Creative Spotlight Series #5 — Emellie O’Brien on Sustainable Filmmaking
Here’s where we shine the spotlight on the brilliant people behind-the-scenes who bring stories to life day in and day out.
Film school student Emellie O’Brien thought she would build a career creating environmentally conscious content, however an internship project changed her trajectory. After freelancing Emellie launched Earth Angel, leading sustainability consultancy to the New York Film & TV industry. 5 years on we caught up to discuss being in the business of behaviour change and her approach to holistic sustainability on set.
See Emellie’s full career credits on IMDB >
Pop: How did you break into the Entertainment Industry?
Emellie O’Brien: I studied film at NYU. I was a Tisch grad. I wanted to study film - my impetus to study it in the first place was because I wanted to help create socially and environmentally conscious content. I was myself going down the documentary route for a while but I essentially knew this was a really really powerful medium and that we should be leveraging that to create positive social and environmental change.
P: You’re referring to documentaries?
EOB: Yeah, or even fiction as well. If it’s rooted in and touches on social injustices or environmental injustices, I was really compelled by that kind of content. I was interning at Focus Features in my last semester, and while I was there I was tasked with managing their Focus on Green Initiative. I considered myself an environmentalist, but never saw an intersection between those worlds before, that’s how I discovered Green Production Guide and this very very early movement around making production more sustainable.
I went to this panel discussion one day at Film Biz Recycling, a non-profit organization based in Brooklyn that was a reuse center/ prop-house where people could bring leftover stuff from set which is now sadly relocated to Georgia. It just could not survive New York rent conditions but they hosted this panel discussion on the rise of the environmental steward on set. There was now this designated position on set and I was so fascinated, I listened to a few different people talk about their experience, mainly on these big budget Hollywood productions.
They all talked about how miserable it was. They were like, "this is the worst job in the world. You take away people's plastic water bottles and they hate you. And you're digging through trash all day and it's just miserable." I just sat there, thinking "That's what I want to do." I want to do this really really seemingly impossible thing.
I went back to my contacts at Focus and I said, “Does anyone know a producer willing to hire someone to do this?” And funnily enough, someone was like, “Yes, I do!”
P: What did your day at Focus Features look like?
EOB: Basic stuff, like “greening” the office; designated reuse printers that only printed on scrap paper, getting the kitchens completely just using reusables and out of disposables, establishing a plastic bag recycling bin that I would then take to Duane Reade, and looking into energy-saving power strips and power down different things. Just little things.
We also got permission from the Head of Operations to do an energy audit with Con Edison. We did this fun thing where the focus was spread out on three different floors of the building and we would measure what one floor did versus the other and created this competition for who could save the most energy and you got a pizza party if you won… and it worked!
P: What are your career highlights?
EOB: I mean, to me, the biggest career highlight is the fact that I’ve kept this business alive for six years. You know, that is huge because I did not go to business school, I went to film school.
Essentially, I started a business to provide a service for which there is no market demand. Most business people I talked to are like, "I'm sorry, what? In what world did you think that made sense?" It's a struggle…we're in the business of behavior change and that's not an easy business to be in.
P: How do you walk the line between film, creativity and running a business?
EOB: To me, there’s so much creativity in entrepreneurship and not in the traditional way one would think of creativity. It’s definitely a different type. For example, I’m a huge systems and processes nerd. I love looking at how something goes from A to B to C. A lot of what we’ve done with Earth Angel is productized a process in lots of different categories. I love the creativity that comes with mapping out a problem and then trying to identify possible solutions and workshopping all of that. That, to me, is really really exciting. I find a lot of creativity in that.
P: What do you look for when hiring?
EOB: To me, it’s more about passion for our mission… It’s really hard to work in a start-up environment and not be passionate about the mission of the company because there’s certain sacrifices people make to be working at a start-up, which I’m hyper-aware of. I know people could be making much more money and be getting much better benefits at a big corporation somewhere. But they didn’t choose that. They chose to work for a small, growing start-up and that’s not a quality you come by often in a person nor is it something I take for granted.
P: What’s the one thing you love most about what you do?
EOB: It’s hard to narrow it down to one. Part of me wants to say seeing the reports at the end. Not that many people get to have this finished product of what they accomplished. You see how those numbers add up and you think about what would have happened if we weren’t involved and it’s there in black and white. This is the impact we’re having.
Also part of me takes a lot of pride in seeing how the Eco Production Assistants that we train and staff and put onto our projects – seeing them grow in the industry. So many of them are now Assistant Location Managers or Camera Assistants and they’re carrying that knowledge of their time at Earth Angel with them, embedding it more organically within the industry.
