This is a 911 call to Hollywood…
“The math is brutally clear: while the world can’t be healed within the next few years, it may be fatally wounded by negligence (before) 2020,” unequivocally stated Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in an article in The Guardian.
In street terms, i.e., two friggin’ years to save the world!
Facing the Neanderthal stupidity of the lingering inertia for not mobilizing a massive carbon reduction strike force following the trifecta of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria that were turbo-charged by broiling salt water heated to 90 degrees resulting in 50 inches of rain, we must accelerate into supersonic gear to try and prevent the self-destruction of the planet.
It’s not like concerned citizens, scientists and environmental groups haven’t tried.
To mobilize the public, we’ve had the visionary International Day of Climate Action organized by 350.org in 2009 and the People’s Climate March in New York City in September, 2014 that sparked 400,000 demanding action against fossil fuels that are burning up our planet.
And we’ve had passionate scientists break into tears over how CO2 emissions are acidifying our oceans faster than ever before while six scientists appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2016 and fired a lightning round of f-bombs punctuating their dire warnings about the warming planet.
To its credit, Hollywood has had multiple productions that have tried to provoke the public into some climate consciousness of awareness and, ideally, massive action.
In 2004, the eerily prescient The Day After Tomorrow spun the world into hyper-dramatic weather disasters after a huge ice sheet sheared off in Antarctica. It cost $125 million and grossed an impressive $187 million at the box office. But no residual arc into action.
The indefatigable Al Gore brought his traveling slide show to the screen in 2006 with the Oscar winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. There’s a fortuitous scene in the documentary where Gore stands next to a map of Florida with a rising blue overlay representing the ocean inundating the Sunshine State. When Irma was barreling down on the Florida Keys, why wasn’t that clip used as a trigger point for discussion on the cable networks? Was it too political to validate that Gore was spot on 11 years ago, and even long before that?
In 2010, there was a controversial documentary called Someplace With a Mountain. Sailor Steve Goodall discovered the citizens of Polowat in Micronesia who had no idea why their seas were rising until Goodall showed them a clip from An Inconvenient Truth. Goodall used that profound isolation as a trigger to call on wealthy Americans to raise millions of dollars to buy an island and relocate the entire population. Vid Raatior, formerly of the Chuuk State in Micronesia, and now working at the University of Hawaii, called this film nothing more than “a scam.”
Also in 2010, prolific producer Stephen (“It’s the environment, stupid!”) Nemeth teamed with writer and director Michael Nash on the award-winning Climate Refugees that depicted the painful stories of people from around the globe and how climate change is imposing its will on their coastal populations by causing relocations. A couple salient takeaways from this brilliant documentary: our Department of Defense is well aware of the growing spike in climate refugees and views it as a national security issue while none other than Newt Gingrich admits that climate change should not be a political issue.
In 2011, the gritty but Oscar-nominated documentary called Sun Come Up by Jennifer Redfearn detailed schemes as far back as the 1980s to relocate the Carteret Islanders living on a remote island chain in the South Pacific. As one Carteret Islander said, “Most of our culture will live in memory.”
Also in 2011, The Hungry Tide, a poignant documentary by Tom Zubrycki, chronicles Maria Tiimon from Kiribati who travels to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference and pleads at the podium about her sinking homeland during one of the sessions. Then while keeping her I-Kiribati culture alive with transplants in Sydney, Australia, Maria tries to deal with her ailing parents as storm tides are sweeping into villages and crumbling fragile sea walls. This documentary avoids the clinical details of climate change but shows it through the eyes of those whose personal lives are ripped apart day-by-day.
Using time-lapse cameras over a year across the Arctic and Greenland, photographer James Balog and director Jeff Orlowski created a jaw-dropping visual timeline of how fast we are losing the fight to save our blue planet in Chasing Ice. Using helicopters, canoes and sled dogs,this riveting documentary was released in 2012. As we’re all familiar with lava flows in Hawaii creating new formations under the ocean, this is a stark reverse as we gape while watching ancient mountains of ice wither away.
A month before the release of The Island President in the spring of 2012, President Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean was taken down by a coup d’edat and was forced to resign. As the Al Gore of Asia, Nasheed was a tireless, one-man crusader trying to make the world acutely aware of how vulnerable his nation is to the rising seas as it is the lowest lying country in the world. As a publicity stunt, he held a memorable press conference under water and, eventually, was able to get members of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference to sign a document agreeing to unspecified carbon reductions.
Years of Living Dangerously was a TV series — first on Showtime in 2014 which won an Emmy –– and then on the National Geographic Channel in 2016. Combining blue-chip celebrities such as Matt Damon, Jack Black, Harrison Ford, David Letterman and Gisele Bundchen with journalists, each episode was an eco-logue on a specific environmental issue or a solution to address climate change. One of the high profile producers, James Cameron, admitted they had hoped for higher ratings, but they “braced for less because historically people tend not to tune into something that’s environmentally themed or climate change related … It’s part of the whole denial process that we’re all in as a society that we really have to face up to.”
Renowned documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson served up his Time to Choose film in 2016 using eight aerial cinematographers providing penetrating shots of melting ice sheets and Himalayan glaciers as well as a smorgasbord of solutions to the #1 issue of our time.
In Before the Flood, superstar Leonardo DiCaprio took viewers on a worldwide journey of climate calamities while meeting with luminaries such as Elon Musk, President Obama and even Pope Francis along the way. This 2016 documentary — that later aired and broke viewing records on National Geographic platforms — beats the gong of the doomsday clock ticking ever louder if we don’t slash our carbon footprints.
