Can Funders Help Filmmakers Connect With the Public on Climate Change?

Seems like few people would be more eager to elevate climate change awareness using film than Sundance founder and environmental icon Robert Redford. But Sundance just doesn’t get many submissions on the topic. A new philanthropic effort will try to figure out why, while also funding new climate-related film projects.

Why isn't climate change more dominant in the national conversation—or at least in mainstream philanthropy and nonprofits? Awareness has certainly risen in the past 10 to 15 years, but the issue is still often cordoned off as a niche issue, instead of taking center stage.

Related:Dear Climate Funders: The Clock is Ticking. Use Your Endowments

The marginal role of climate change in film and TV is an interesting analog for the problem, even in the relatively lefty world of documentary and independent filmmaking. As a representative of the Sundance Institute told Real Screen: “What we have noticed... through the thousands of project applications and festival submissions that we receive, is that apart from a few notable exceptions, there are surprisingly few works on climate change, and even fewer that will be able to ‘cut through’ to audiences.” 

Led by Sundance and its seeming philanthropic soulmate the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, a new joint project will address the issue by backing film and emerging media projects about climate change and the environment, with a goal of inspiring viewers to take action. Sundance is also starting up a few other closely related environment and film programs with prominent environmental funders like Kendeda Fund, Rockefeller, and the Discovery Channel. 

We’ve written a bit in the past about the efforts of both the Sundance Institute and Rauschenberg, the foundation of the late American pop art painter, who was also an activist in humanitarian and environmental issues. He was a big believer in the power of art to incite change—he even designed the first Earth Day poster—and his foundation often supports crossovers between the two. 

Meanwhile Sundance, launched by Redford as a sort of independent counterweight to Hollywood, is a philanthropic darling for its combined work in the arts and social issues. Notably, MacArthur Foundation is a big backer of its work to use storytelling to take on societal ills like the Syrian refugee crisis or race relations in the United States.

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So the new program led by the two is a perfect match, starting out by funding four film projects, and culminating in a Climate Change Lab to be held at the artist’s estate on Captiva Island in Florida. 

But another component of the program is that Sundance hopes to figure out why there aren’t more filmmakers taking on the subject of climate and the environment, including identifying challenges and roadblocks that are impeding more such movies.

It is curious, because movies have actually played kind of a remarkable role in the recognition of climate change in the United States. When An Inconvenient Truth came out a year after Hurricane Katrina, it served as a much-needed catalyst of public dialogue on the issue. Far on the other end of the filmmaking spectrum, The Day After Tomorrow provided some of the earliest visual vocabulary that we have for imagining extreme consequences of climate change.

But that relationship has been fraught. As the issue became more polarized, those early films also became cultural lightning rods. There is a budding genre fiction movement dubbed "cli-fi," most notably in novels, but there hasn't been much in the way of major movie touchstones on the issue in some time (some do say Game of Thrones is a climate change allegory). 

It is a really tough subject to take on, given its breadth of causes, consequences, and potential remedies. If badly executed, it can come off as overwhelming, bleak or hysterical. A certain amount of internal denial or reluctance to engage also probably has something to do with the pop cultural blindspot for the subject. 

That’s all the more reason why artists and storytellers are needed to engage the culture with climate change. And since it seems unlikely that we’re going to see Avengers: Age of Efficiency anytime soon, philanthropy bankrolling a potential indie crossover is a worthy goal. 

Related:Pushing Climate Change Into the Cultural Conversation

See more articles by Tate Williams.