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Lights, camera, climate action: How Earth Angel is trying to fix the film industry

October 3, 2019 Keyshae Robinson

Picture this: You’re watching television.

It gets to the part of the show where the good guy has taken a beating. The bad guy is going to get away. Suddenly, there’s a flash in the protagonist’s eye, and you know tables are going to turn as the hero stands tall once more. The bad guy stumbles and this is it, the climactic moment in which justice is about to be served — and you think to yourself, “I wonder if that prop desk they shattered was from ethically sourced timber, and if the producers have done everything possible to reduce their carbon footprint?”

Okay, you’re probably not thinking that. But Emellie O’Brien is. She’s the founder of Brooklyn-based Earth Angel, and works with Marvel Studios, Netflix and others to ensure the productions are environmentally conscious.

Movies carrying a budget of $50 million dollars produce roughly 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to a 2018 study released by Columbia University. Using strategies ranging from customized waste allocation, eco-education of crew members and carbon tracking, Earth Angel has been leading the charge in reducing the environmental footprint of production sets since its founding in 2013.

Emellie O’Brien. Photo by Scott Templeton/Earth Angel

The seeds for Earth Angel were planted in O’Brien’s youth, O’Brien said. Her time spent as a Girl Scout provided the roadmap to a “leave no trace” philosophy that continued on with her throughout university, where she majored in film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts .

“It really wasn’t until college that I began to learn about these various environmental crises from joining different sustainability groups and watching documentaries. My whole push to study film in the first place was because I wanted to help make socially and environmentally conscious content, so this has all come full circle for me,” she said.

O’Brien was brought on in 2011 to work with Focus Features, a film and distribution company formerly headquartered in SoHo. After being tasked with overseeing a new “Focus on Green” initiative, research led her to discover the now-closed Gowanus based nonprofit Film Biz Recycling, which prioritized reducing the amount of waste film sets were sending to landfills.

To her surprise, former Film Biz Recycling employees described the work as miserable and discouraging. A large portion of the job is sorting through trash, monitoring plastic usage from crew members, and receiving minimal respect for their endeavors, no matter how ethically sound. But their complaints did little to dissuade her from approaching the role with her own personal take.

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“I was like, ‘I want to try this!’ Because there has to be a better way to make this job more inviting experience. So I went back to the people that I knew at Focus and asked if anybody knew literally anyone that would hire me to do this.”

After connecting with Peter Saraf, head of the NYC-based production company Big Beach Films, O’Brien was brought on as a “Green Steward.” From there, Earth Angel was born and has seen incredible success within an industry that has previously been slow to embrace environmental awareness. Her list of clients now includes HBO, Netflix, Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures, among others.

The company boasted a revenue of $260,000 in 2018 and saved producers roughly $533,418 through sustainable efforts. Earth Angel’s involvement with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 earned the film the title of “the most eco-friendly blockbuster in Sony Pictures’ history,” giving the company a lauded spot in movie-making history and cementing their status as pioneer within the “greenset”movement.

The growth of the company took O’Brien by surprise and she initially resisted being a business owner. “This has been a massive learning curve for me as I never attended business school. It’s been a very organic, learn as I go process, but now I can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” she said.

O’Brien is proud to be among the many women holding space as leaders within the environmental sector; a growing list including local changemakers Anastasia Plakias, co-founder of Brooklyn Grange Farms and Julie Walsh, the assistant director of Grow NYC.

The film industry, though, is dominated by men, and she still struggles to overcome the challenges that arise from unequal representation.

“Women are uniquely poised for this type of work because we’re really good at seeing the forest through the trees and we’re naturally strong in community leadership positions. No one else is going to give us permission so you have to give that permission to yourself and create your own path,” she said.

The trajectory of Earth Angel continues to expand, aiming to take over 30 percent of the NYC film industry by 2021. A typical day on the job follows a team of eco-production assistants tasked with monitoring the flow of trash generated on set, placing containers out for recycling and minimizing plastic use and leftover food waste from working crew.

Their work has helped divert more than 3,000 tons of waste from landfills, recycle more than one million single-use plastic bottles, and donate an estimated $346,401 worth of reusable materials to local charities.

Though O’Brien would like to keep Earth Angel focused on entertainment platforms, she is hopeful that their mission will spread to other areas that need the “green” treatment.

“We are considering expanding in fashion, live events, and concerts where people typically gather for a finite amount of time and they’re consuming a lot of resources,” said O’Brien. “But Earth Angel is largely successful because I come from a film background and it’s easier to create grassroots change when you speak the same language of whomever you’re doing business with.”

When offering advice to aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to create a business based on environmental advocacy, O’Brien suggests doing research to understand the crowded landscape of the industry. Sometimes it’s more effective to join forces with others already in the business to obtain results faster. Volunteering is always encouraged, and Earth Angel accepts applications on a rolling basis for those willing to work hard in lessening the impact of production waste on the environment.

“At the end of the day, individual action is the real change we’re hoping to inspire,” she said. “Entertainment is very accessible to most people, and we’re hoping our transparency can influence people tuning in to implement change within their daily lives.”

Keyshae Robinson is a Brooklyn-based writer. 

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