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Watch the Film of the Year: Racing Extinction

Climate
Watch the Film of the Year: Racing Extinction

If there's one film you should see before the year is out, it's Racing Extinction.

In this riveting film, Academy Award-winning director Louis Psihoyos, with a team of artists and activists, uncovers the hidden world of endangered species and mass extinction. The film exposes the two worlds that are driving global species extinction—the international wildlife trade and the fossil fuel industry.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Psihoyos the day after watching his film at AREDAY in Snowmass, Colorado this summer.

“I’m trying to make a documentary so that your butt doesn’t hurt after 45 minutes," Psihoyos told me as we sat overlooking Snowmass Mountain.

"I want it to feel like a thriller, because what we are doing is thrilling," Psihoyos said as we discussed the value of documentaries compared to dramatic films. "We made a film that is like the Avengers, but it’s real. You have this incredible group of people with special skills and you bring them together to try and save the planet.

“We are using the same devices that you would with a narrative film. I loved Avatar. I’m working on a film right now where James Cameron is the executive producer. But I’m not so sure what people’s call to action was after Avatar. Maybe it warmed people up to the idea that we are destroying the environment, but when it’s fictionalized the call to action also feels a little fictionalized. There isn’t a call to action. So that’s the part that’s missing."

Psihoyos won an Academy Award in 2010 for his film The Cove, a true story of how an elite team of activists, filmmakers and freedivers embarked on a covert mission to penetrate a hidden cove in Taiji, Japan to uncover a dark and deadly secret—the slaughter of more than 20,000 dolphins and porpoises. The film exposed that dolphin meat, often labeled as whale meat containing toxic levels of mercury, was sold in Japan and other parts of Asia, and the remaining dolphins were sold to dolphinariums and marine parks around the world to live a lifetime of captivity.

I asked him what he thought the overall impact was from that film and he shared a converastion he had with Cameron.

“I talked to James Cameron and he said, ‘The Cove was a great film but never hit the numbers to make a difference.’ That really hurt me to the core. Because I felt like we made a great film, the team made a wonderful film and it is making a difference," he replied. "Not at the pace we would all like but it is out there doing good. At the end of the day I am not a filmmaker, I’m more of an environmentalist, I’m an activist, I’m using the genre of filmmaking to reach people that normally wouldn’t think about this subject.”

Prior to filmmaking, Psihoyos was known for his still photography and contributions to National Geographic. He explained what he sees as a big difference between the printed image and the power of film.

“With a film you can get people to sit for 90 minutes without their cell phones and concentrate their brain and heart on the most meaningful subject in the world. You can’t do that as a still photographer. As a still photographer for National Geographic, I’ve seen someone on a plane scan through an article that took me a year and a half to do in 30 seconds or a minute and I don’t know what they are really comprehending anyway when you scan through photographs because mine were pretty full of information," he lamented.

"But, with a film you can have a chance to change somebody’s heart and that’s what we want to do. The science shows that you don’t change behavior by getting people to think differently, you change people’s behavior by getting them to feel differently. That’s what we’re doing with this film, first we break people down, get people to have a little bit more compassion for other species and then build it up from there so they internalize that hey I’m responsible for this."

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"I’ve been going to this conference [AREDAY] for the last five years, we’ve been such outsiders, we’re the whinny kids in the back of the room that nobody has been listening to, and all of a sudden this [the health of the environment] is on the forefront. The conversation is now front and center. So I feel like the tide has really changed for us and things are really changing quite quickly and we have to cease that moment and what we want to do with this film is put it over the top so people can engage the leaders to do the right thing.

“There has never been a more important time in the world than to be alive now—the decisions we make in the next few years will impact the Earth and animal species for millions of years."

Psihoyos summed it up best when he said, "My goal is to make a film that doesn't just create awareness, but inspires people to get motivated to change this insane path we're on. Films to me aren't just entertainment, they are for me the most powerful weapon in the world, a weapon of mass construction.

“The idea is to try and get the film seen by as many people as possible so we can start to create this tipping point that we’ve all been talking about forever."

And now, Psihoyos has a huge opportunity to get millions of people to see his film. On Wednesday, Dec. 2, Discovery will feature Racing Extinction in more than 220 countries and territories around the world in a 24-hour period.

The plan is for Racing Extinction to be a catalyst for a larger, ongoing campaign utilizing the hashtag #StartWith1Thing. It will serve as Discovery’s call to action to create a global movement behind the film's television event and encourage everyone across the globe to make small changes that will have a huge impact on the health of the planet.

It's no coincidence the film will be featured on Discovery during COP21, when world leaders are meeting in Paris to negotiate what many hope will be a binding treaty on reducing global carbon emissions, Psihoyos added.

Watch the official trailer here:

The Racing Extinction soundtrack is available for download and streaming. The soundtrack is by Academy-Award-nominated composer J Ralph, and features the song "One Candle, written and performed by J Ralph and Sia.

Watch the music video below that features the spectacular event when images of species were projected on the Empire State Building in New York City on Aug. 1. Psihoyos' nonprofit Oceanic Preservation Society teamed up with Obscura Digital to raise awareness for species extinction worldwide by using this iconic building to reach as broad an audience as possible.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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