After receiving a standing ovation at the 2017 Sundance Festival, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel offered glimpses of hope as renewable energy has soared in some nations around the world. Filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk keep the camera rolling as Gore gives one presentation after another while also sloshing in high boots through the high tides coming up from manhole covers in Miami. But the climax reveals the riveting drama of Gore convincing India’s Prime Minister of State Piyush Goyal to sign the Paris Climate Accord after cajoling the CEO of Solar City to share its intellectual property so India can install its own solar panels. Topping it off, Gore also helped persuade the World Bank to lend $1 billion to India to get these panels implemented. Talk about being plugged in to renewables. Way to go, Gore!
Yet, yet, after 13 years of Emmy and Oscar-winning documentaries, films and series with the highest profile producers and talent totaling over $300 million in production costs; climate marches; universal global cooperation with the Paris Agreement; the three hottest years on record in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and with Biblical hurricanes, rains and wildfires, the response from the public, for the most part, is …. meh.
But one artfully crafted and gripping animal welfare documentary has motivated the public like no other climate documentary or film.
Shortly after it debuted to rave reviews at the Sundance Festival in 2013, a humble but horrific documentary exquisitely directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite generated a fortuitous summary. An IMBD reviewer named D. Blalock foretold the film’s fate when this person wrote, “This film moves with the fluidity of a wild Orca in the ocean. Don’t miss out on seeing Blackfish because it’s going to change the way you think.”
“… because it’s going to change the way you think.” Let those words sink in. Scientists, NGOs, government policy wonks, think tanks and producers of climate documentaries have been literally pounding their heads against walls for over 20 years trying to get a down wind breeze of what this singular documentary achieved with its stellar presentation.
More reviews glowed with high praise:
· “A mesmerizing psychological thriller” —Variety
· “Blackfish plays liked a crime thriller” —Movie Scope
· “Unfolds like a thriller” —Vulture
· “As horribly gripping as a serial-killer thriller” —The Guardian
· “A controversial portrait of a serial-killer”—The Evening Standard
· “A heartbreaking documentary, forensically constructed” —The Sunday Telegraph
Get the drift? Blackfish was an unintended Trojan horse (or Trojan whale) wrapped inside the familiar genre of a CSI-type thriller.
The villain, Tilikum, a performing whale that killed three people while in captivity, with the last death at a SeaWorld entertainment park in Florida, ignited a fiery fusion of sustained activism by PETA; multiple airings on CNN and extended media coverage that has dramatically changed the fortunes and corporate culture of a New York Stock Exchange company.
From a high stock price per share of $38 in early 2013, SeaWorld Entertainment now trades in the $13.63 per share range. With 90.55 million outstanding shares and a $14.37 drop in its per share stock price, the financial losses since Blackfish first aired are staggering and crushing just as its prized star crushed the lives of three innocent victims.
But wait, there’s more:
Three class action lawsuits; musicians dropped performances; Southwest and Mattel dropped their deals; OSHA citations; a fired CEO; massive drops in attendance; a misleading SeaWorld PR backlash triggered more self-inflicted corporate wounds and then in 2016, the state of California passed a bill called the Orca Welfare and Safety Act that phases out the holding of killer whales in captivity and establishes standards for treatment of all remaining captive Orcas.
In October, 2017, “The Blackfish Effect” as it’s been described, continued its far-reaching impact as SeaWorld Entertainment had another 732,000 drop in attendance during the 3rd quarter while also announcing it’s cutting 350 positions by the end of 2017.
One of the undercurrents to Blackfish was the realization that wild Orcas were not intended to be caged in basically solitary confinement. That mental stress on an Orca – let alone on a human – has an accumulative effect like a blocked gas line that explodes.
The other undercurrent was the cacophony of emotional storytelling from former SeaWorld trainers combined with the layers of animal empathy built into the timeline tracking of Tilikum’s movement from early captivity in 1983 to Florida left Blackfish viewers with a need to “change the way you think” about contributing to SeaWorld’s bottom line. And did they ever, as the public organically responded with an extended economic boycott by not attending their parks.
For a documentary that only grossed $2.1 million at the box office combined with repeated airings on CNN and a savvy social media agitator like PETA, Blackfish has become a classic textbook case of how to craft and package an emotionally charged real world crime story to fuel positive change.
This documentary will save a few dozen Orcas from future captivity by showing the dark side of a familiar and enjoyable public experience. Unfortunately, to save our planet, the public, i.e. the masses — even with the recent and unprecedented hurricanes — still can not grapple through the complex climate science of an existential threat in the future.
To fire up the public, we need to Blackfish the climate crisis in an identifiable scenario with relatable characters presented in a genre that is familiar to film or TV audiences.
“The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan once said.
Even more so today. The medium being a CSI documentary thriller wrapped around the harsh treatment of a captive Orca for corporate greed did change not only the way the public thinks, but it also capsized the present and future viability of a major NYSE corporation.
With only two years left to reverse the course of our planet from irrevocably burning up, this is a 911 plea: Can we please sit down and immediately create a Blackfish for Mother Earth?
Author of Be A Global Force Of One! … In Your Hometown and a co-author of Chicken Soup for the Volunteer’s Soul: Stories to Celebrate the Spirit of Courage, Caring and Community, John T. Boal
is a national accounts director for a New York-based nonprofit and resides in Burbank, CA.