But the movie apparently proved too polarizing for at least one prominent public figure: Cate Blanchett. An ostensibly blue-chip environmentalist who has backed carbon taxes, served as a conservation-foundation ambassador and this week was among the celebrity signees to a Natural Resources Defense Council letter to entertainment executives urging climate-change action, the Australian actress initially came aboard as an executive producer on the film, lending it crucial star power.
But this summer, shortly after being shown a cut of the movie that offered pointed criticism of Australia’s center-right prime minister Scott Morrison, Blanchett asked that her name be removed from the project, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to talk about it publicly. Blanchett’s company is still listed in a producing role, but her name is no longer in the credits. She also has not engaged in any publicity efforts for the film and is not currently scheduled to appear on its behalf at any upcoming public screenings. Orner was taken aback by the sudden about-face from someone she believed to be a staunch ally, according to the person.
A Blanchett representative declined to provide a comment on the matter.
The episode highlights the trickiness of the entertainment’s industry’s new battle against climate change. Hollywood is channeling plenty of fresh energy into the cause, with influential creators and companies going beyond charity-benefit gestures to tackle the issue directly in their work. The goal: Inject citizens with an urgency that can be converted into political energy.
But a host of challenges — including anxiety about alienating right-wing voters and media, creative obstacles and fears of appearing overly wonky — are impeding the effort.
“I think a lot of what Hollywood is doing on climate change is very well-meaning,” said Gavin Schmidt, a senior climate adviser at NASA who co-founded the blog RealClimate. “But it’s a challenge — a challenge to communicate the science in the right way, with the right characters, a challenge to take advantage of the millions of people watching. And I think there are a lot of reasons why they haven’t risen to the challenge.”
Relying on entertainment figures to shoulder the climate-change burden might seem like a large ask. Yet some of the greatest crises of the modern era were given social and political momentum by on-screen work, from the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War (“Dr. Strangelove”) to the brutal impact of the AIDS epidemic (“Philadelphia”).
Climate change lends itself especially well to these efforts: The issue came to the fore for many with the surprise-hit 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which showcased Al Gore explaining the dangers of greenhouse gases. At the time it was the third-highest-grossing documentary ever, seen by nearly 4 million Americans in theaters and tens of millions more at home.
More important, it defined climate change as an issue people should factor into their consumer and voting choices.
Fifteen years later — with wildfires, hurricanes, extreme heat and flash floods having gripped large parts of the country — the push is on to repeat the feat. Getting consumers to understand the message via their entertainment, these personalities believe, can be effective in a way public-interest campaigns are not.
That was the motive behind Wednesday night’s climate-change push on late-night television, when seven rival shows included substantive segments about it. Trevor Noah talked about unexpected everyday consequences of climate change, James Corden sought guidance from Bill Gates, and Jimmy Kimmel took to task a host of conservative politicians in an especially pointed episode.
Meanwhile, CBS recently announced that in October it would debut a prime-time show called “The Activist,” hosted by Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough and produced with concert promoter Live Nation and the nonprofit Global Citizen. The show’s idea was for six activists to “compete in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events aimed at garnering the attention of the world’s most powerful decision-makers” ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Rome in late October.
And in December Netflix will release “Don’t Look Up,” a black comedy from Adam McKay (he made the housing crisis accessible with “The Big Short”) with Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio facing impending global disaster in a film that offers a backdoor warning about climate change.
Some of these efforts, however, have already hit snags.
Shortly after casting for “The Activist” was announced, a wide range of pundits and advocates criticized the show, arguing it was reducing activism to a game. “It’s dehumanising,” tweeted activist Joey Ayoub.
CBS and its partners quickly backtracked, announcing last week they would scrap the broadcast and reedit existing footage for a documentary special sans the gameplay. “The push for global change is not a competition,” the program’s producers said.
While the decision to overhaul the show was broadly applauded, it is less clear whether it can draw the same audience without weekly reality drama.
Other genres face their own hurdles. While comedy is seen as a promising tool, “the lack of a single clear villain can make that challenging,” said Steve Bodow, who was head writer for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and organized Wednesday’s effort. “That doesn’t mean the issue lacks villains — or that we shouldn’t try to find them,” he added.
Bodow said he sees humor as potentially more effective than other forms of Hollywood storytelling.
