Movie Industry Joins Environmental Cause

Like any other industry, the film business puts out its share of waste: building and taking down sets, printing and shipping film reels, even the bags and cups used at concession stands. And like many other industries today, film studios, distributors and exhibitors are taking steps to “go green,” by doing everything from installing solar panels to using disposable forks made from potatoes.

“Not just with theatres, but in all of our day-to-day lives, there’s always all kinds of little steps you can take,” says Nancy Gribler, VP of marketing for Sundance Cinemas. “It’s amazing and rewarding when you see how the small steps start to add up.”

At both its theatres, the Sundance in Madison, Wisconsin, and the soon-to-debut Sundance Cinemas Kabuki theatre in San Francisco, Sundance has aimed to incorporate environmentally aware policies from the ground up. “Part of Sundance’s core philosophy is trying to improve upon a somewhat un-green industry. We actually take great care in trying to do things in a more sustainable way,” Gribler explains.

Sundance’s construction process aims to use both reclaimed wood from other sources and recycled plastics, from the finishes on the building to the theatre seats. In the dining areas, a major part of the Sundance Cinemas, the disposable cups and clamshell boxes are made from corn syrup, which means they’re biodegradable. And yes, their forks are made from potatoes, from a brand called Spudware. Customers are asked to separate the recycling from the garbage, but the theatre employees are called upon to go the extra mile.

“We take it upon ourselves to go through the trash and separate the trash and the compost,” Gribler explains, adding that patrons have shown “a lot of support” for the program. “It’s up to us to help to educate the patrons. That’s our responsibility.”Over in Belgium, the Kinepolis theatre circuit has undertaken a similar program of environmental awareness in every aspect of its business. “Environmentalism is really in the context of corporate social responsibility,” says Myriam Dassonville, corporate communications manager for Kinepolis. “It’s a certain responsibility that cinema groups have to assume towards the people and towards the planet.”

Kinepolis builds all of its complexes across Europe, and the company uses local building materials and bases its construction on the local climate. “We have a complex in Spain, Kinepolis Valencia, where it’s very warm. There we have an open entrance, [and] we use this free and natural ventilation, so we don’t use cooling units,” Dassonville explains.

Kinepolis also considers location in terms of how far the theatre’s employees and patrons may have to travel to get there. “We always try to be in the presence of a train or a bus station,” notes Dassonville. “We can reduce the pressure of traffic; it’s very important to us. We also try to build apartments in the complexes, when it’s possible, so that members of the staff can live near work.”

In Chicago, Kerasotes Theatres has built their first multiplex featuring a “green roof”—a landscape of plants and rocks that helps keep energy inside the building and reduces heating and cooling costs. New regulations in the city of Chicago demanded the roof be built, but Ted Constan, marketing coordinator for the circuit, said Kerasotes was excited about the innovative roof design. “From an ecological standpoint, it’s a great opportunity to be involved in.”

One new waste-reducing step that Sundance, Kinepolis and Kerasotes have all been able to take recently is thanks to Dolby, which has introduced reusable 3D glasses for use when watching films like Beowulf. Though it’s up to the theatres to wash them and make sure customers don’t walk out with them, Dolby senior VP Ioan Allen says the glasses both save the theaters money and cut down on how many materials get thrown away.

“People think they’re more expensive. On the day that you buy them and pay the check, they are more expensive, [but] that cost is shared,” Allen explains. “Our reusable glasses we have tested at beyond 500 screenings and washes. If you take that mass into account, the cost per screening for our reusable glasses is somewhere between 10 and 20 cents.”

Kinepolis recently used the glasses for the opening of Beowulf, and Dassonville says they were a success. “They are lightweight but durable—high-performance. They’re designed to be used lots, lots of times.” Sundance has installed a specific glasses washer in the theatre, and Gribler says the new glasses also met with a positive response. “We got the most amazing comments over the weekend about the experience,” she comments.

The new reusable glasses are not the first time Dolby has taken a major step toward reducing the film industry’s environmental impact. More than six years ago, Dolby and Kodak teamed up to introduce a new technique for adding soundtracks to film, eliminating the use of dangerous silver and the chemicals used to process and clean it. Allen won an Academy Award earlier this year for this innovation, which uses cyan dye to add soundtracks.

“One-hundred percent of all Hollywood films are now released 100% cyan worldwide. It’s an amazing achievement we pulled off somehow,” Allen says modestly.

In the old process, a layer of silver was added to the final film stock in order for the projection bulb to properly read the soundtrack. In the process, however, millions of gallons of water were used to wash the film over and over again, not to mention the corrosive and caustic chemicals the projectionists had to handle once the film was delivered. In the early 1990s, Kodak approached Dolby to find a way to take silver out of the equation, and Dolby responded with a process that used cyan dye for the soundtrack, and replaced the tungsten bulb in projectors with a special red LED light. The new red light can read older silver soundtracks as well as cyan, and provides the added benefit to projectionists of never burning out mid-screening the way tungsten bulbs once did.

According to Allen, the redeveloping process involved with silver soundtracks was the “biggest single environmental problem” in the film industry. “The chemicals used [with silver soundtracks] totaled 3.5 million pounds of chemicals a year. That’s what’s not being used anymore,” he adds.

Though cyan dye has transformed the impact of 35mm prints on the environment, the advent of digital cinema should play a decisive role in reducing the environmental impact of the movies. “We’re looking at getting rid of film altogether and going digital, which would be a great cost decrease,” Constan says. “Film has a lot of chemicals in it. Digital is a little hard drive, and it’s reusable.”

Regardless of how they are shown, the movies—and the people behind them—can have plenty to contribute to the ongoing environmental movement.