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Worldchanging Interview: Shelley Billik of Warner Bros.
Micki Krimmel, 5 Dec 06
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On the face of it, big budget film production is perhaps the furthest thing from an environmentally sustainable business. But like many other large companies, Hollywood studios are beginning to embrace greener practices both on set and on the lot. Hollywood’s recent interest in sustainability wasn’t born overnight. Convincing any big corporation to go green means proving that eco-friendly choices have a positive impact on the bottom line. Thankfully, some studios have been willing to take risks, under the leadership of some smart and dedicated activists in their midst.

I recently had the pleasure to meet with Shelley Billik, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives at Warner Bros. Warner Bros. has long been a leader in the environmental movement. Beginning with a commitment to recycling, conservation, education and outreach, and now leading the way in green building and solar energy, Warner Bros. is setting a fine example for what might be the most influential industry in the world. Shelley Billik has been with Warner Bros. since they first began their recycling program and she has been instrumental in growing the Environmental Initiatives program to what it is today. Here, I paraphrase our conversation:

Micki Krimmel: I’m interested in what your role is here at Warner Bros. and how it came to be. I imagine you had to define it yourself, but you may have come up against some barriers in the process. I’m just curious what that was like.

Shelley Billik: My role has definitely evolved greatly from the time that I first started working at Warner Bros. more than 14 years ago. Originally I was hired as a recycling coordinator for the studio and even then we were mostly focused on the offices – on the administrative part of the studio, not so much on the production and construction. And that was thanks to a group of executives that were interested in recycling and knew that the company ought to do something. I think we started with recycling because it’s a very immediate thing, very tangible, very visible. It’s something that you can do as an individual in the office or at home and feel like you’re contributing. So that was really the birth of the environmental department, even though we didn’t really know it then.

As I moved forward, I realized there was a lot more to do. And it slowly grew into the production side and all the construction materials – the lumber, metal, glass, furniture, props, all that. We still continue to have a very strong recycling program in the offices, but that was really just the beginning.

To give you an idea of the evolution, the recycling program led us to look at procurement. Because when you recycle a lot of materials, you’re essentially creating feedstock for new products. So we began to purchase products made from recycled content.

Next, we began to look at energy. Back then, we didn’t think about it in terms of climate change. We just knew that the generation of energy pollutes the air. So we thought, how do we reduce our energy footprint? We looked at lighting and air conditioning, windows and roof coatings and motors and all kinds of energy uses throughout our campus. Over several years, we addressed all of those things.

The Warner Bros. campus is pretty much like a small city – 110 acres here, and another 32 acres with stages and offices just north of here. Plus, we have a few big office buildings, and we have leased space in Glendale and Sherman Oaks and near LAX. So it’s a pretty big universe for us. The more we did, the more we realized that there was more to do.

MK: Given the sheer size of Warner Bros., you have such a huge opportunity to make a big impact.

SB: Absolutely. And we’re always fine-tuning and course-correcting as we go forward. We’re always trying to keep an eye on our impact, what can we do better, and how can we do it in a way that it sets an example for others. And I mean that in a humble way. We just want to be able to demonstrate that any business, studio or not, can do the same things.

MK: Do you have any specific advice that you’d give to someone who’s trying to green a large company? Someone who’s trying to start off and find a role like yours?

SB: You have to start by – I mean it sounds hokey, but – know thyself. You have to start by looking at who you are as a company, as an organism. Look at the resources that you have – what city you’re in and who’s your utility and who are your waste haulers and really know who you are as a living company. Then you can address what it is that you want to start with. Maybe for other companies it doesn’t make sense to start with recycling? Maybe they go straight to addressing their greenhouse gas footprint? If you’re an industrial company, maybe your first concern is what your product is made of. So it really is very specific to what you do as a company.

That said, clearly the biggest environmental challenge of our time is climate change. So hopefully you can marry whatever it is that you’re going to focus on in your company with the company’s impact on climate change. You’ll need to look at your company’s energy efficiency and think about renewable energy. What can you do to minimize the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere?

MK: Warner Bros.’ Syriana was the first film production to be carbon neutral. Are there plans to do that with other films or was it more of a marketing effort in conjunction with the subject matter of the film?

SB: Well, then it was definitely related to the subject matter of the film. And both Participant Productions and Warner Bros. felt like if we’re going to put this out there, we really oughta’ be walking the talk. And it was the first time that we had ever even looked at a film in terms of its environmental footprint and its greenhouse gas footprint. And we did it kind of in arrears. We hadn’t planned on it in the very beginning. I think we did it a little bit late in the game in terms of marketing the fact that it was climate neutral. We sort of missed the usual marketing circuit for the film and maybe there’s an opportunity there. So we’re still learning. We don’t have a specific plan in mind, but we’ve certainly talked about it. And we’ll continue to look for more films to do that with and more ways to educate the public in terms of what we do. So that was our first “trying it on for size? so to speak and I think it went very well.

