news blew in that 90’s disaster classic Twister was being remade. You can’t say Hollywood doesn’t recycle. While “Details as to the new film’s plot are currently under wraps,” it’d be a huge whiff if the new generation of storm chasers weren’t confronted by mega-tornadoes super-charged by climate change.
Good Energy’s Joyner laughs when I asked her about the obvious evolution of the Twister franchise.
“That’s a clear climate related example.”