Anna Kaplan Talks About Riding the Green Wave at AIDC and Sustainable Screens Australia in This Interview

Ahead of the upcoming Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) in Melbourne, Andrew talked with Anna Kaplan of Regen Studios. The conference runs from the 5th of March til March 8 with sessions in person and online. Anna is part of a panel on Wednesday March 8 called “Riding the Green Wave” which takes a look at the environmental footprint of filmmaking, how positive environmental action stories are being told on screen, and further. One of the key initiatives that Anna has been involved in is the Sustainable Screens Australia project, which is an industry-led initiative that addresses the growing need to reduce the screen industry’s environmental footprint.

Anna is also Head of Production and impact at Regen Studios, the impressive group that has helped bring transformative and powerful documentaries like That Sugar Film2040, and the most recent film, Regenerating Australia, to screens.

In this interview, Anna talks about how the Sustainable Screens Australia project came about, and what to expect from the Riding the Green Wave seminar at AIDC. Anna is also a recipient of the Natalie Miller Fellowship, and she talks about the connections that she made through the fellowship, and how those connections turned into a fruitful idea that is helping change the environmental impact of Australian screen productions. Anna also mentions Albert, an organisation establish in the UK to address climate change and film and TV industries.

To find out more about Anna’s work, visit Regen Studios and Sustainable Screens Australia.

What does the role of Head Impact Production at Regen Studios entail?

Anna Kaplan: I head up our production and impact work. We’re a pretty small and nimble team. Damon is our creative director, and I oversee all our production and impact campaign activity. We also have a head of digital who heads up our Regenerators Platform that we run all our projects and campaigns through. It’s a varied role and it encompasses everything from fundraising, managing our key stakeholder relationships, managing our team, developing projects, producing projects, overseeing all the various phases of our productions, and then overseeing all the content that’s produced for our platform as well and the partnerships that we develop with action partners and impact partners to help our audience take steps towards realising the future that we’re envisaging in our films.

There is an urgency to the stories that you tell, but of course films and impact campaigns take years to establish and get off the ground. With that in mind, how do you decide what project you’re going to work on next?

AK: Forming Regen in mid-2020 was really a commitment from us that we want to play in this space thematically. This is where we feel we can have the most impact. Committing to that really helped us create a framework of how we assess projects and the kind of projects thematically that we’re going to work on. Obviously, we interpret the concept of ‘regeneration’ quite broadly, so it’s not just about regenerating nature, it’s about regenerating ourselves, culture, and systems like our economy and democracy. It’s broader [and] it brings in a lot of social aspects as well, not just the nature ones.

That freed us up quite a lot, because there’s certain projects we just don’t even look at, because they’re not in our remit. We’ve tried to be structured and set up an evaluation framework of how we assess projects, and the number of boxes that a project has to tick for us to get involved or to pursue. But, it’s really hard to say no to a good story, even if it doesn’t quite fit in your decision-making matrix. There’s always wiggle room and flexibility. Sometimes we just fall in love with particular filmmakers or stories or projects. As I said, [in] creating that framework we have defined as our thematic space has been really helpful in that sense.

I came from a journalism background originally, and a documentary background, and I always wanted to make hard hitting political films and change the world that way. There’s is a little bit of letting go of that I had to do. I still sometimes discover a story or get the sniff of a story, and I just have to sort of go, “no, I’m not going to pursue that, this is what I’m doing.” I’m so stretched anyway, between Regen work and Sustainable Screens Australia (SSA) and trying to have some kind of work life balance, that that’s actually a good thing that other people should be making those films.

If I can get a little bit personal, how do you manage a work life balance, because the stories that you’re telling are very personal. I imagine it’s hard to create a divide between work and life for you?

AK: I think with this kind of work, you can’t switch it off. That’s been the real challenge for us. We obviously want to encompass the values that we’re presenting in our projects, we actually want to nurture that culture within our company as well. We had a bit of a reckoning last year. I mean, I personally had a burnout. I had to take a month off, which I’d never done before in my working life. There was certainly some reassessing that was done around how we work and carving out family time and saying no to things because we just simply didn’t have the capacity to take them on unless there were the necessary resources attached to them. But unfortunately, the issue area we’re working in is so critical and we’re so on the brink that everything’s important.

There’s a metaphor that really resonated with me, I can’t actually remember who the quote was from, but the concept is that you’ve got to look at the climate movement like waves. We’re all working towards this very important goal, and there’s so much to do, that we have to see ourselves as waves. Some people have the energy to be at the front of the wave and rolling forward and crashing and [they] have lots of energy, and others need to retreat and regenerate ourselves before we can go back in. So, recognising that you’re part of a broader movement, and that if you don’t have the capacity to be in the fray, in ‘the surf’, as it were, that there are others who are and it’s okay to rest and recuperate and then come back stronger than ever.

