Who’s Funding Efforts to Bring Climate Narratives to the Big Screen?

It seems like a simple pair of requirements: Does climate change exist in a film? And does a character know about it? In 2013, just one top film met that mark. The next year, two films did, as did a couple the year after that. In 2016? Zero. One year after the Paris Climate Agreement, there was not a single major movie that featured the global emergency.

May 08, 2024

Michael Kavate | May 02, 2024

It seems like a simple pair of requirements: Does climate change exist in a film? And does a character know about it?

In 2013, just one top film met that mark. The next year, two films did, as did a couple the year after that. In 2016? Zero. One year after the Paris Climate Agreement, there was not a single major movie that featured the global emergency. 

Those were among the findings of the Climate Reality Check, a report released this week by the climate storytelling consultancy Good Energy and Colby College’s Buck Lab for Climate and Environment. University researchers applied those two conditions to the 250 most popular fictional films of the past decade, based on IMDb ratings. Just 9.6% cleared the bar. Add the condition that climate change be mentioned in two or more scenes, and the pass rate would have been only 3.6%.

The new report is the latest product of Good Energy, a nonprofit that the New York Times dubbed “Hollywood’s Climate Advisor.” It’s one of a variety of philanthropy-backed organizations that bring climate narratives to screens around the world — some intentionally, others more indirectly. Several say that they’ve been doing more climate-related projects than ever in recent years.

Philanthropic funding for this space is, like so many in climate philanthropy, a sliver of a sliver. As ClimateWorks Foundation has found, climate mitigation philanthropy accounts for just 2% of global philanthropy, and all public engagement funding around climate by foundations has accounted for about $255 million annually in recent years. Strategic communications and narrative change work are essentially smaller slices of that amount, and funding for films fits somewhere within them. The oil and gas industry, by contrast, spends about $750 million annually on climate-related communications. But amid burgeoning philanthropic interest in narrative change strategies and a growing willingness to fund intersectional work, perhaps climate narratives will benefit.

Good Energy’s research was inspired by the Bechdel-Wallace Test, which asks whether a fictional work includes two women who have a conversation about something other than a man. Good Energy itself grew out of Joyner’s recognition that other social movements were working with Hollywood to put narratives on screen, whether that was Define American on immigration or Illuminative on Native narratives, but not the climate movement.

“At that point there was nothing,” she said. “That seemed like a really big gap.” Yet the uptake was slow. Convincing Hollywood to act, it turned out, was the easier sell. “It’s actually been a lot harder to get climate philanthropy to invest in narrative change,” she said.

Happily, some funding has come through. Good Energy is now supported by an eclectic mix of backers, including some of the world’s biggest climate philanthropies like Walton Family Foundation and Quadrivium Foundation, as well as the Sierra Club, Pop Culture Collaborative and Climate Emergency Fund.

Another backer is Bloomberg Philanthropies. “We thought this is a breath of fresh air, a really different approach,” said Katherine Oliver, a principal at Bloomberg Associates who directs the philanthropies’ film program and is a member of the Good Energy Advisory Council.

Backing movies and culture change is not always thought of as the domain of metrics-first funders like Bloomberg. As Oliver noted, “Mike Bloomberg has always said, ‘You can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But Good Energy’s data-oriented approach has been a fit. Bloomberg has also backed similar culture change work by Hip Hop Caucus and A Day of Unreasonable Conversation, and years ago it helped create two climate-related documentaries.

With its big-name funders, Good Energy is just one vehicle channeling philanthropic dollars to feature climate narratives in movie and TV productions. Here’s a look at two other operations in this space.

A famous actor’s nonprofit backs environmental storytelling

From its office in the verdant oasis of San Francisco’s Presidio park, The Redford Center backs the kind of feature-length environmental documentaries that feature on the screens of Netflix, Hulu, HBO and the Sundance Film Festival.

Named for its cofounders, actor Robert Redford and his late son, the documentarian James Redford, the center has supported 47 projects with $1.7 million in grants since the launch of its grantmaking program in 2016, many of them in the form of one-year, $25,000 grants, with recipients eligible to apply for additional support. The center has distributed another $20 million to 80 projects through fiscal sponsorships. 

