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Episode 84: The Big Picture of Sustainability in the Film Industry with Julie Christeas and Jonny Blitstein

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Transcript

Jon:

Julie and Jonny. Thanks so much for joining me here at Experts Only.

Julie:

Thank you-

Jonny:

Thank you.

Julie:

… so much for having us, Jon. We’re excited to be here.

Jon:

Yeah. I’m really excited to sort of dive into the amazing work you’re doing. As we talked about offline is a little bit different from our normal episode, but I think your work is so important, it’s important to highlight it for folks in the industry. And find ways that we can hopefully bring some good ideas to you for the great stuff that you’re working on. So Julie, I want to start off with you. First of all, how did you get interested in film?

Julie:

Interested in film. I think from an early age, I was one of the kids that always wanted my parents to take me to the movies no matter what was playing. And my dad constantly humored me. And that was something that I did with my dad. And he’s Greek so his love of film and American filmmaking, and wanting to be part of the American dream. And what it would mean to live in a country where you could do something that was outside of what your parents could offer you were all things that informed him and his love of the arts, and specifically what American filmmakers were doing at the time. And that’s certainly informed me.

Jon:

Amazing. And Jonny, the same question to you.

Jonny:

What got me into film? I think, yeah, same thing. My dad grew up taking a nickel or a dime and going to see a triple feature, and staying in the movie theater all day as a kid. His parents worked all day long and he didn’t really have parents. And so he was raised by the screen. And loved westerns and musicals. And then when he would come home, and then they would watch TV ,and he would watch Ed Sullivan and all that stuff. And so when I was growing up, my parents both had this passion and love for the Americana that was American cinema. I think they were less informed about obviously world cinema and those things. But showed me, I think they took me to the movie theater when I was a little kid to see Bambi or ET or something like that.

Jonny:

And then, it wasn’t really until I got really into acting, and then in high school during the rise of the independent film and the Sundance movement and all of that stuff, I got really interested in movies about underdogs and outsiders. And saw Todd Haynes movies like Safe, and early Tarantino stuff, Reservoir Dogs and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. And I started to get really excited about what you could do with the camera and telling stories about interesting and surprising figures and worlds. It really was my entry to the world. I lived in a small town in Illinois. And so seeing these stories and other places was my way of traveling.

Jon:

Amazing. What was the town in Illinois?

Jonny:

I grew up in a town called Lincolnshire. It’s like a small western suburb. It’s not far from Lake Forest where Ordinary People is set. And about 25 minutes west of the towns where all those John Hughes movies from the 80s were making like Lucas and Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club and all that stuff.

Jon:

Oh, that’s amazing. And so when did the two of you first sort of cross paths?

Julie:

New York City.

Jonny:

Yeah. In New York.

Julie:

I was just going to say I think New York is one of those amazing epic metropolitan centers that draws so many different types of people for so many reasons to do so many different things. And at least for myself, New York City was the whole reason I ended up pursuing a career in production with very little experience. The first chance I got to see what was behind the camera I was sold. And through a lot of hard work and persistence, and looking over people’s shoulders and people who were much more experienced than I being generous with me and answering questions, and allowing me to have a window into what they did, I was able to work my way through the New York production office coordinating and production managing, and learning to line produce. And that is how Jonny and I ended up crossing paths for the first time a decade and a half ago, I guess now, Jon, on set.

Jonny:

Yeah, I’d been working my first couple of jobs out of film… I went to NYU Film School and I had no idea how to get into movies. And I played in a band briefly. And then got the job as an editorial assistant at a children’s publishing house that did a lot of textbooks. And then left that and went to work for an agency called Special Ops Media. And I got to do work on digital marketing campaigns for movies like The Squid and The Whale and Old Boy and Brokeback Mountain. And it was cool to work on those movies, but the work itself, I didn’t like that they valued the new, straight to DVD stupid teen comedy was like the same.