That leads in nicely to the next question which is about that balance of positivity and negativity. What I love about the films like 2040 and Regenerating Australia, they [recognise that] the world is in a very precarious state, but [they highlight] the things to be positive about. How do you manage to balance that precarious nature of the world, and the positivity of people enacting change? It seems like a difficult balance to strike.

AK: It is because you’ve got to tell the truth. We’ve got to recognise where we’re at, we can’t sugar-coat it, which is incredibly confronting. The neuroscience that Damon did deep research on when we were in very early development on 2040, when he went spoke to environmental psychologists who explained the neuroscience of what happens in our brains when we’re just constantly bombarded with death and destruction, and really confronting imagery, [and they explained] that we switch off, we get paralysed with fear.

We have seen firsthand how telling the truth, but showing the solutions, actually empowers people and activates them and inspires them to find what’s their agency? What role can they play in trying to solve the biggest problem we face as a collective. It’s huge. It is huge, and you can’t get away from that. Damon and I spend a lot of time talking to young people, in schools and universities, and they need to know that there are a large number of people who are trying to solve these problems, and it’s not just being left to them. As Rebecca Solnit [says] “hope in the shadows, hope in the dark”. What we do through our products is we shine a light on the solutions that are already being realised, and the people who are just rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it. Sometimes you do get overwhelmed by just the harsh reality. But, what’s the alternative? Nihilism?

I genuinely believe in the ability of humans to turn this around. I think we’ve done incredible things in history. We have amazing technology and solutions at our fingertips. The First Nations knowledge that we have access to, but we don’t hear, there’s just so much that we can be doing, and a lot of people are doing. I think it’s really important that we continue to show people that that’s happening.

Which is a great transition to talking about Sustainable Screens Australia, which you’re a co-founder of. Can you talk about where the concept of that came up from and how it’s being implemented in the Australian screen industry?

AK: My recognition of the impact our work has, creating screen content [came as a] wakeup call on 2040. We were working on a film that we hoped was going to be a high-profile environmental film. We recognised straightaway that we had to walk the talk ourselves, and that [meant] needing to heed your own message. I put my hand up and said, “I’ll take that on, I’ll come up with a carbon management plan and sustainability framework for the production.” I thought that would be quite a simple thing, which was very naïve. [I] obviously did a lot of research to see what was out there in terms of screen industry specific information and resources, and [I] could see there was stuff happening in the UK in the US, but there wasn’t a lot of resources available. I knew there were organisations who were doing work in this space, but they hadn’t put their toolkits online, or their methodology wasn’t available. So, I had to come up with my own.

I did that with great support from one of our impact partners, Intrepid Travel, who is the world’s largest responsible travel company. They guided me through and shared some of their tools with me and helped me adapt them. Without their help, I couldn’t have done it. [I] came out the other side and realised how difficult it was without anything that’s tailored to the nature of our work, and our local context in Australia, in terms of localised carbon factors in the spreadsheets you use to track and calculate.

Around that time, I became more aware of what Albert were doing in the UK. Albert’s an initiative of BAFTA that started within the BBC about 12 years ago. Engineers at the BBC developed a carbon calculator tool to use for screen production. They realised that they were onto something and that it should be available to the whole industry in the UK, so they gifted it to BAFTA. BAFTA set up Albert as a project of BAFTA.

By the time I’d finished and [I had] come out the other side of doing our carbon footprint, and doing our offsetting, [we knew] we didn’t want to promote offsetting as “just do your offsets, and you’re fine”. Because, it’s not a meaningful solution really, and it’s a ‘get out’, “I’ll just pay my money and I can just keep polluting, it’s fine.” We really wanted to put on screen that we had to go further than that. We actually had to draw down carbon as well as prevent it. We planted a little native forest, and I worked with Greening Australia on that.

I had this very steep learning journey, a baptism of fire of how to do this, and [I] could see that there was a real opportunity to develop something specifically for our industry. I applied for the Natalie Miller Fellowship, which is a fellowship that nurtures the next generation of female leaders in the screen industry. I put in a proposal saying I wanted to research international best practice and do a big study tour as we were releasing 2040 around the world. I was going to go and do little mini-internships and go to some conferences. And then COVID hit and it became a very different fellowship. It was all sort of done [via Zoom and remotely]. While I was also starting Regen, home-schooling my child, and trying to stay sane in the midst of a pandemic. It was an interesting time.