“There’s a reason we still remember ‘Dr. Strangelove’ as a film that changed how the world thought of nuclear holocaust,” the writer said, referring to the 1964 Stanley Kubrick Cold War satire. “Comedy can be the best way to penetrate our defenses.”
Not that everyone wants to engage in the siege. Two late-night shows, HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” opted out of Wednesday’s efforts for reasons Bodow declined to explain.
“I’m extremely happy with so many partners we got,” he said. “These are seven very different shows with their own identities that all agreed to come together.”
The “Burning” filmmakers had to engage in their own finesse.
The movie mixes credentialed experts, devastating images and political accountability from the Australian “Black Summer.” The calamity claimed 59 million acres, 2,779 homes and killed at least 33 people; hundreds more are believed to have died from inhalation of smoke caused by the fires. It also uprooted or killed billions of animals.
The film points a finger at Morrison’s government, alleging that by kowtowing to coal interests and not furthering a green agenda, it contributed to climate change and enabled the fires. The film also criticizes Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky News for coverage that blamed the fires on arsonists and downplayed climate change.
“Rupert Murdoch has a lot to answer for what he’s done to the planet,” Orner said in an interview. As for Australia’s leader, she said: “We go after Scott Morrison pretty tough. But he’s got a pretty diabolical record.”
This summer, with Orner’s cut of the film nearly done, Amazon executives made an 11th-hour ask for her to “even out” the political elements, showing bad actors not just in Morrison’s center-right government but on the left, too, according to a person familiar with the discussions who was not authorized to talk about them publicly.
Orner pushed back, noting that the Australian left’s track record on climate change was much stronger. After some back-and-forth — and after the film was accepted to the Toronto International Film Festival — Amazon relented. It demanded few substantive changes and will be taking the film to other festivals and even, potentially, environmental summits.
But the early resistance is likely to reinforce critics’ contention that as global gatekeepers, modern video streamers can hold too much power — and even, in some cases, be influenced by political concerns and economic pressures.
Orner demurred when asked about political pressure from Amazon, saying she “has a very good relationship” with the company. An Amazon spokesman did not provide a comment on whether the company pushed to tone down the film. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Distribution is just one challenge entertainment companies face.
“Most climate-change films fall into the didacticism-or-disaster trap,” said environmental-culture expert and UCLA professor Ursula Heise, who teaches at the school’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and chairs its English department. She said viewers either feel lectured to, as with a documentary, or anesthetized, as with a big-budget action film such as “The Day After Tomorrow.”
“People are resistant to didacticism, and disaster is a spectacle — the genre is so established it puts a barrier between you and the consequences,” she said. “You just get used to these images.” She suggested it might be more effective to embed realities subtly, as the Hugh Jackman film “Reminiscence” did when it casually showed people in the future moving around Miami Beach in gondolas.
Even so, Heise said, research indicates that in the immediate aftermath of viewing a film about climate change most viewers will say their beliefs have been affected. But that effect soon deteriorates and within a few months has vanished completely.
Those behind the films say they wrestle with these realities.
“Films about climate change are tricky for audiences because it’s a tough world and people want escapism,” Orner said. “You have to guide people through stories with characters, not bash them over the head telling them what to do.”
These messages could also trigger polemics from the right. Late-night Fox News host Greg Gutfeld offered a long monologue ahead of Wednesday’s effort railing against it, calling the seven participating hosts “sad sacks of pandering s---” and saying “their lockstep is more synchronized than a parade of North Korean soldiers.”
Climate change, he added, is “a hyped issue that demands change, compliance and attention from the peasants — yet the so-called ‘results’ are so long-term it ensures none of these people pushing it will have to be held accountable for their hypocrisies and lies.”
Bodow scoffs at these types of critiques. “It’s always funny as a TV producer when you talk about climate change,” he said before the Gutfeld segment aired. “Some people will say: ‘Why do you have an agenda? Why are you politicizing television?’ And it’s like, I wasn’t the one who politicized this.”
Some experts pose a different question as Hollywood makes a foray into climate change.
They note stats such as those in a recent Media Matters study that found that in the 48 hours after the deadly Pacific Northwest heat wave this summer, cable news outlets mentioned climate change in only 17 percent of the stories about it.
“I think it’s fair to ask,” said NASA’s Schmidt, “why we’re seeing late-night take the lead on this while news really isn’t.”