Jonny:

I remember we were marketing the, I can’t think of the name right now, the Bob Altman film with Neve Campbell where she’s a dancer. It’s escaping me. Anyway, we were marketing some serious art films and also stupid comedies. And the way they were treated in the room and talked about, they were equal because they were just product. And it really bothered me. And I had a very strong feeling and passion for the arts, and good storytelling. And so I ended up, after a couple of years there, I quit, and I really just wanted to get back in PA and start working on movies and working on sets.

Jonny:

And so I pounded the pavement, and started just pouring coffee. And I met Julie because I was pouring her coffee working as a PA. And I was super dedicated to do a good job, listen on my walkie-talkie. And Julie really inspired me because she was so focused. And we just became friends on that set. And then had different careers for more than a decade. And then reconnected after Julie had founded Tandem and been very successful with it, I reconnected with her a few years ago and we decided to team up.

Jon:

Yeah. Julie, tell me about that experience, founding Tandem, what led you to sort of make the decision. And as a founder of a company myself with CleanCapital, I know that the challenges and the rollercoaster and the excitement and anxiety, and all the different pieces that come with sort of being a founder. What for you was the trigger to say I’m going to hang my flag and do this on my own?

Julie:

Naivete.

Jon:

Yeah. Great.

Julie:

In truth, I have always felt really passionate about gender equality. And I think from a really young age, just identified a lot of social injustice around being a woman. And often being the only woman amongst a pretty solid group of men, and what it felt like to have a different opinion and a voice that sounded different. And sometimes that was considered valuable, and sometimes I was made to feel less than because I was the exception to the rule, shall we say?

Julie:

And so, as I got better at my job and went from line producing to producing to working at a small indie film company and starting to have an idea of what it was like to curate projects and filmmakers, and have more of a voice in the choosing of those projects, it just became very clear to me that I didn’t have access to the kind of content I wanted to be creating, the kind of storytellers I wanted to be involved with because I was working with, as a team member an all male, all young, all white film company outside of.

Julie:

And that was really the inspiration for me. And that’s why I say naivete. I, in my heart of hearts, had an altruistic idea of want of wanting to reach out to people who came from different backgrounds and had different points of view than myself, and see how we could collaborate and tell those stories with a standard of excellence, and get them seen by a larger global community. At the time that I started the company in my living room with whatever fee LegalZoom charged me to start Tandem Pictures LLC, I didn’t really understand all of the ins and outs of what it would mean to take this idea I had for a business model, and how I would have a revenue stream that came into the company, and how that revenue stream would support the development of film, and how I would reach out to these filmmakers that I thought were out there, but I still hadn’t had access to.

Julie:

How many challenges I would face just being able to keep the lights on, let alone develop projects that were meant to be full length narrative features that I also had to finance. So it was challenging, but also as you said, really exciting, I think sometimes those big challenges that I didn’t really know how big the task was going to be, have been some of the best experiences of my life.

Jon:

It’s interesting because there’s a really unique parallel, I think, between the life of, and we talked about this offline a little bit, but for the audience, I’ve got a weird experience in the film industry. So I have some sense of what you guys do. And there’s a parallel between what you all are doing to develop, what is really the end the consumers are seeing, and the years it takes to get there in terms of a film. And actually what someone has to do to develop a solar system.

Jon:

It is really from the ground up putting this together, it’s years of hard work, it’s lining up crazy things like permitting and capital, and all the things that most people don’t think about when they see the end product. But the incredible work you’re doing that while still running your company, I think is pretty incredible.

Jon:

I want to talk about one of your most recent films that premiered at Sundance Film Festival this year. It was released by Momentum Pictures. So just so folks in the industry know, Tandem develops this, and does Momentum buy it, and then put the film out there? Is that how it’s sort of structured, right?

Jonny:

That’s right.

Julie:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jon:

And does it happen at Sundance, or does that happen sort of ahead of time?

Jonny:

In the process, but we were represented thankfully by an amazing sales agent, which was CAA, Creative Artists Agency, which also represents some of the best talent in Hollywood. And we were so lucky to have them on board to support and take the film out. And it took several months after Sundance to finalize that deal. But those conversations begin at the film festivals.

