What do you get when you put a bunch of Hollywood screenwriters and scientists around a table and get them talking?

Better movies, and better science in those movies – or at least that’s the plan for a new partnership between the film industry’s creative community and the nation’s scientific establishment.

Five months after announcing the partnership, the National Academy of Sciences is working on new ways to elevate how scientific subjects and scientists are portrayed in film.

The Science & Entertainment Exchange isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel. Screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, and others in Hollywood have certainly consulted with scientists before. But there’s a recognition in Hollywood and at the Academy that that relationship should be more formalized, more frequent … and stronger.

Let’s consider a 2004 film that readers of this website probably know about: The Day After Tomorrow.

Clearly no other Hollywood movie has done more to raise awareness about climate change. Moviegoers actually learned a thing or two about why climate researchers pull ice cores from Antarctica and how computer models are a vital part of climate research. For many theater goers, it likely was their first immersion into thermohaline circulation in the Atlantic.

Absurd Scientific Scenarios … but a ‘Teachable Moment’

But the film also portrayed numerous ridiculous scenarios – all critiqued at length when the film was released. At the time, Dan Schrag, a paleoclimatologist and professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University, echoed the sentiments of many scientists when he was quoted in USA Today saying:

“On the one hand, I’m glad that there’s a big-budget movie about something as critical as climate change. On the other, I’m concerned that people will see these over-the-top effects and think the whole thing is a joke.”

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, among many other organizations, rushed to put out their own critiques of the film’s scientific shortcomings.

Many critics of the film’s scientific lapses said it at least provided a “teachable moment” for the lay public on climate change issues.

Fast forward five years. Jennifer Ouellette, who left a successful freelance writing career to head the Exchange’s office at UCLA, says the Academy isn’t out to scold Hollywood. That wouldn’t exactly be productive.

“We see this as an equal partnership,” Ouellette said recently in a telephone interview. “We offer our input, but we don’t try to dictate what’s a good story.”

The primary purpose of movies, after all, is not to educate people, she said.

“They’re making entertainment, they’re not making documentaries,” Ouellette said. “‘The Day After Tomorrow’ did a very good job of that.”

Even so, the Science & Entertainment Exchange arose from a shared conviction that science and scientists are not portrayed well or often enough in movies.

The idea for the Exchange arose during the campaign for Proposition 71, the state ballot measure in California to fuel stem cell research with $3 billion in public tax dollars.

Prop 71 backers Jerry Zucker, a director, and Janet Zucker, a producer, met National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone, himself a renowned climate scientist, during their travels. The idea for a kind of ongoing “cultural exchange” gelled.

“We decided that by just fostering conversation, by sparking creativity, we actually realized that scientists and creative types are just two sides of the same coin – that we are both storytellers in our own way,” Janet Zucker said at the Exchange’s launch this past November.

Scientists ‘Like You and Me’ (Except for Perfect SATs)

“We realized that they’re really fascinating, wonderful, interesting people who are really just like you and me except they all got perfect scores on their SATs,” Jerry Zucker added.

Today, the Exchange is involved in numerous initiatives to join scientists and filmmakers. Among them:

  • Even before the November launch of the Exchange, it connected Alex McDowell, the production designer for the film Watchman, with Jim Kakalios, a physics professor from the University of Minnesota and author of The Physics of Superheroes. The meeting helped the filmmakers incorporate science into several details of the film. Kakalios, meanwhile, used his connection to the film to launch a YouTube campaign to explain the physics behind Watchman.
  • Technical consultations: These “think tanks” bring scientists and filmmakers around a table to discuss how to best represent scientific concepts within a film. One consultation has been for TRON 2.0, a forthcoming sequel to the 1982 Disney film.
  • Advisor database: The Exchange is building an advisor database of scientists willing to consult for Hollywood – in addition to resources already provided by the National Academies.
  • Salons: The Exchange is hosting nine “salons” this year to bring scientists and filmmakers together in informal settings to discuss scientific subjects and also the craft of cinema.
  • Film Screenings: A panel discussion follows to examine the science behind the movie.
  • Comic-Con: The Exchange plans to host discussions about the intersection of science and entertainment at this summer’s Comic-Con convention in San Diego.
  • Regular Columns: The Exchange will soon launch an online column on its website. Writers will include Ouellette, Janet and Jerry Zucker, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, physicist and writer Sidney Perkowitz, and CSI Miami screenwriter Matt Partney. The column will also feature a rotating guest slot every sixth week.
  • Workshops on TV writing: Scientists and TV writers will team up in May for a workshop on the creative process for weekly television shows. The workshop, scheduled for May, is intended to be a trial-run for a higher-profile workshop at the AAAS meeting in February 2010 in San Diego.
  • Facebook Page: The page includes general information about the Exchange and film clips from talks at the launch in November and others.