P: What does a day onset look like, how does your role integrate into the production?
EOB: A day on set for Earth Angel is all about following the traffic of trash. We tend to be very sprawling so we have to keep up with wherever the crew is generating waste - whether its catering, holding, crafty, set, basecamp, staging, sometimes satellite holding! On a big show in New York, this can mean many city blocks! We set up all the appropriate bins for recycling, compost, waste to landfill; we sort them when inevitably people throw them in the wrong place; and then we break everything down and ensure a licensed waste hauler equipped to handle all the waste streams removes everything. We also play a huge role in assisting the crew with eliminating plastic water bottles and recovering leftover food every day. We really see ourselves as resources, not enforcers - helping the crew to adapt to these systems and troubleshooting when necessary.
P: Is there anything that makes you want to pull your hair out about the industry?
I think our industry is having a real reckoning right now around it's a lack of accountability in general. We're obviously seeing that with the "me too and time's up" movement. It's very front page and in everyone's faces.
Sustainability, by definition, means that the environmental, social, and economic pieces have to all be coexisting and benefiting. With a sustainable model, even if you’re really environmentally conscious, but you’re not making any money, that’s not a sustainable model. Or if you’re super environmental but you’re not taking care of the people that work it, that’s not a sustainable model.
But it’s also the environmental piece that is really forgotten about in all of that. I think that we need to be held accountable. That’s really what it comes down to. When we give our Eco PA presentation and when I give my speaking engagements at film festivals, I talk about all the different hurdles that we face in our sector, whether they are institutional or whatever the case is.
And I always talk about the psychological one, which I think is very real. That I refer to as cinematic immunity because I think we as a collective in entertainment really think that we're above the rules sometimes. "Oh, we're making art. It doesn't matter that we have to work people 20 hours a day in order to make that art."
A lot of our message is that there is no such thing as cinematic immunity. I know, everyone kind of has that ingrained, but let go of that. Your actions have consequences. Our industry has an impact. Let's be aware of that and let's help mitigate it.
There's something inherently sort of exploitative about entertainment and that has been its reputation sadly for a long time and it's about turning it on its head and saying, "does it have to be that way just because it's always been that way? Is that necessary?"
P: When did you realize you were an entrepreneur?
EOB: It’s funny because I technically incorporated in 2013… I freelanced as a sustainability consultant for a long time and I was still, for the first couple years of Earth Angel, really trying to get out of that transition of no longer being a freelancer, but a business owner. It took a good couple of years before I hired my first employee. I would say we really [weren’t] functioning as the Earth Angel that you know now until 2015.
I got accepted into the Tory Burch Foundation Fellowship - the fashion designer, she has a foundation that’s all about empowering women entrepreneurs - and I got accepted into her foundation’s fellowship. You go through all these intensive workshops and business accelerator programs that trying to help you grow your business and whatnot. I remember sitting in front of one of my business advisors and Tory Burch and saying, “well, you know, sometimes I have to catch myself because I say to people when I introduce myself that I work for a company called Earth Angel.” And my business advisor just stomped her foot and slammed her hand on the table and said, “You do not work at a company called Earth Angel, you founded a company called Earth Angel.” Really owning that took a long time, it really did.
P: Why do you think you were struggling with owning it?
EOB: I think it’s mainly because a lot of women struggle with imposter syndrome. And that was something we talked a lot about in the fellowship. I was like, “I didn’t go to business school, I wasn’t trained to run a business,” so there was this insecurity around, “can I actually do this?” and “am I a business owner?” And I absolutely was, but the confidence around that was really challenging for a while.
P: Where is the company at now and what’s next?
EOB: We’ve seen growth every year, but it’s been pretty incremental. None of those hockey stick projections that people often like to put into their business plans. Right now, we’re a team of five and we’re primarily serving New York productions. However, my Director of Business Development is now in L.A. and we’re hoping to start taking on more from the west coast as well, which is really really huge.
I would say Earth Angel is kind of on the precipice of the next level of growth right now because I think we've done a really good job improving our value. Clients who work with us rarely stop working with us. Once they see a set run a sustainable way, they're like, "how can I not do this now?" They're converted.
There are these institutional barriers, like the fact that there is no line item for sustainability in production budgets. That is a real hurdle.
We know that we need to capture more volume. We’re only servicing less than 2% of the New York Market, there’s a tremendous opportunity for growth.