Jon:

Absolutely. So that was sort of my 101 for the audience who may not know how that works. So this is a film called Black Bear, starring Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott. And it released December 4th. I mean, talk for a second about the film, but what I really want to talk about is the sustainability work you guys did in within the actual filming itself. So for a second, could you just give an overview of the film?

Julie:

Sure, Jonny. Do you want to take that?

Jonny:

Sure. It’s a drama, psychodrama, a lot of people describe it as, where Audrey Plaza’s character is a film director and writer who comes to stay at a house in the woods to find an idea as she’s developing a story. She meets another couple, and a love triangle forms that she may have instigated or not. And the film really looks at and deals with the act of storytelling itself. It’s a pretty chaotic and cyclical narrative that looks at gender dynamics, and how men treat women, how women treat women, the sacrifices we make as artists in the creation of work. And deals a lot with nature in the wilderness, and what that does to the mind and the process of making anything.

Jon:

Sure. And for a whole another podcast sometime, imagine releasing a film in the middle of a pandemic is a challenge in its own right. But I do want to talk about the exercise, the incredible work you guys did in terms of the sustainability of the filming itself. I’m going to hit a couple of things, but I’ll let you sort of really dive into it. But things like ensuring they’re using reusable water bottles on set, things like what to do with the compost and leftover food, which is a significant part of sort of the waste that comes out of these programs, or using LED lights when possible. So before getting into the actual nuts and bolts of all that, let me just ask why? What triggered this for you?

Julie:

I will say that historically as independent film producers, we’ve been able to tell stories that might otherwise not get told within a studio system. So we deal with subject matter that is hitting a nerve in society at the time, whether that’s child abuse, or sexual abuse, or veterans issues, or being a female veteran returning from war and trying to reenter society, to the movies that we released this year from surrogacy, millennial issues, LGBTQIA issues to gender dynamics that Jonny started to touch on in Black Bear.

Julie:

And all of these films, the thread that they have in common is that we shot in real locations and went to these beautiful, pristine places everywhere from Denali National Park and being the first narrative film to ever get permissions to film in that park, which was, again, one of the honors of my career to be able to do that, to Black Bear shooting up in the Adirondacks, close to the border of Canada on Long Lake. We were in Long Lake, New York.

Julie:

And we take that really seriously. We take seriously what it means to be outsiders coming into other people’s communities with what can be a rather large, deep footprint, and understanding that we can give the community and experience that’s positive. We can care for the land and care for the people, and be mindful of what we bring in and what we must carry out. Or we can do it in a way that doesn’t take those things into account and leave everyone with a pretty bad taste in their mouth for the film industry, making it virtually impossible for anyone who comes after us to have a chance to film there. And also just being completely disrespectful and disregarding of the land that we also desperately need to live our lives on successfully.

Julie:

So for us, it happened pretty organically. And when Jonny joined the company, I’m so thankful to him for saying for all of the practices that are already in place, we can be doing more. And we can be using tool kits and measurement guides that really put us through our paces. That what we say we want to do and accomplish, we’re really doing and accomplishing, which is what led us to partnering with the Environmental Media Association on both the films that we released in 2020.

Jon:

Jonny, can you paint a picture for the audience of what it’s like behind the camera in terms of most people might not even consider the intensity of feeding a crew, right? Or the power intensity needed to run the cameras and the lighting and the microphones and the editing. Give folks a sense of what it looks like maybe both on location and maybe even in the studio, and why the work you’re doing really changes the current dynamic there.

Jonny:

Sure. I think a great correlative in your experience having been in the military, if you were to arrive with a team of 40 to 50 people in the middle of a location that had no power set up, no water system, and you had to set up-

Jon:

I did that in Baghdad.

Jonny:

Yes. Set up camp literally in a war zone, that’s similar to how Black Bear felt in a lot of ways. Because we arrived in a location that was not only eight hours north of New York City, so we had to bring all our crew there, but we were at a remote house location in the middle of the woods that had almost no cell phone service except if you stood in one four foot square corner of a patio and held your phone out and waited until the satellite passed over the sky. And our wifi in the house was not working. We were on a solar system that switched over to the battery packs when the sun would go down, and then those would run out, and we switched over to a diesel generator. So we had power outages at two different times of the day while those switchovers happen.

