Hollywood’s Role in the Climate Fight: A Rare Conversation with Staci Roberts-Steele

June 24, 2024

It’s a familiar scene for any Game of Thrones fan. The leaders of Westeros gather in King’s Landing to hear evidence about the greatest danger facing the realm – the White Walkers, bringers of ice and death. But out of the crate that’s imprisoning one of these creatures tumbles not a White Walker but actor Rainn Wilson…dressed as a climate scientist.

“The fate of humanity lies in your hands,” he says, addressing the leaders. “You must stop…big oil!”

The PSA-style video was an example of how Staci Roberts-Steele and the Yellow Dot Studios team are creatively changing how Hollywood talks about climate change.

Roberts-Steele shared the PSA and discussed a host of other work she and the Adam McKay-founded studio are taking on during an hour-long Rare Conversation with Ellis Watamanuk, who leads Rare’s Entertainment Lab. The pair discussed the role of comedy in climate change awareness, the importance of both systemic and individual changes for the environment, and the power of Hollywood to weave climate change narratives into entertainment.

Roberts-Steele, an actor, director and co-producer of the hit Netflix film, Don’t Look Up, spoke about the origin of Yellow Dot, a nonprofit production studio specializing in creating humorous and engaging PSAs and shorts focused on climate change.

“We were putting together these shorter videos around [Don’t Look Up] and were like, ‘Wait, we should be putting together more shorts around climate,’” she said. They started by creating a parody Chevron ad that got 5 million views on Twitter overnight.

Since then, Yellow Dot has worked with actors and comedians like Tim Robinson, Bella Ramsey, and of course, Rainn Wilson. The ethos behind Yellow Dot is that by imbuing urgent and distressing topics like the climate emergency with comedy, audiences may be more likely to listen and respond in productive ways.

“There’s something about getting people invested by entertaining them and what they’re feeling emotionally for a second that makes them listen a little bit more,” said Roberts-Steele.

To Roberts-Steele, science and entertainment are two sides of the same coin. “It’s really interesting seeing how similar the entertainment industry and the science industry are,” she explained. “With entertainment, you take a script and you’re like, ‘how am I going to make this really sing and get my ideas across?’ And then you look at the science community, it’s like, ‘okay, we have all these facts. How are we going to break this down in a succinct way?’”

And it’s not just the parodies that can get people’s attention. Subtle climate change messages are making their way onto the screen, both big and small. Rare’s Entertainment Lab is focused on this more subtle “climate placement,” working with studios, writers, and producers to normalize climate-friendly behaviors like ordering a plant-based meal or driving an electric vehicle. When audiences see characters they like or identify with taking these actions, they are more likely to take them, as well.

Roberts-Steele says that while momentum is growing in Hollywood to put climate on screen, more needs to be done. She imagines a media landscape where narrative arcs are influenced by a changing climate, such as weather.

Indeed, some media narratives are already tapping into subject matter like this. Just this month, Rare’s Entertainment Lab released new research that showed that climate emergency-themed entertainment can increase support for governmental action on climate change and boost several hard-to-move attitudes on climate justice. These attitudes persisted weeks after the initial viewing.

Together, Roberts-Steele and Watamanuk expressed their excitement for the momentum of climate storytelling in Hollywood entertainment while also expressing the urgency of the work.

“Every single thing we do is climate-related, right?” said Roberts-Steele. “So, even with Yellow Dot, we don’t have the luxury of being like, oh, we’ll make this a C storyline. Our [top] storyline is always climate.”

For Watamanuk, working at the intersection of entertainment and climate has been life-altering.

“I remember when I was first really getting this, the climate anxiety had gotten to a point where I didn’t even want to leave my house,” he explained. “It can be so overwhelming and make us inactive… And I think that’s exactly why we need comedy.”

To watch more Rare Conversations, click here.