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Hollywood mainstream goes green

In response to increasing concerns over global warming, Hollywood has developed a trend of environmental films.

This trend has led to the release of two mainstream documentaries, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Leonardo DiCaprio's The 11th Hour. Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of Environmental Sciences, is featured as an expert consultant in The 11th Hour. Pimm said he believes the success of these two films is due in large part to the star power of Hollywood.

"An Inconvenient Truth is a hugely effective movie," Pimm said. "There's no question that the leadership of famous stars sets an image that other people want to follow."

An Inconvenient Truth and The 11th Hour have reached a wide audience. An Inconvenient Truth won an Academy Award for Best Documentary and grossed $24 million in the U.S., the fourth highest total for a documentary to date. The 11th Hour was released in 111 theatres and grossed $707,343 in the U.S.

"It's important that scientists get out there and do the science," Pimm said. "But people need to know about it, and Hollywood is helping with that."

Wallace Nichols, a marine biologist who attained his masters' degree from the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences in 1992, said he thought environmental media was extremely helpful in raising awareness of environmental issues because of its ability to reach a large audience.

"Making environmental documentaries is nothing new, but now they're being made in a way that is reaching a lot more people," Nichols said.

Nichols, like Pimm, is featured in The 11th Hour. He also works with Animal Planet and National Geographic to produce environmental documentaries and television shows.

"It's helpful in just about every sector of society when people who are at the top of the heap are thinking about environmental issues, whether you're talking about rock stars, or leading political figures, or movie stars-the people we call celebrities," Nichols said. "It's a sign that we're starting to take these issues more seriously."

He added that the increase in the number of shows on environmental issues is partly due to an increase of interest in environmental documentaries.

"Not that long ago, when I pitched conservation to producers, they would tell me to take it out," Nichols said. "It was the 'c-word.' You couldn't get a TV show or film made with it, and then all of a sudden it switched and now conservation, sustainability and green issues are kind of the whole point. Things have changed from just a few years ago."

Although it is a general consensus among environmentalists and filmmakers that Hollywood attention on conservation and sustainability issues is a positive, some feel that it will take more to convince the public. Gary Hawkins, a visiting professor at the Center for Documentary Studies and Emmy award-winning filmmaker, said people in general are not that inclined to believe what they see in films. They are more likely to listen to a secondary authority.

"The movie puts the idea out there," Hawkins said. "But I wouldn't underestimate how much people are dug in on their beliefs. I was watching Monday Night Football and heard Chris Berman comment on Gore. I would say that far more people heard Chris Berman say that than saw the movie. That's how people are going to be convinced."

As an industry, Hollywood possesses a culture for environmentalism. In addition to Gore and DiCaprio, celebrities such George Clooney, Hayden Panettiere (of NBC's Heroes) and Angelina Jolie have all embraced conservation.

"All the people I've met in the entertainment industry passionately believe that we should have a strong sense of stewardship," Pimm said, "I think when you think about the entertainment industry, it's not like making napalm. It's relatively clean."

Some filmmakers, however, state otherwise. Josh Gibson, assistant director of the Film/Video/Digital program, states Hollywood is not always so keen on conservation and preservation.

"I was recently in Thailand, to a beach that had just been the site of The Beach, and they left the place in complete disrepair," he said. "[Hollywood producers] go out into the world where it's cheaper to produce a film, and they don't pick up after themselves."

Perhaps this is suggestive of a discrepancy in Hollywood's approach to conservation, but there is no doubt that the more environmental films produced, the more the public responds.

"I think people are starting to think a little more about what they buy and rethinking their policies on waste, or paper versus plastic," Nichols said. "People are buying local produce, buying organic food and there are more hybrid cars on the road."

Although he feels there are many obstacles yet to be overcome, Pimm said the emphasis rested on whatever positive results Hollywood caused.

"I think there are a lot of things going on," he added. "I've never been more optimistic."

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