Lars von Trier & Co. – When the film industry helps cut emissions

people shooting a scene
people shooting a scene

15 Jan 2024 — With its engagement in an energy community and its environmental commitment, Lars von Trier’s production company Zentropa is just the tip of the iceberg. From online carbon calculators to green labels, see how the film industry is going sustainable and helping cut emissions.

You’ve very likely enjoyed his minimalist Dogville with Nicole Kidman, cried to the notes of Björk in his heartbreaking Dancer in the Dark and, if you’re a little older, sobbed like a baby with his drama Breaking the Waves. Yet, there’s one thing you certainly don’t know about Lars von Trier: the film company of the revolutionary, multiple-award-winning Danish director is a champion of sustainability. Located in a former military barracks in Hvidovre, a suburb of Copenhagen, Zentropa is a real-life laboratory, testing innovative solutions to both reduce the environmental impact of its productions and contribute to the sustainability of a whole community. After a long struggle to comply with local regulations, solar panels, which provide it with almost one-third of its annual energy consumption, now cover all of its roofs. “We shoot and edit films, and we do a lot of sound post-production, so we were wondering how to be more sustainable and less energy-consuming,” says its CEO, Anders Kjærhauge. “In the long run, our goal is to become self-sufficient, and we’re now exploring the possibility of recovering the heat of our many servers, to funnel it into the local district-heating system.”

The clean energy produced by Zentropa is also shared with the other members of the Avedøre energy community. “We already had many experiences with district heating companies, but in 2020 it was Denmark’s first energy community to share solar energy,” recalls Charlotte von Hessberg, advisor on environment and climate at the Municipality of Hvidovre. “It was basically created at the same time as the Danish legislation on energy communities was passed.” The cradle of the energy community is “Avedøre Station City”, a district of Hvidovre, where solutions tested within the European project Pocityf are replicated and adapted to local needs and specificities. “Most of our initiatives come from the collaboration between the local district heating and social housing companies, and we soon realized that it would be the perfect area to set up an energy community,” she explains. Thanks to this, Zentropa has at last managed to negotiate the prices of its solar panels and find the technical expertise to successfully run the whole operation. “They now also feed our e-car chargers, but we use them to power batteries with green energy too and to avoid generators,” explains Kjærhauge.

Indeed, besides contributing to the local energy community, Zentropa is multiplying its efforts to make its productions more environment-friendly. “As a ‘Green manager’, my role is to oversee all the production plans and see where we can reduce our CO₂ emissions. Depending on the location, we try for instance to rent electric cars, only serve fish or vegetarian meals, and use second-hand costumes and resell them after the shooting,” explains Anne Serup. With the amount of produced content increasing year after year due to the success of the streaming platforms, such simple actions can substantially contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of the film industry. According to the Sustainable Production Forum, an average blockbuster film emits the equivalent to 1,032 cars driven for a year and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) estimates that one single hour of TV content produces around 13 tonnes of CO₂.

If Zentropa has so far tested a sustainable approach with two of its movies, the Spanish production company Funicular Films has just followed a similar path for “This is not Sweden, an international big-budget TV series, co-produced with Germany, Finland, and Sweden. “Finding 100% electric vehicles was impossible, so we did our best and rented Euro 6 and Euro 5 cars,” explains the “Sustainability Coordinator”, Jordina Casals. “But, among other things, we accommodated the actors in a maximum range of 10 kilometres from the set to limit the commuting, we used batteries and green energy, and we only used washable dishes and cutlery.” In the beginning, it was a bit hard, she acknowledges. “The organization was quite complex and many people didn’t know how to recycle correctly, but in the end everybody was happy and some of them even told me that they started seeing things differently, and would do the same on other sets.”

Casals discovered this approach last year at a workshop to help film producers reduce their environmental impact. It was organised by Green Film, an initiative developed by the Italian Trentino Film Commission, which promotes a set of concrete environmental actions and certifies the results obtained.

First in Europe to do so, for those achieving its label, Trentino Film Commission disclosed the possibility of accessing additional funds. “In 2017, there was still very little talk about sustainability in our field and we began to receive a lot of interest from the international community, who were keen on obtaining the certification with the hope of accessing additional funds,” says Green Film project manager, Linnea Merzagora. “We also presented it at the Berlin and Cannes film festivals, and since then it has been adopted in several other countries.” A requirement for all interested productions is a “sustainability plan”, outlining all the actions that they intend to take. “They are divided into areas like transport, energy saving, accommodation, set materials, etc.”, she explains. “None of them is compulsory, but each one is given a different score, depending on its environmental impact. And to be certified you need to get at least 20 points”.

By comparing traditional film productions with those having obtained their label, Green Film could also dispel the myth that going green is more expensive. “For each action, we calculated both the costs and the CO₂ reduction, and for more than half of them, environmental savings matched with financial savings,” asserts Merzagora. Sharing such practices, and making knowledge and information more easily available is the goal of Sustainable Arts, an “information exchange platform”, aimed at answering the questions of all culture players. “We wanted to bring the concept of sustainability beyond the movie industry and extend it to theatres, museums, and art in general, too,” explains Susa Katz, Deputy Manager of the Zürcher Film Stiftung that created it. For film industry professionals, a carbon calculator has also been made available online. “You just have to log in, fill in how many crew members and extras you have, and the platform will calculate your production’s carbon footprint, depending on the transportation, the accommodation, the meals you serve, etc.” Soon available in its updated version, this tool has already proved to produce positive “side-effects.” “We realized that it can substantially contribute to changing the people’s mindset, and building awareness of what kind of impact you can have by simply organizing your work differently,” she says.

Despite a long way still ahead, things are rapidly changing, adds Katz. “Film and cultural production are not ecologically clean, but the awareness is building up and policy is following. Especially in Germany, but now also in France, and many other countries, productions are pushing for a more sustainable approach, because clients are asking for it. People realized that they cannot just close their eyes. So, it’s just a matter of time.” The encouraging experience of Green Film seems to confirm her prediction and allow some optimism. “We have so far certified some 130 films, TV-series, and TV shows like the Danish X-Factor,” says Merzagora. “In 2017 numbers were very low, but ever since, they’ve been almost doubling every year.

Article by Diego Giuliani

Images: credits to Zentropa and Funicular Films