Jonny:

So just getting a sense of what this shoot was like, it was more non-traditional in the sense that we had these major infrastructure pieces we had to figure out and solve for, let alone having all 40 to 50 people living in different houses and hotels within this area, getting them to set, et cetera. But I think to answer your question, when you’re on set in a production, it’s a massive group of people. You have to think about how are you going to feed your crew? How are you going to make sure that you have your production team, your AD, your assistant director, managing the schedule to ensure that you’re hitting a break every six hours so you can break for food?

Jonny:

Ensuring that at the beginning of the day, everyone can get set up and coordinating the times so that your actors go into the hair and makeup chair. And then they’re getting ready to come to set with their look, ready to go, and costume is already approved then right in time when the DP and the grip and electric team have set up the lighting and the lights are tweaked exactly right. And everyone’s ready.

Jonny:

So there’s just a massive amount of coordination that needs to happen so that when go time happens and the sound starts rolling and camera rolls that everything just happens on time. I hate to draw a corelative, but like a wedding or something where it’s at the time where the bride is going to walk down the aisle and the groom is going to walk down the aisle and everyone has to be seated. All those things have to line up. And you have to do that every single day for 25 days, or however long your shoot is.

Jonny:

And then on top of that, ensure that all of your team members are working together, that personalities aren’t clashing, that crew is happy, fed, getting a good night’s sleep, et cetera. It’s a massive amount of organization. And for us on Black Bear and doing sustainable shoots on top of that, we’re working to ensure we’re recycling and composting, and everyone’s separating their trash, and leaving their plates and dishes in the bin so that our chef who is on set can wash them so we don’t have to use disposable paper and plastic forks and all those things. So it added a layer of coordination and thinking to think about sustainability on set, but definitely producing any film is just a battle every single day, for many days.

Jon:

Were there benefits, outside of the environmental benefits, that you saw with your sort of cast and crew who appreciated that work, or would they sort of look at it as a pain in the ass? The work you did on sustainability piece, how was that sort of perceived by the team?

Jonny:

Do you want to share, Julie?

Julie:

We were really lucky. I mean, I’ll say that Aubrey Plaza who stars in Black Bear was also on the producing team, and she was a real champion of those efforts and a great teammate. We were lucky in our teammate there. She helped set an example. She was using a metal straw. She was using her reusable bottle with a piece of a piece of tape that said her name on it so no one else would accidentally take it. She was scraping her plate to compost.

Julie:

We had asked people to share vehicles and share rides. And to the cast’s credit, instead of all of them insisting that they be driven separately, even though they were tired, shooting overnights, did need their space, did need their break to also get a good night’s sleep to put their heads together to do their work, they traveled together to set every day. When their timing of needing to arrive and being dismissed were on par with each other, they made a huge effort to use shared vehicles and set an example for the crew too to do just that, to do the same. We were charging-

Julie:

… our phones with solar power chargers. We were doing down to the smallest detail whatever we could to try to leave the smallest carbon footprint that we can. And ultimately, I think it made the team feel really good. I think it was some team building. And I also think being out in the middle of nowhere, living so closely together, shooting overnights, and having this really intense experience in a very finite period of time, giving the team something to feel good about that wasn’t just here we are all coming together to make this great piece of work, but we can do it in a way that actually takes care of each other, takes care of this community, and takes care of our planet, I do think made everyone walk away feeling like they had contributed something positive beyond the piece of work that we were all there to create.

Jon:

Now to take this to the next level and talk about how do we scale these efforts, right? And we talked earlier, before we got on, about some of the work I do with the music industry at a group called Reverb, and just to set for the audience, this is an organization that does similar stuff that Julie and Jonny are doing for the music industry. And now they’ve sort of created a standard where Jack Johnson won’t play venues unless it has biodegradable cups instead of plastic, beer cups and LED lighting. And they do farm to table for the crew at each show. But they’ve created this now industry playbook that is being adopted by Live Nation and some of these other folks. What’s happening in the film industry that can really take this incredible sort of forward-leaning stuff that you all are doing and help grow it and scale it across so it becomes more of a common practice.

