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GOING GREEN - Making Waves: The New Generation of Marine Docs Aren't Just Raising Awareness - They're Directing Action

Posted By Katie Carpenter, Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The green production movement is taking off—seems producers are trying even harder to help the planet in these fraught times, when that help is needed most.

The next frontier: finding ways to increase and enhance the impact of green narratives on the big screen. Feature-length documentaries, about marine issues in particular, are starting to turn heads and just in time. It’s useful to examine the paths of three feature films which have made lasting impressions—Blackfish, Sonic Sea and Chasing Coral.

Taking a page from the playbook of earlier eco-docs like The Cove, today’s marine conservation producers want to change more than hearts and minds. They want to change policies, cultural norms and even laws, to help establish more protections for the ocean and its inhabitants.

One little film with a big marine mission even spawned its own catchphrase—“The Blackfish Effect.”

Former TV producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite wanted to make a murder mystery about a whale and a trainer at SeaWorld and ended up reeling in film festival honors and a BAFTA Award. According to Nielsen, over its first 28 telecasts on CNN, Blackfish reached 28 million viewers across all age groups.

“The story evoked empathy,” says reviewer Caty Borum Chattoo in HuffPost, “an emotional response that is an evidence-based powerful driver of attitude shift and intended action in response to storytelling.” Seizing the propulsion of that emotion, the director and her network set out to bring about lasting change.

The film’s impact ricocheted around legislative and corporate worlds across the U.S. In 2016, California passed what became known as the “Blackfish Bill,” banning orca captive breeding programs, while New York proposed a ban on “possession or harboring of killer whales in aquariums or sea parks.”

On the corporate front, SeaWorld’s attendance plummeted. They reported an 84% drop in profits and a 30% drop in stock price in one year. Even after stopping their captive breeding program, the company is struggling financially.

Changing laws and stock prices only happens when you’ve riveted your viewing public, then followed up with an impact campaign targeting the audiences you need to reach most, through social media, screenings, blogging, direct email and personal visits to government officials.

“It’s exceedingly rare to see this kind of result,” says Amy Entelis, co-founder of CNN Films. “Blackfish endures, even after dozens of viewings. It’s had a deeper impact and has been seen by far more people than we ever expected.”

Soon after came Sonic Sea, a film about marine mammals in the wild at risk from damaging noise produced by seismic surveys and military sonar. Produced by Michelle Dougherty and Daniel Hinerfeld of NRDC, an environmental advocacy group, it was broader in scope, with celebrity interviews and narration by actress Rachel McAdams.

The story was fresh, the evidence persuasive, and soon it was picked up by film festivals and ultimately by Discovery’s Impact strand. Following the broadcast, the real punch came with the individual screenings NRDC organized to make sure the message of the dangers of underwater noise was received loud and clear.

The goals of the Sonic Sea producers were ambitious, and they got results. According to Michael Jasny, the head of NRDC’s marine mammal team, the film was widely used by activists in last year’s successful fight against seismic blasting off the Atlantic coast. “The film also helped to spur the release of NOAA’s long-delayed ocean noise strategy and persuade General Electric to develop an industry consortium to reduce underwater noise.”

The summer of 2017 saw the art of impact campaigning reach a new level with the release of Chasing Coral. Less than two months after its launch on Netflix, it’s already apparent that the film is making a mark.

 Few recent docs have had as significant an impact as Blackfish

 “Part of our task as filmmakers is to capture those corals visually and bring them home,” says director Jeff Orlowski. “Less than 1% of the world population goes scuba diving, and of that percentage, the vast majority of recreational divers get brought only to the beautiful spots. So we needed to say, ‘You know, this is on its way to dying. This is a really, really devastated reef right now.’”

As part of their impact campaign, producer Larissa Rhodes built an outreach team to target multiple audiences, from schools to policymakers. They offered a take-action guide to enable viewers to help move their communities toward 100% renewables or to help protect the ocean, at home or abroad. Viewers can “Become an Ambassador,” “Share the Visual Evidence,” or “Dive and Swim Smartly.” There’s an action plan for everyone, scuba divers and couch surfers alike. Indian cricket star Rohit Sharma was moved to tweet about the film and used the social media kit to share with his 7 million fans online.

“People are writing to us from all over, saying they want to get involved in some way,” says Samantha Wright, impact director for the film. “It’s been an incredibly humbling experience, learning the sheer diversity of ways people want to take action. They’re donating to local green groups, volunteering at climate change events, calling their legislators, throwing green-themed birthday parties for their kids.”

We’ll know soon about whether the “Chasing Coral Effect” will replace the “Blackfish Effect,” but soon there might be all kinds of “effects” reaching new audiences. Add the Mission Blue and Plastic Ocean and Ocean Warriors Effects, and gradually, we will expand our understanding of what moves the needle.

Jeff Orlowski is on a mission, but like most of us, he doesn’t want to compromise the artistry of his work. “We are working to create calls to action that we can bring to audiences after the film, and we’re doing an impact campaign to help people make a shift in their own community. But I look at that as a separate goal from the film itself, and the hope is to keep the film as artistically and creatively pure as possible.”

It’s a one-two punch—open hearts and minds with your paintbrush, then deliver change with your catapult. And producers—fight for the budget for both up front! 

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Note: whether your next film project has environmental
content or not, save your own piece of the planet by producing with the green production guidelines
of the PGA:

www.greenproductionguide.com

Tags:  going green 

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