Anna Jane Joyner believes a good story can change the world – and maybe even save it.
A longtime environmental activist and communicator, Anna Jane is the creative force behind the Good Energy Project, a nonprofit consultancy she founded to fill a gaping void in entertainment media – the dearth of film and television productions that place climate change at the center, or even the periphery, of their stories.
“I was always looking for TV shows or films – or even music – that portrayed or acknowledged climate, and there just was so little out there. Especially two or three years ago there was almost nothing,” she says.
Research confirmed her observations. Between 2016-2020, less than 3% of Hollywood scripts included references to climate change, according to a study done in partnership with the University of Southern California’s Media Impact Lab.
Anna Jane found the absence of climate storytelling baffling. If there has ever been an issue replete with dramatic potential, she contends, it’s the threat people face from rising oceans, mega-droughts, deadly heat waves and more intense storms.
“I didn’t understand why there were so few storylines dealing with climate, or more characters impacted by climate change. It was frustrating.”
Anna Jane set out to find out why – and figure out how to get climate a starring role on screen. Her brother is a filmmaker and she had worked as a consultant for a TV series, so Anna Jane tapped her Hollywood connections. She asked more than 100 writers why Hollywood was reluctant to write and produce entertainment where climate was part of the story arc.
“I found out that writers believed any story about climate had to be an apocalypse story, and that they were too complicated, preachy and didactic – rather than entertaining,” she says. “So the choice was between doing that, or not writing about climate at all.”
The idea for the Good Energy Project was born from those candid conversations.
Anna Jane recruited a diverse group of writers, artists, academics and climate advocates to develop a climate storytelling playbook for screenwriters and filmmakers – a detailed how-to guide with story ideas and character storylines to inspire Hollywood creatives. Good Energy also offers Hollywood a range of other services, from providing climate research support to conducting full reviews of scripts in production.
Anna Jane says she wants to dispel the notion that climate stories – big or small – aren’t compelling to watch. She points to the success Netflix had with “Don’t Look Up,” an end-of-the-world film with a clear climate analogy.
“Our goal is to show that you can write about climate issues in ways that are entertaining, and authentic, and can make money,” she says. “‘Don’t Look Up’ had amazing writing. It was a dramatic story but the characters and scenes were also hilarious.”
Good Energy has set an ambitious target – to raise the percentage of climate references to 50% by 2025.
That doesn’t mean every climate story needs to be a disaster film, however.
For every blockbuster that raises awareness of climate change, Anna Jane says there can be dozens of smaller productions that integrate climate into the lives of their characters. Sometimes it can just as valuable to have characters with a storyline that includes a climate angle – even if it’s not the center of the story. Integrating climate into entertainment can be as simple as featuring establishing shots of solar panels or electric cars, she says.
“We’re not anti-apocalypse story – because apocalypse stories show us the consequences of climate inaction on the planet, and that's really important,” says Anna Jane. “But we can't have that be the only climate story.”
Anna Jane’s own life provides an example of how TV productions can tell the story of climate in a human, personal and relatable way. She was featured in the Showtime docuseries, “Years of Living Dangerously,” which chronicled the tension between her and her father, an evangelical minister and climate skeptic.
In both “Don’t Look Up” and Anna Jane’s “Years of Living Dangerously” story, the drama created through personal relationships and conflict made the climate story more compelling.
“We think of our work on a spectrum. We don't just want you to write a whole new movie about climate change, we want it to show up authentically in a story, whether in the foreground or background.”
Authenticity means having diverse portrayals that show the outsized impact on underserved, poor or indigenous communities, she adds.
“I don't think you can authentically tell climate stories without being honest about who is most vulnerable and experiencing it first and worst.”
As much as Hollywood needs to prioritize climate stories, Anna Jane says the environmental movement must also learn how to make climate matter more to people.
Facts don’t change people, stories do, she says.
“The climate movement didn’t start from a place of prioritizing stories. Until recently, a lot of environmental organizations viewed storytelling as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘need to have,’” Anna Jane says.
“But if we’re not contextualizing the facts and the science within a compelling story, we're not moving people. We need to bring the heart, the heartache and the joy into how we communicate about climate. And so storytelling is absolutely critical to the success of the work.”
While climate stories haven’t yet permeated Hollywood, Anna Jane believes the pace of climate change will soon make it impossible for the industry to ignore.
“At some point it's going to have to be an intentional creative choice to not include climate in the stories and the lives of characters,” she says. “In 10 years, if you have a TV show or film that takes place in this world and doesn't include climate, it’s going to feel really outdated.”