Jonny:

That is a great question, Jon. I think before getting into answering that specifically, we should talk about what the stats are in the industry. So the folks who are scientists and thinking about numbers pay attention to what you’re talking about are going to understand Hollywood. So on an independent film, 50 to 250 metric tons of carbon dioxide are emitted in the process of making a film. These are anywhere from 18 to 30 or 40 days shoots at the most.

Jonny:

When you think about a Hollywood film, it’s 2,000 to 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s a massive amount of output. And Hollywood studios are making, there’s like 400 films that get released every year by the major studios and streamers, not to mention all of the TV series. There was something like 700 TV series that were new, came out last year. And that’s many, many more days stretched out across productions. So the industry footprint of entertainment from both operating studios and putting teams on sets and locations where you’re running these major massive generators to power lights, feeding crews, and disposing all sorts of plastic and filling up landfills, that footprint is just enormous.

Jonny:

And so the studios have done a great job through the Producers Guild of America, through the Environmental Media Association and folks in corporate social responsibility at the studios who have been very active since about 2007, when Al Gore made An Inconvenient Truth, and that really blew the lid on this, they’d been making big steps to change how Hollywood is producing films from doing a lot of the same stuff that we’ve paid attention to them, learned from that and emulated on the indie film level.

Jonny:

But at the independent film level at film festivals, where at Sundance, there’s something like 12 to 20,000 feature films get submitted every year. People are making podcasts and videos and content and advertising and digital videos, and putting that on YouTube and putting that on Instagram and Facebook. There’s just a massive amount of content being made by, let’s call it, the next tier down, which is the semi-pros and then amateurs who are making films, and people in colleges and at the education level.

Jonny:

So how do you go about communicating to that audience to create a massive change so that when those folks come up and then become producers and become creators inside of Hollywood, if they go in that direction, that they bring those values and skills with them. That’s really what we’re thinking about. The Producers Guild of America created their PEACH Guide and Green Guide, which we follow, which details every single step for every department in how you execute sustainability on a film production. And which was instrumental-

Jon:

Can I ask you a question on that?

Jonny:

Yeah.

Jon:

Is that just a framework people can go after, or are major film studios now actually adopting that as a standard?

Jonny:

The studios are working to adopt some of those practices into their films. But the adoption is not nearly 100% across the board. And in the independent film world, there’s more and more producers like us who are hearing about it and trying to look at that. But as far as we know, we’re the only company that’s saying we’re going out and we’re going to make every movie according to these standards. And we’re leaning hard into education.

Jonny:

And I’m sort of circuitous getting back to your original question. How are we going to change the environment to get everyone to make these practices standard practices? And for us, that’s hiring PR, working on social, getting the word out there. Julie and I are doing podcasts like this. We’re talking at universities, at film programs, and we’re working on launching eventually a green producer award, which we can talk about a little bit more in depth with a festival or with the PGA that will reward and change behavior for producers who go out and make a film.

Jonny:

We understand that in order to make these changes at scale, you need to educate, raise awareness, and get the entire community to be incentivized. And similarly, in the music industry with Jack Johnson, we need more and more folks. It can’t just be Jaden Smith and Greta Thunberg, and some big Hollywood names to do this. We need actors who to say, “I’m not going to sign on to a film unless they have these green practices.” There’s so many of those steps. And it’s really, I hate to use the word pressure, but there’s a pressure that needs to build from within the industry from folks that care to grow this into a much bigger change.

Julie:

And that’s honestly what inspired us to even speak about these green practices that we have a standard practices at Tandem. Because ultimately, yes, we are the executives in our company, but we’re a small company. So as executives in our company, we still maintain being the producers on set. We’re still the ones developing the work. We’re still the ones working with advertisers and brands and talking about how we can make those sets sustainable. So we’re active practitioners. And as active practitioners in the field, we can look at that executive committee created standard list and say, these are the things that are really fantastic and working and that everyone, no matter what part of the industry you’re in, can adopt.