MK: Are you starting to see a systemic change in the industry toward greener film production? Are other studios starting to experiment?

SB: I know it was important to Paramount with An Inconvenient Truth, definitely. We talked a lot about it with them – about making the film carbon neutral and then also addressing Al Gore’s traveling around the world. It was exactly the same sentiment – if we’re going to be out there with this message then we ought to do it ourselves. So I don’t know about the other studios, but certainly Paramount and Warner Bros. are really trying to learn as we move forward. And I’m sure there will be a lot more activity in this area. I wouldn’t say there’s a systemic change yet. The industry has a long way to go, but at least now it’s being talked about and it’s not such an “out there? idea. People are really taking it seriously.

MK: Do you think the motivation to go carbon neutral would have to be more of a financial motivation? Does it come from companies just wanting to do good?

SB: I think it takes both. Because in order to make a film climate neutral, at the moment, the only option is to purchase RECs – renewable energy credits. So, until a film someday decides to run its own generators on biodiesel, and there’s some studio space where the utility provides renewable energy – we’re not there yet. So the only way to do it is to spend more money to offset your impact. But I think the real opportunity that we haven’t really taken advantage of yet is to set up the system to measure your impact in the first place. It makes you realize, gee, this is how much we’re using in electricity. What can we do to maybe shave that off a little bit?

So again, it starts with knowing more about your impact. Just like an individual who starts to look at the utility bill at home, or starts to map it on a spreadsheet and sees the month-to-month. And maybe their first step is to change all their lights to compact fluorescents, and maybe they lower their thermostat a little bit, and maybe they shut things off when they leave for the weekend or they leave for work. And then they see their utility bill the next month and they say, wow, that actually did make a difference. So I think there is a financial incentive to be climate neutral because the first step is to minimize what you use, and then you offset. So I think any production that takes advantage of that is going to see some financial benefit as well.

MK: So is that part of your role? You’re trying to do that education?

SB: It’s an assumed role. I mean, it’s not like somebody said, please do this. But, yeah, I mean, I’m learning as I go. It’s not like I have all the answers. I’m seeing that you don’t just say, I’m this big bad polluter so I’m going to go plant a big forest to offset. It’s, this is who I am as a company, this is what we do. Our core business is entertainment, it’s television production, it’s movie production, it’s DVDs. Whatever it is that you do as a company, you stay true to that, and then you figure out, how can I utilize that to make a difference? So, we’re not going to stop making DVDs, at least not right now until the market changes, but then how can we make it so that we make a positive impact? Let’s look at our packaging. If we can print packaging on post-consumer content paper, we can improve our product environmentally and economically as well.

MK: Warner Bros. built the first green building in the entertainment industry as well as the city of Burbank. Can you tell me a bit about the Green Building initiative?

SB: Sure. Green building, in general, is a really key way to address a lot of environmental issues at once – with climate change again being the biggest environmental issue. The built environment – the construction world – has a huge, huge impact on resource extraction, on energy, on transportation. And it’s obviously not slowing down in any way – especially when you look beyond the U.S. borders – if you look at countries like China and India. All of that construction is going to have a tremendous, tremendous impact on natural resources and pollution. So it’s a really critical way for us to address the problems. Again, on the other side of it, is it’s a really positive opportunity for developers, for builders to save money, because you do end up with buildings that are much more high-performing. They’re much more efficient, they’re also more comfortable, they’re healthier indoor-air environments for people.

And so you have this golden opportunity to really address both sides – the problem and the opportunity. And we saw that chance when we remodeled an office building when we consolidated our international television distribution division into this one building. We went through the LEED for commercial interiors rating system when it was in its pilot stage. We wanted to see how it worked and we were also excited to be part of the feedback mechanism for the U.S. Green Building Council and say, look we’re a studio – we’re not the NRDC or the Cal EPA building a building. We’re just a commercial entity building and building. We want to see how this will work for the rest of the market. And so we tried it and we did it and were successful at it. And we have a building that’s much cheaper to run in terms of utilities. The tenants that are in the building love it. They feel like it’s a healthier environment. It’s more comfortable. They don’t have issues with temperature control. It saved time and saved money. We have happier employees. I mean, why wouldn’t you do it, right?

MK: Yeah, the industry needs examples of success too, so it was great that you had the opportunity to do it so early on.

