DO NATURAL HISTORY AND WILDLIFE FILMS ACHIEVE CONSERVATION? Debate at IWFF in Missoula with Tana Herbert on April 24, 2002 Remarks by Chris Palmer
Tana asked me if I would talk first, and I am happy to do so. I used to think that it was obvious that wildlife films were beneficial to society. I never thought a lot about it because I was just so thrilled to be involved in producing wildlife films. It seemed obvious to me that they did good. So much else on television was trivial, tawdry or demeaning. How could wildlife films be anything but good? If someone had asked me what good they did, I would have said they raised viewers' awareness and promoted conservation. I was never asked to prove this. I remember making other breezy assumptions. In 1982, when I was launching the National Audubon Society into television and IMAX films, I used to say to donors and Audubon board members that when NatGeo first got into television in 1964, their membership was a million. Now in 1982, after almost twenty years of successful television, their membership had risen to over 11 million. Even back then, I knew it was a soft argument. Sadly, I find little evidence that wildlife films, and especially so-called blue chip films, promote conservation. I have looked for evidence because I=d like to think that the last twenty years of my life have not been wasted. I can give you plenty of self-serving anecdotes about how a particular film for which I was responsible changed public policy or changed someone=s life. I am not aware, however, of any scientific evidence showing that these changes wouldn=t have happened anyway without the film, and no evidence which shows that wildlife films promote conservation on their own. Anecdotes are just anecdotes and don't prove anything. It is important to distinguish, as Derek Bouse points out, an individual film from the genre as a whole. Let’s not confuse what results from a particular film from what results from wildlife films in general. We need to think in the aggregate. An individual film might cause a stir, but most don’t. They flash on TV once or twice, and are then gone and quickly forgotten. We have no way to predict this. The question I am raising is: Does the genre as a whole promote conservation? When I ask the question, Do wildlife films promote conservation?, I am not asking, Do they show beautiful pictures of pristine wilderness? What I am asking is, Do wildlife films produce conservation actions such as contacting your congressman, contributing money to a conservation group, or joining a grass roots organization? Awareness is not conservation. Conservation is action or it is nothing. Do natural history films produce changes in everyday behavior that in the aggregate might lead to
-2measurable conservation? How effective are they at helping the conservation movement? We cannot say. We lack evidence to answer with a decisive yes. If we do answer yes, we are indulging in self-serving and wishful thinking. Some people think that our job as filmmakers ends with the goal of spreading awareness. After that, as David Attenborough has argued in his own case, the filmmaker has done his or her job, and it is now up to others. In fact, there are some who reject the whole argument that the point of natural history films is to promote conservation. They argue that the goal of such films is to divert and entertain a mass audience. However, that is not the claim made by most wildlife filmmakers. They claim that their films do make a difference for conservation. This is a claim that I made for years in relation to films that I was associated with, and it is that claim that I am now challenging. I want to distinguish between Ablue chip@ wildlife films and Aenvironmental@ wildlife films. By blue chip wildlife films, I mean those films that tend to steer clear of environmental issues for fear of the controversy, that focus on charismatic species like bears and sharks, that rarely involve people, that stay away from politics and policy which could date the film, that often contain a compelling story focused on a specific animal, that have budgets in the area of $1 million per hour, and that features magnificent, pristine landscapes with power lines and fences carefully hidden. These blue chip natural history films are irrelevant to inspiring conservation action. It is true that blue chip films might raise viewers= awareness of the beauty of the natural world and the solace to be found there, and get them started on the path which eventually leads to real engagement of some kind. It is also true that blue chip films might lead viewers to feel complacent about conservation because it is evident to them from television that there is plenty of untamed wilderness for our wildlife. Blue chip films, by definition, show unspoiled and inspiring landscapes. Anybody watching a heavy diet of these films might be excused for wondering why environmentalists are constantly complaining about loss of habitat when evidently from the television screen there is plenty of it. These films can give a false sense of security, a false sense of endless bounty. Even worse, some blue chip films, although a feast for the eyes, can actually hurt conservation efforts by misleading viewers about the real nature of the natural world. For example, take blue chip films on grizzly bears. We know that grizzlies rarely charge without provocation. Yet to get good ratings, it is tempting to portray bears as dangerous creatures with a penchant to attack people. Such a portrait perpetuates public fear and misunderstanding. For television to portray bears as we typically experience them in the wild B quietly minding their own business B would not make good television for audiences with short attention spans and reality programs beckoning on other channels. To attract viewers, programs need to have drama, spectacle, threats, action, thrills, danger and conflicts. Consequently, many films on grizzlies promote an irrational fear of bears that legitimizes people killing bears, just as Jaws legitimized the killing of sharks.
