Cli-Fi: blockbuster movies motivating action on climate change
Even multilateral development banks are pushing movies as an important avenue for climate communications. The World Bank’s Connect4Climate programme recently highlighted how to communicate climate change better in a special event pre-COP 21 in Paris. This included how films can assist in communicating climate change issues effectively. The short answer is films can help, but we have yet to find the formula for success. Here’s a summary of the analysis (for the full article see here) to digest in between watching trailers for Bond and Star Wars, or your COP21 digests.
“It's a trap!” – Admiral Ackbar, Star WarsFilms with strong climate content may fall into the trap of over exaggerated impacts on one side, combined with unworkable solutions on the other. The Day After Tomorrow, for example, depicts a sudden and calamitous climate shift, which, in reality, is highly unlikely to occur.
Certain messaging tactics such as using fear, and focusing too much on the (often inaccurate) science, is also a problem with classic catastrophe films. Fear, for example, can provoke a defensive response and undermine the belief that as an individual, we can make a difference.
So how do you get the climate message across? Communications about climate change should explain or show what people can do to mitigate the problem. A positive framing of action against climate change, rather than focusing on what will be lost if we do not act, may encourage more positive attitudes towards action. The only problem with this approach is that positive versions of a future have not done so well at the box office (for example Disney film, Tomorrowland, which flopped a little despite having an A-list actor and director).
We also know that to generate awareness and action on climate change, the movie must be popular and watched by the masses. Similar to companies that sell solar panels to households, movies need to be profitable and popular if they are to have a positive effect on the environment. If we look at the box office gross for climate-related movies since 2004 (see Fig. 1), however, we can see that the dramatic blockbusters make the most revenue, with documentaries further down the popularity line. As a result, this might suggest that although documentaries are important to convey messages, for real, widespread, ‘preaching beyond the converted’ communications on climate change, the narratives need to be incorporated into the mainstream.
Keep it emotionalPsychology theory has shown that film can be a great communicator of issues, solutions, and action in areas such as health, indicating that film could also work well for climate change communications. Studies indicate that for communication to be effective in raising awareness and promoting active engagement, providing more or better information is not enough. Engaging people at an emotional level through music, iconic imagery and camera angles, easily relatable characters (i.e. don’t let the scientists do all the talking) can be far more effective at bringing the audience in than presenting just more information.
Here are some of the key recommendations and opportunities for the film industry to support the broader use of films:
- Films do not need to explicitly state they are about climate change, but they should be clear on the climate message they are telling and weave this into a compelling story.
- People watch fiction primarily for entertainment so the climate message has to be entertaining. Filmmakers should embed persuasive content and messages into enjoyable movies rather than making the message too overt. Films should contain realistic depictions of the issue to provide accurate information, and show how ‘people like me’ can tackle the problem, to promote engagement and action. Film offers a number of advantages as a means of promoting climate change action to individuals. Visual images can convey messages instantly in a way that makes them memorable and movies appeal to people’s emotions: they are well-placed to bring people into the issue through multiple, concurrent techniques such as the use of imagery, music, and sound effects.
- Climate messages will be better absorbed if filmmakers understand their audiences, and their values, fears, and hopes. Use narratives that facilitate engagement without triggering the audience to reject the message, and even use of celebrities to pull in audiences. Enjoyment of the story and identification with the characters reduces avoidance of the message (i.e. ‘turning people off’), which is particularly problematic for difficult or overtly persuasive messages.
- How film influences attitude and behavioral change is still a complex and little understood phenomenon. Very little exists in the popular or academic literature, however, to suggest that climate change films create behaviour change. Filmmakers could therefore share information collected during the test screening, pre-testing of frames, narratives, imagery and messages, to enable partner organisations, and other communication channels, to improve engagement practices, and to document the impact of individual films.