When the fellowship was announced, I connected very quickly with two other women. Tanzy Owen, who was working as a sustainability consultant in house at a production company working on big shows, like Master Chef. And Jennifer Mcauliffe, a props master who works on drama series and features, and who had been doing a lot of work within the art department, and was working with the Environmental Film Festival. We formed a little collective and started talking and I shared some of my research and they shared some of theirs. We set up a Facebook group called Sustainable Screens Australia and we adopted that name and started writing to the screen agencies and introduced ourselves saying, “we’re an industry working group, and this is what we’re doing. We really want to put this on the agenda, can we have a meeting?” We kind of got pushed down the line to not the highest echelons. We then went, “we need to get everyone together. We actually need to convene a roundtable and present a vision to the industry of what this could look like and get consensus about whether we need to do this, whether the vision that we are presenting and offering to lead is what the industry wants. Does the industry agree that we are the best people to run it given our expertise having actually [done] the work on productions?”

We did that in late 2020, and we had about 50 different organisations and companies represented. Everyone on the call put their hand up. It was 100% consensus that “yes, we do need to do this.” We did a lot of surveying and polling, and then we off the back of that we formed an industry working group that met bi-monthly. We then set up a subcommittee to work on [the question]: “what would a model look like that could be applied?” We’ve always wanted it to be member based, industry-led – not top down.

I’d seen 12 years ago that the screen agencies all banded together and created what they called ‘The National Green Screen Committee’. They did this big announcement, and it was like “this is going to be mandated, it’s going to be in our funding guidelines,” and it kind of disappeared because it was a top-down approach. They hadn’t built the social licence within the industry.

We spent the last two years engaging production companies, screen agencies, broadcasters and streamers and facilities. And, at the same time, [we] developed a strategic plan. We formed an incorporated association, and we brought in a few other people to what then became the management committee of the association. There is six of us on the management committee now, and I co-chair it was Sarah Horn, who is the CEO of Dreamchaser. We had a seed budget that we identified that we needed to establish the organisation, and to hire an operational team to get this underway.

The other missing piece of the puzzle is that through my research, I had really homed in on Albert as the best potential partner for us to stand on the shoulders of work that had already been done. [There was] ten years of best practice development and a toolkit ready to go that could be localised. Through that period of two years, [we have] been developing an anchor partnership with Albert whereby we licenced their carbon calculator tool, their sustainable production training, their certification programme and a whole bunch of tools and resources that we will localise and make available. We got our seed funding over the line late last year, so we had 16 organisations that came in as seed-founders and committed to be foundational members of the organisation. We’ve now got a few more who are on board as foundational members. We are now in the process of recruiting an Executive Director and are very excited to take the next step of actually operationalising and doing the localisation of the Albert resources and launching to the industry, hopefully in the middle of this year.

Let’s talk about AIDC and the panel “Riding the Green Wave.” What does the term ‘riding the green wave’ mean to you?

AK: I’ve definitely seen this topic, sustainability in general becomes the zeitgeist. It wasn’t zeitgeist when we started working on 2040. It was a similar situation with That Sugar Film, just as we released [it], having worked on it for four years, the World Health Organisation launched their new updated guidelines around sugar intake, they halved it, it was the moment for that film. 2040, I think, was a little bit ahead of its time. I was reading in the AFR this morning that chief sustainability roles are the highest growing jobs in Australia at the moment. The average salary is insane, in my opinion. It’s very much an area that everyone is looking at what they can do.

When we say “riding the green wave”, there’s a huge amount of interest, and as we know, when everyone jumps on the bandwagon, that’s when things also tend to get corrupted. We’re seeing increasing greenwashing happening, all these claims and statements and marketing slogans, and there’s not the substance to actually back that up in terms of what those companies are actually doing.

What we’ve seen over the last two years of the SSA working group meeting every second month, is [there is] a huge amount of momentum. A lot of companies are doing stuff. A lot of companies have their own environmental policies. A lot of companies [have now] got lines in their budgets and every production where they’re making these costs standard. And that’s not a huge cost either, there are some costs attached to changing practices or changing equipment or doing things slightly differently, but ultimately, there are cost benefits to making those changes. I just want to qualify that, because that’s one of the things that seems to scare people off, “it’s going to cost us more to do this, how are you going to raise more money to do this.” But at the end of the day, we now have legislated net zero targets in this country, which we didn’t have a year ago. We’ve all got to play our part in getting there. There’s a commercial need to do this. There’s a responsibility to do it.

With the bushfires and the natural disasters we’ve seen and the number of ‘once in 100-year natural disasters’ we’ve had in this country in the last three years, with a pandemic to boot, you just can’t ignore it anymore. It’s affecting everyone. When we say ‘the green wave’, it’s that there is immense interest in this [area] and we’re so thrilled to have a solution ready to go for the industry at exactly the moment that everyone is saying “how do we do this? Give us the tools give us the resources, we’re ready.”

Visit the AIDC website for further details about “Riding the Green Wave”

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!