It seemed to come out of nowhere: a high-production value theatrical doc featuring the then media-shy former presidential candidate Al Gore. Skeptics abound prior to the release -- it was tough to imagine that an intellectual stiff like Gore could carry a feature doc about, of all things, global warming, yet the film seems to have raised the profile of a whole crop of new "green" work. Yet, filmmaker and blogger AJ Schnack polled some industry folks before the release of "Truth" to gauge the buzz. David Poland of Movie City News said what others felt, "I think anything over $2 million is a real success for this film. It's just not a pop event."
But as weeks went on and box office returns rolled in, it was clear that "An Inconvenient Truth" struck a chord with audiences. Some $23 million in US box office alone, the film is what Malcolm Galdwell, in his book of the same name, calls "a tipping point," when an idea, style or product gathers enough momentum to appeal to masses.
With the Academy Award in hand and DVD sales well under way, American indifference to the worsening environmental situation could have returned, but as is the nature of a tipping point, with enough support, might the trend continue? A spate of new "green" strands, films and initiatives are flooding all information pathways, indicating that green docs are here for the near future and that people are trying to change their behavior.
Chris Palmer, executive producer of IMAX docs like "Dolphins" and "Coral Reef Adventures," says enviro docs aren't so much hot as "lukewarm." More outlets like Sundance Channel's new "The Green," a newly minted weekly feature doc slot for all stories green launched with Basil Gelpke's "Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash," a superb investigation into the facts and myths behind peak oil and the bleak outlook for oil-dependent society.
Gore, capitalizing on the momentum of "Truth," has an upcoming series of short films, "SOS Short Film" series. Made by doc luminaries such as Kevin MacDonald ("Touching the Void"), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady ("Jesus Camp"), and Amy Berg ("Deliver Us From Evil"), seven of the short films in the series will launch the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival.
Though there have never been shortages of documentaries devoted to environmental topics, they tended to live on public television or later on the National Geographic and Discovery Channels. For the majority of green docs, this popularization and commoditization as vehicles for corporate advertising, such as "The Green"'s prominent Lexus sponsorship, is new territory.
Another interesting development is celebrities jumping onto the bandwagon. "The Green" in hosted by Robert Redford, whose long-time environmental work is not unknown but what is new is using his celebrity to market environmental projects in such a high profile way. Leonardo DiCaprio's recent Vogue cover as an environmental documentary filmmaker, with a new project in production called "The 11th Hour," comes across as a Johnny-come-lately to capitalize on a trend.
A visit to the Sundance Channel or Vanity Fair websites will take you to minisites that employ a multi-platform approach. You can visit "The Green" in Sundance's Second Life screening room, download webisodes or enter a contest. The Vanity Fair site includes link to environmental nonprofits and even an article on the antagonist of Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold's "Everything's Cool."
The potential to make big money aside, many films that tackle environmental topics are benefiting from this new high profile though they were started long before the tidal wave of popularity. "Everything's Cool," which premiered at this year's Sundance, actually began filming during Sundance 2003 with the ski slope snow makers in Park City who were just waiting for the temperatures to dip low enough to make snow. Others profiled in the film are long-time activists trying over several years to battle apathy and mobilize the public into caring about our footprint on the Earth.
"King Corn" by Aaron Woolf, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis is another example of a project out now that took years to make, beginning in late 2003, yet appears at a fortuitous time. Cheney and Ellis discover that their families are descended from the same small town in Iowa (ironically called Greene) and they decide to trace the life cycle of corn from an Iowa farm to consumers. They set out and succeed in growing an acre of corn. The film illustrates in an uncomplicated yet powerful way the connections between economics, food, public health and environmental degradation and pollution.
Another example is "GoingGreen," a short project by Mary Proteau and Judith Vogelsang. "We completed the doc in 2005 and it took us over a year to find distribution to PBS stations," they said. "We thought it was a shoe-in when we produced the show and it turned out to be something we had to tirelessly market and pursue." Their persistence paid off as the half-hour film about eco-homes narrated by Tony Shaloub is being carried by 46% of PBS stations.
Another burgeoning trend is the realization within the industry that the film industry contributes significantly to environmental degradation. A study done at UCLA's Institute of the Environment found that the film and television industry is the second highest contributor of greenhouses gases to the Los Angeles atmosphere, with petroleum refining in the top position.
The report, Southern California Environmental Report Card for 2006, highlights the carbon-neutral production of "The Day After Tomorrow" as a positive example on the production front. In exhibition, SXSW was an early US festival to adopt carbon neutral policies, and Silverdocs, the AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival taking place in June, has announced its plan to also run carbon neutral--the first documentary fest in the US to do so.
North of the border, the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC), just officially launched a new green code of ethics for documentary filmmakers at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival. The Greencode Project is "a set of modest, voluntary, environmentally friendly eco-actions, guidelines, standards and principles that encourage ecologically friendly sustainability." Greencoders, who are filmmakers, the National Film Board of Canada and Greenpeace among others, will present their efforts to US documentary filmmakers during the International Documentary Conference taking place during Silverdocs hoping it will motivate film companies and makers of all stripes to practice what they preach.