Julie:

Here are some things that specifically could help the independent community. Here are some things that could specifically inspire and help the future of our industry that are coming out of the universities and going to start making their own work. So we hope that just by speaking more and opening the lines of communication, and not being so siloed as studios and independent producers, but as a community working together to create a best practice system that takes care of our planet, that we can inspire not only our colleagues to adopt these practices, but everyone who’s coming down the line.

Jon:

So just a follow up question. If you look at the green building industry, or you look at what’s going on with things like Energy Star for appliances, there’s been a standard almost label, right? You talked about the award is a good example where, you know a film has lived by the standards because it’s got the greeny tag, whatever. Is that being developed anywhere in the industry as a way for-

Jonny:

Yes. That exists. That’s the Environmental Media Association Green Seal, and Gold Green Seal for the higher level. And that’s what both of our films were released in 2020 received. So you just register with them and submit. You actually, once you follow that PGA green guide, the Environmental Media Association’s application is basically a duplicate of that Green Guide and it’s scores across every, from wardrobe to your lighting department to your camera department, its scores your shoot. And then you submit that. And if you meet a certain threshold, sort of like the B Corp application, you meet that score, you become an EMA green seal recipient.

Jon:

So there’s an action that you could tell our audience to take to help on the demand and the pull side of this so that studios know that people are beginning to demand this from their films. What would you suggest they do?

Jonny:

Well, I would also say that on the finance side, it’s just so crucial that everyone understands that there have been studies that show that making the sustainable choices save your production-

Jon:

Huge.

Jonny:

… money. Huge amount of money. On a $20 million movie, it’s more than $300,000 gets saved by just using reusable water bottles and having that on set. Because the amount of those Poland Spring or Arrowhead bottles that everyone has and drinks and just tosses are just gross and completely a waste of money.

Jon:

Amazing, amazing. Well, first of all, I’ll challenge everyone to go make sure you see Black Bear, and the work that Tandem is doing. For both Julie and Jonny, I want to you ask you both this question because I ask sort of all my guests, if you could go back to yourself coming out of high school or college, and maybe before you moved to New York City, what piece of advice would you give yourself? And let me start with Julie.

Julie:

I’ve been lucky in that I was given a few pieces of great advice. But if I could give myself a bit of advice, I would probably just tell young Julie to take it all with me. That there’s no part of my personal history or my past, the things that I might be shameful about, or angry about, or have felt unjust in my experience that don’t inform the person I am and the person that I am becoming with each new day of my life.

Julie:

And that with that perspective of embracing my whole self, it will absolutely help me embrace other people and understand that every person I look at, every person I encounter, every person I will go on to hire and welcome into my team, deserves respect for the work that they’re contributing, and to be treated in an equitable and fair way simply by nature of the fact that we’re sharing this space together, that we are walking through this life together. And we are impacting each other with our behavior, our histories, and the choices we make, whether we are part of the same team or not, or we never actually meet as we go down our paths, but that our own histories can inform who we are, who we become, and make us stronger for acknowledging and embracing them and better global citizens with the communities that we will ultimately become part of.

Jon:

That’s some pretty powerful advice. That’s great. Jonny. A tough one to follow.

Jonny:

I think I’m just going to Julie drop the mic. I don’t need to add anything to that. I was going to say something similar, but I think we should just end there. That was beautiful.

Jon:

Well, first of all, I want to thank you both for your leadership in this space. It’s so important that folks are committing to this, like you all are. And I’ll challenge the audience to go to tandempictures.com to keep updated on the incredible work that you guys continue to do day in, day out. And if there’s more we can do to help spread the message to get folks to understand and bring that demand to the table that your colleagues within the industry are ensuring this happens, we want to play a role in that. So thank you both for being here today.

Jonny:

Thank you.

Julie:

Thank you so much for having us.

Jonny:

Yeah. You can follow us at Tandem Pictures on Facebook and Instagram as well.

Jon:

I will be sure to do that. And I want to thank our producers, Colleen Young and Carly Battin, and the team at Tandem for helping to put this together. As always, you can get more episodes at cleancapital.com. As always, I look forward to continuing the conversation. Thank you.

Jonny:

Thanks so much, Jon.

Julie:

Thanks, Jon.