Climate is just one of many areas of focus. The center backs all sorts of stories that push for environmental progress, whether on climate or toxic pollutants, with a strong preference for human-focused narratives, said executive director Jill Tidman.

We’re really looking for stories that have a lot of intersections, that help people understand how this issue affects their life,” she said. “We’ve really been careful about not just going toward climate — because that’s the issue that is getting the most attention in the space — but looking bigger.

Jill Tidman, Executive Director, The Redford Center

For instance, the center supported the 2023 documentary “Razing Liberty Square,” now on PBS, which tells the story of a public housing community in Miami that became “ground zero for climate gentrification” due to its position on higher ground in the low-lying city. It’s a model of the type of films Redford likes to support. “It came in with some strong impact goals, and has been having impact even before it had its big premiere,” Tidman said.

Funding for the center comes from a range of backers, including the New York Community Trust, which backs the center through the Pare Lorentz Documentary Film Fund, and seeded the center’s grants program in 2015. Other major funders include the Walton Family Foundation, JPB Foundation, Far Star Action Fund and Acton Family Giving. Redford is also a financial supporter, but primarily gives his time. “It’s a common misconception that we are an endowed foundation of Robert Redford’s,” Tidman said.

The center did a landscape analysis a couple years ago to find similar operations. “And we didn’t really uncover too much more. We’re one of the few,” Tidman said. The center’s current peers, according to Tidman, are mostly other nonprofits, generally unendowed, like Catapult Film Fund and Perspective Fund. Another is docsociety, whose Climate Story Unit is a Good Energy backer, an indicator of the small and close-knit nature of this world.

A science film funder that “runs into” climate

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is one of the very few endowed philanthropies directly supporting not just documentaries about climate, but scripted storytelling. The grantmaker has funded or given awards to more than 800 films since 1995, including the climate parable and apocalypse comedy “Don’t Look Up,” starring Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio.

You can find — and freely watch! — many of those features, shorts and documentaries on a specially designed site. But you cannot search for those related to climate, at least for now. That’s partly by design. “I don’t have a climate change program, neither does Sloan. I have a science program,” said Doron Weber, vice president and program director of Sloan’s Public Understanding of Science & Technology program. “Inevitably, climate bleeds in.”

By its count, Sloan has backed more than 20 climate-related films and TV shows, while foundation partners have given screenwriting or production awards to another 30 such projects, according to a foundation-prepared list. Some of the works on that list are explicitly about climate, such as the 2014 drama “2030” about a near-future Vietnam where climate-change-driven sea level rise requires the cultivation of food on floating farms, and a forthcoming project currently titled “How Did Climate Change?”

But most are more tangentially connected. There are works like the 2019 Netflix drama “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” the story of a 13-year-old in Malawi who builds a windmill to save his family from a famine, and several related to biologist and author Rachel Carson, including a segment of the PBS series American Experience — which Sloan has long supported — about her groundbreaking book on pesticides, “Silent Spring.”

The program has impressive geographic reach. Within the U.S., Sloan has backed climate projects related to Cape Cod, Long Island, Alaska, Kentucky, Texas and Washington state. Abroad, the list includes France, China, India, Australia, the Himalayas, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Syria, Colombia, Greenland, Kenya and the Arctic Circle.

The funding strategy is intentionally multidisciplinary. “I sometimes use the analogy of a pinball machine,” Weber said. “Once I get the ball in there, then we can ratchet up the score by going through film and television show, radio — different kinds of media. So to me, it’s all connected.” That list includes books. Weber’s program has also supported 20 climate-related books, including Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Under a White Sky.”

Climate may not be an intentional focus for Sloan, but in recent years, it has become a more common ingredient. Nearly half of the climate-related film and TV projects Sloan supports have come since 2019, and based on the list the foundation provided, nearly all of the climate-related screenwriting and production awards it has supported have come in that timeframe, as have 17 of the 20 books.

“I just run into climate because it’s there rather than looking for it,” Weber said. “In that sense, my program probably reflects the concerns that are out there.” These days in philanthropy, no matter what a funder is focused on, that is an increasingly common experience.