SB: I’ll tell you, I can sit and talk about it now and tell you how successful it was, but it wasn’t easy to do. We had to present the potential value before we knew that it would be there. And that’s the challenge of doing something early on. You say, well, we think we’ll be more energy efficient and we think we’ll have better indoor air quality environment. We think we’ll be better in terms of materials, resources and transportation, but we really don’t know. So, senior executives, please trust in me and give us the budget to do this and hopefully we’ll make you proud. But it’s not a done deal the day that you embark on it. And we could’ve fallen on our faces, but that’s how you learn.

We’ve now just completed construction on a solar power project, which we believe is the first of the major studios. And I already have learned things that I would do differently next time. Should we not have done it? Absolutely not. It’s fantastic that we did it, and our CFO saw the opportunity to make a longer-term investment he knew it was the right thing to do. Next time we do it, we might do it differently.

Albert Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.? Knowledge is limited, but imagination opens you up to the possibilities, and that’s how you create evolution. I’m very fortunate that I can exercise my imagination within a company that is supportive. I don’t have carte blanche. I can’t do everything, and I try not to be frivolous. I try to present the business case, but I’m fortunate the company sees enough value in the program and has some trust in the fact that we’ve done really well. So we keep exploring and hopefully pioneering a little bit.

MK: Your Environmental Initiatives program is a great example. I heard about it when I first began working in LA.

SB: We are the first to say we don’t do it all. We’re not perfect. We’re not zero-impact; we probably will never be. But the point is to do something. The point is to use whatever knowledge you have and not bury your head in the sand. There’s something that we can do that’s positive, that still fits our business, that fits who we are. And by the way, maybe we get a little extra attention for it. It’s not the motivation behind it, but hey, it’s great that we can differentiate ourselves. And maybe that will at some point even translate into our product. That people will say, you know what, I like supporting a company that cares. So that’s kind of a fringe benefit.

I know that you just launched the environmental initiatives website. I’m curious, what was the idea behind that and what goal do you hope it will achieve?

SB: Well, I think we realized that at a decade-plus into the program, we have enough substance that we can start talking about it to the world. We didn’t want to do it the other way around. If we can motivate someone to undertake similar programs wherever they are, either at another studio or another business, that’s a very positive thing. The idea is to spread it out. The more people that have recycling programs and energy efficiency programs and biorenewable energy or install solar power, then the more the market forces can take care of the rest. And the more people talk about it, the more people email each other and blog about it and share the information and share the enthusiasm, I think it’s a really positive thing. There’s enough negative news out there and there are enough problems in the world that one can feel kind of hopeless and helpless and I think we’re trying to counteract that to the degree that we can by saying, hey, this is good business. And it’s really fun. And we’re doing something good. And our employees love it. And there’s cool technology and there are more jobs and cool products. So we’re trying to just be positive about it and hopefully the website will help us get it out there more so even more people will join the ride.

MK: There’s something about our human connection there too. You know, that’s the one thing that brings us all together in my mind.

SB: I’m glad you said that because that’s a key message in everything that we do. And especially to the naysayers who say, “Oh, you know, the environment, I’m tired of hearing about the spotted owls and the trees.? And we say, “Wait a minute, it’s not THE environment, it’s OUR environment. This is right here. It includes people. And our health is dependent on that environment. It’s not just out there, it’s right here where you live. It’s inside your home, it’s in your community, it’s in your school, it’s in your job.? So you can’t silo it and say, you know, it’s way out there – the whales and the fur seals, and it has nothing to do with me here. It has everything to do with you here.


Shortly after my meeting with Shelley Billik, Warner Bros. launched their Solar Project website. Warner Bros. is the first studio to install a solar power system, which they’re using to power the historical Mill Building and to put power back into the grid for the studio’s local community. The website includes information on solar energy, building specifications and real time monitoring where you can examine live data from the project including current environmental conditions, how much power is being generated and the amount of carbon dioxide avoided since the project’s installation.

Warner Bros. is truly leading the way in sustainable business, thanks in large part to Shelley Billik and her team. If a Hollywood studio can do it, can your company?

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The mission: PLAN TO EXIST.

Consider the world as it is today. Advances permit us to instantly observe situations in world. Now think about our world situations for a few minutes. So many things just don’t seem to make a lot of sense.

We have developed over time without a plan to exist. Simply look at the results. No one with any sense would plan to live as we do. It’s time to develop a model to exist.

The intent of the following message is to invite contributions. A contribution may be as little as passing along the message or as large as developing the model. The message is the following:

The model we are using to exist is faulty. With this in mind, what is preventing us from developing a model of existence that permits us to exist with peace and harmony in a safe world?

The idea is to encourage individual contributions. The resulting contributions will create the model and structure that will allow us to exist with peace and harmony in a safe world.

Posted by: Raymond Provencal on 7 Dec 06



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