Hollywood Generates Tons of Garbage. This Startup Wants to Clean Up the $40 Billion Industry
The 29-year-old founder wants to make the film industry more sustainable, one set at a time.
In 2011, while the rest of the movie crew was busy with setting up the day's shoot, 29-year-old Emellie O'Brien was busy digging through the garbage. As she was separating the recyclables from the compost items, another crew member came over and asked what she was doing. "This is my job," she said. "I'm here to oversee the show's environmental impact."
The other crew member had never heard of such a thing. "You must be some kind of earth angel," he said.
The movie never saw the light of day, but the name stuck. In 2013, O'Brien started Brooklyn-based Earth Angel, a company that helps ensure that movie and television productions are green by offering waste-management and sustainable-sourcing services, as well as environmental impact reports. O'Brien claims that productions that use her services can save from $60,000 to $100,000 on waste reduction. Earth Angel has worked on the sets of commercials, televisions series, and 13 feature films--including movies like Black Panther, The Post, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Ghostbusters.
Earth Angel founder Emellie O'Brien.
After graduating from NYU's Tisch School of Arts in 2011, O'Brien started working in the film industry and was "appalled" by the waste epidemic on set. She thought there must be a better way. After researching how to deal with different waste elements, O'Brien convinced a producer to hire her as a "sustainability consultant" to oversee environmental efforts on set. "I spoke the language of production, so I knew how to translate the language of sustainability into the language of production," she says.
O'Brien's big break was landing a sustainability consultant's role on Darren Aronofsky's production of Noah in 2012. He was impressed by her efforts and tweeted out her sustainability reports, she says. Word-of-mouth resulted in O'Brien getting calls from other producers asking, "Can you come green my set?" For The Amazing Spider-Man 2, her efforts led to the use of biodegradable snow, the use of steel and glass materials that could be re-purposed after the film wrapped, and replanting trees and fixing benches in a Hurricane Sandy-damaged area for a scene.
After working on that set, O'Brien had an epiphany that she needed a business model for her work, so she started crunching numbers, looking at market research, and talking to clients. "It's not like I started a new restaurant or a new hair salon, something where there's a proven business model," says O'Brien. "It's an entirely new service."
To help productions become more sustainable, Earth Angel recruits and trains an eco crew that implements zero-waste initiatives on the set, such as recycling and composting and educating the crew on sustainability policies. Earth Angel also has different partnerships--the company uses Nalgene for reusable water bottles and Emagispace for eco-friendly construction materials--that provide sustainable products on set.
Lastly, the startup crunches the production's carbon footprint numbers into digestible reports. The key to making people care about sustainability, according to O'Brien, is making it easy for them to understand. "That's something that motivates people to want to change and we can create reduction goals from there," she says.
To date, O'Brien says that Earth Angel has diverted 3,000 tons of waste from landfills, donated 90 tons of material to local charities, donated 55,000 meals to shelters and food banks, avoided over a million single-use plastic water bottles, and prevented 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by using recycled paper, limiting transportation emissions, and implementing "Meatless Monday" initiatives.
The biggest incentive for productions to hire Earth Angel is the potential to save money, according to O'Brien. For instance, simply switching from plastic water bottles to reusable bottles can save productions $20,000 to $40,000. Plus, there's a marketing and PR advantage: Productions receive a NYC green film logo--a seal seen at the end of the credits--when they meet certain sustainability requirements. While movies are not mandated by the law to adopt sustainability practices, O'Brien says it's just a matter of time.
Until then, Earth Angel faces a big challenge in convincing more of the $40 billion film industry to care about its environmental impact, especially when the potential savings aren't huge. O'Brien admits that her efforts "are usually a break-even scenario but sometimes there is net savings also," which can amount to $10,000 to $50,000 after the cost of her services has been paid. The company charges a consulting fee for tens of thousands of dollars.
April Taylor, producer for HBO series Billions and an Earth Angel client, says, "Studios are really divided on what their commitment is to sustainability and monetary aspects to make those commitments. [O'Brien] is going to have an ongoing struggle before this is a accepted common practice."
The founder is betting that by associating Earth Angel with big names in the movie industry, the company will find opportunity for growth. Actors like Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Jeff Bridges, and Megan Boone have endorsed her services. O'Brien says that she's looking to expand into other sectors of entertainment, like music concerts or sporting events. She is also considering expanding into the L.A. and Atlanta markets.
O'Brien says that the goal is to capture at least 30 percent of the New York film market by 2021; she estimates that she currently has 1 percent. Earth Angel generated more than $260,000 in revenue last year and is expected to double that number in 2018, she says.