The other big thing that we’re looking to roll out is this new branch of our service that we affectionately refer to as “good riddance.” We’re really excited about it. It’s basically a storage clean out service. Right now, we primarily only service productions that are in production. But then so much stuff goes into storage and then they strike or picture lock and are like, what’s happening with all of this? We just did that with a pilot where we came into a 750 square feet warehouse and were able to re-home or repurpose 70%. It was props and wardrobe, construction, physical custom scenery and sets.
P: Where do you see the company in the next 5 - 10 years?
My big thing is I really want sustainability to become the norm on set. I don't want people to think about it like there's an option to not be sustainable. This is how we run things now. That might be more of a ten-year thing than a five-year thing.
There’s also been a lot of talk about green riders in the wake of the inclusion rider and Frances McDormand’s Oscar speech about actors demanding Inclusion Riders. People are talking about Green Riders - what if actors put it into their contracts that this set must be run sustainably? It’s a huge industry that is not exactly known for its agility, but it’s being shaken up more and more.
P: If you could have one thing that would make your job easier, what would it be and why?
EOB: As a CEO? More people - one hundred percent. I just need people all the time. I would say for Earth Angel, a tax credit for sustainability. That would change everything.
P: What makes you most proud of your company? And what makes you remember why you started the company?
EOB: Both really good questions. I have those moments a lot actually, where I think, “yes, this is where I’m supposed to be.” I think there’s not a specific type of moment that’s a catalyst for that. For example, I’ll have explained something to my staff where we really need to focus on X, Y, and Z and this is how we need to improve the way we operate and make things more efficient and I’ll just see it happening without me having to instruct on it. That’s pretty awesome.
There are times when I walk on set and people see me and they just shout “Earth Angel!” A lot of them don’t actually know my name because that was my nickname on set for so long when I was freelancing and is how the company got its name. Those are special moments because the camaraderie of being on the inside of this industry is really special and unique and I think has been paramount to our success.
P: What’s the biggest shift you’ve seen in the film & TV industry over recent years?
EOB: I think the fact that local municipalities are now getting involved in the conversation is huge. Our mayor’s office of media and entertainment here in New York launched a film green program about a year ago which we worked on crafting with them and will work on the next steps too.
P: What are the biggest changes you see on the horizon?
EOB: I see sustainability becoming a lot more accessible for productions. From Earth Angel’s perspective, as we grow, as we scale, the more accessible offerings we’ll be able to have for folks.
I think technology's going to play a huge role in that in the way we are trying to modernize our very very antiquated system
which I don’t need to tell POP about. I think that’s why people haven’t been motivated around sustainability for so long, because they didn’t have the information.
P: What do you think encourages a production to hire Earth Angel & how will this grow over the coming years?
EOB: Right now, our primary clients are Line Producers and UPMs. It is not corporate studios. That’s been where we’ve gotten the most traction thus far. That doesn’t mean that’s going to be our strategy a year from now, two years from now. But it’s allowed us to gain what we like to call our “early adopters,” the producers who are really gung-ho about, “there’s got to be a better way, I’m disgusted with this waste. I’m committed, I want to do something.” And they go to bat to put us in the budget. They fight with the studios, they do what they have to do. They’re really champions of this.
P: What do you think the industry can do to encourage true diversity and inclusion (not just gender but age, race, background) behind the camera as well as on screen?
EOB: I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Stacy Smith from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative who has been publishing reports for ten years showing that the diversity and inclusion needle has not moved in our industry.
Dr Smith was saying how we’ve been doing these reports for a really long time and nobody started paying attention to this until Frances McDormand said it at The Oscars. She also brought up this really good point about how we’ve been doing a lot of educating.
Everyone says, "we need more education, we need more education!" - and she's like, "we've been educating and the needle hasn't moved." Her point is, education only gets you so far and at a certain point, you need agitation.
I really like initiatives where people are putting their money where their mouth is. Whether it’s the thing with the Inclusion Rider, like this is part of my contract, I only do work in which there is a diverse, inclusive representation on these projects.”
P: Who would play you in a film, and why?
EOB: Part of me would really love if Julia Roberts played me in a film because I’m obsessed with her and also, I have to say, watching the film Erin Brockovich as a teenager was probably a pivotal reason as to why I became an environmentalist, to be honest with you.
P: What are you watching at the moment that everyone should be watching?
EOB: I’m watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is also one of our shows. It’s fantastic. It’s so great. I haven’t finished the second season, but it’s really great.