-3Environmental wildlife films, in contrast to blue chip wildlife films, address conservation issues, feature people, deal with policy, and show despoiled landscapes. Over the last twenty years, working with many of you in this room, I have helped produce several hundred environmental wildlife films. But I have become disillusioned with their effectiveness. They typically get very modest ratings, and the people who watch them are already likely to be predisposed to agree with the film=s conservation message. It is true that conservationists need encouragement too, so I am not claiming that these films should not be made. I am claiming that it is time to see how we can improve them so they have more impact on conservation and attract larger audiences. Environmental wildlife films tend to be gloom-and-doom and make people feel guilty, and even discourage them. They appeal almost exclusively to the Aconverted@ and so don=t broaden the conservation movement. Environmental wildlife films alert us to a problem, examine it, point to a solution, and call us to action. But very few people watch this kind of show. Moreover, a single exposure to a persuasive message is ineffective in nearly every case. Those who respond are already inclined to the position. What is needed is having that message seen repeatedly. This is key. We need massive exposure and massive repetition of a clear message to have any effect. One film shown once or twice has little or no effect. So on the one hand, blue chip wildlife films, while engaging, can mislead people and distort their perceptions of the natural world. On the other hand, environmental wildlife films, while honest, lack compelling entertainment value, attract small audiences and are therefore difficult to get on television. This is why I claim that wildlife films contribute little to reversing environmental degradation. Every wildlife film is unique and is not always easy to classify as either a blue chip or an environmental wildlife film. I am making the distinction here only for the purpose of clarifying the relationship between wildlife films and conservation. A few blue chip films do carry a strong conservation message, while a few environmental films are compelling even to nonenvironmentalists. But blue chip films in general contribute little to conservation, while environmental films are not seen. Why is it that environmental films are not seen? The reason is that no broadcasters buy them. Some of you have seen recently the BBC's The Blue Planet either on BBC1 or on the Discovery Channel. It was riveting blue chip. It celebrated the oceans with amazing predation sequences and dramatic weather and seas. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. There were incredible shots of polar bears predating on trapped belugas, and extraordinary footage of killer whales hunting down a grey whale calf. But it contained no conservation. The real truth about the oceans was in a ninth program that in England was only shown on the relatively little watched BBC2, and that was not even shown in America. It was called Deep Trouble and was made by marine biologist Martha Holmes. Who wants to watch doom and gloom? I've been responsible for those type of shows ever since I got
-4into television 20 years ago, and while I personally find them fascinating, as I did Deep Trouble, the general public finds them tedious. How can we improve environmental films so they get higher ratings? One answer is better storytelling. Storytelling is sometimes successfully used in blue chip wildlife films, but it has been less successfully used in environmental wildlife films. We need to reexamine how to apply the art of storytelling to environmental films so they have a greater meaning for people. People are searching for meaning and purpose, and stories are one of the most powerful ways to create meaning. I thought I knew what a story was, but frankly I didn=t. I thought a story only had to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is only recently that I have come to realize the importance of character arc, and the transformation that a person goes through in the best stories. It is this change in people that has been missing from environmental wildlife films. Scenes, plots and suspense are important too, but character development is the most important ingredient of a good story. By focusing on character transformation, we can bring fictional flair to the our films which otherwise tend to be bland, mundane and preachy. We need to show how people have been transformed by their conservation experiences. We need more Ashow@ and less Atell@. One reason movies appeal to so many people is the fascination of seeing someone go through inner change. We have neglected to do this in environmental wildlife films. It is in our nature to identify with and learn from other people. It has been my experience that scientists and conservationists just don=t reach people. Real authentic grass-roots activists, on the other hand, who have been seared by their experiences, are the people we need to feature in environmental wildlife films in order to create a bond with our audiences. AExperts@ just don=t do it. Viewers are not drawn to them. It is an occupational hazard of being a conservationist to be self-righteous, smug, and overly preoccupied with our own concerns. People like me who help to produce environmental wildlife films sometimes get so caught up in our righteous cause that we forget to think about the needs of viewers to be engaged and entertained. Entertainment and showbiz are a necessity, not an indulgence. We must embrace showmanship, and the place to start is character and storytelling. What we all do is too important not to be entertaining. Stories and character can make a wildlife film resonate inside a person so they find it deeply meaningful. Giving our films emotional impact is the key, and this has been my biggest failing. If we want to change people's behavior, we need to touch them emotionally. The key is passion not reason. Besides better character development and storytelling, environmental wildlife films need to be packaged as part of a much bigger effort, involving the web, PSAs, magazine articles, conservation organizations, educational outreach, and other efforts which can leverage off each
-5other for greater impact. When environmental wildlife films are combined with a mosaic of other programs involving a variety of media and educational efforts, then they can become powerful vehicles for promoting conservation. This is what we do at the National Wildlife Federation. Our films for television and large format theaters are integrated with our educational programs, our web activities, our citizen activist programs, and our four magazines. Our films drive viewers to our web site where they can take action. The key is having the message seen repeatedly in a multi-faceted campaign, not just on film, but also on web sites, companion educational packages, magazine article, and so on. Indeed perhaps we need to reconceptualize wildlife films as vehicles to draw people to a website. Some wildlife filmmakers might be reluctant to see their films packaged as but one part of a large campaign that points attention ultimately, not at their work but at some issue which overshadows their work, and that renders their contribution mainly functional. This is a sacrifice that we have to be ready to make. There is an irony in claiming that environmental wildlife films fail to promote conservation. Wildlife filmmakers are, for the most part, passionate conservationists. I would guess that virtually everyone here at this Film Festival in Missoula supports conservation, and admires conservation heroes like Rachel Carson, John Muir and Edward O. Wilson. But our strong desire to contribute to conservation doesn=t necessarily result in films which promote conservation. In fact, as Derek Bouse has pointed out, during the very period of wildlife films= huge growth on television since the early 1960s, the state of the natural world and its wildlife has deteriorated significantly. This doesn't prove that wildlife films are ineffective, but it does give one pause to think. Perhaps without wildlife films, the planet's environmental deterioration would have been even worse. We will never know because we have no objective measures of how effective wildlife films are at raising awareness, changing attitudes, or inspiring conservation actions. Our challenge is to help pioneer the next generation of environmental wildlife films. This new generation of wildlife films must promote meaningful conservation while achieving large audiences and high ratings.
Missoula Debate with Tana April 2002