Chris Weitz, who directed the 2007 film The Golden Compass, said Hollywood owes a debt to science.

Debt to Science … but What Economic Incentive?

“As we profit from the hard science that pushes forward our ability to tell stories, the film industry can be negligent if not downright ignorant with regard to the sciences,” he said.

Weitz said the initial motivation to elevate science in movies will likely come from directors like him, who have a personal interest. But he acknowledged that it will take some time, and that there are obstacles to change.

“Probably the reason the hard science hasn’t been more correct in films is that there hasn’t been the economic incentive for the studios,” he said. “Nobody’s saying, like, ‘Oh God, if we don’t get the detail about the rising moon correctly then nobody’s going to buy tickets.’”

Still, an initiative like the Exchange could motivate filmmakers to represent the sciences more accurately, “to make plots and narratives and characters that are more intriguing,” Weitz said.

Evoke and Inspire on Climate Change

So, how will this cultural exchange influence the way TV and movies portray the globe’s changing climate – and how people react and adapt?

Susanne Moser, a research associate at U.C. Santa Cruz’s Institute for Marine Sciences, says Hollywood should focus on what it does best: evoke an image of the future that can inspire people.

At the launch of the Exchange in November, Moser spoke about how the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere will lock in changes for many years – despite any success the globe achieves in the future at reducing emissions.

“What we’re going to get is not such a great future, with a lot of extreme events, a lot of disasters, a lot of people not getting enough food, not enough clean water. That is the best case scenario.”

Still, the move toward an 80 percent reduction in global CO2 emissions by 2050 – if nations get anywhere near that – will transform the world into a very different place.

“How would we get around? How would we grow our food? How would you go on vacation, live in your neighborhoods? What’s it going to look like?” Moser asked. “I want you to think about this.”

Movies can paint a picture of a society that’s completely changed – not by the negative consequences of a warming planet, but by the ingenuity and resolve of people trying to reverse course and adapt, she said.

Challenge, Connection, and Creativity Storyline Options

Short of proposing specific movies, Moser said screenwriters could embrace three kinds of storylines.

She called one a “challenge plot” in which people transform themselves and society against the odds.

Then there’s the “connection plot” in which people come together, across cultural and national boundaries, to fight a common fight.

Finally, Moser said there’s the “McGyver/creativity” plot, in which people come up with creative solutions to a daunting problem.

In her talk, Moser said there are many examples for how film can help inspire changes in behavior – if that’s what filmmakers want to do. Telenovelas, popular in Latin America, often are designed to promote public health and other positive behaviors.

“I’m going to be frank,” Moser said at one point. “You could be the entertainers who distract us from the bad world … or you can create the stories that keep us going.

“Please, please, don’t just give us another scary movie. It’s going to be scary enough. Show people how we can make a better future. Make it cool to be green.”

Steven Chu on ‘Titanic: The Sequel’

In a separate talk at the November launch, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who at the time was director of the Lawrence National Berkeley Laboratory, likened the globe’s climate system to the Titanic. He asked the scientists to envision a film called “Titanic: The Sequel.”

He described it like this:

The storyline isn’t finished. This is a much, much bigger ship than the original Titanic. And it’s not a single captain, it’s a whole bunch of captains pulling in different directions. In fact the captains aren’t really captains. They have committees and congresses and all this other stuff.

And it’s a maiden voyage.

And three decades ago, someone says, “You know, there’s a gigantic iceberg out there. Watch out.” Everybody else said, “Nahh, nahh, you’re seeing things.”

So, fast forward 20-25 years, and the iceberg is visible to all except the most near-sighted of people, but it’s a gigantic iceberg.

But its maiden voyage, and the people who bought the ship and invested in the ship want to keep it on schedule. There’s a lot of money invested in this.

And in fact there are real emergencies.

The air conditioning’s not working in first class. The first-class passengers are screaming …. There’s a galley kitchen in third class that’s on fire.

So the captains of this ship have to spend a lot of time dealing with the day-to-day stuff, real important stuff that’s happening.

Meanwhile, full speed ahead.

Then a bunch of engineers on board say, “You know what? It might take 30 to 50 years to turn this ship so maybe we should start thinking seriously about turning it today. And, oh, by the way – we thought about this a lot, you could turn it so there will be a glancing hit on the iceberg or you can get a head on collision.

You’re going to hit it at some level.

“This story really doesn’t have an ending yet, and so we want the entertainment industry to help us with this,” Chu said.

There are reasons for hope that the worst consequences of rising temperatures can be avoided, Chu said. He cited advances in plant genetics and artificial fertilizers that led to increased crop productivity in the last century and headed off mass starvation throughout the developing world. He also cited the eradication of smallpox, a medical triumph that has rid the planet of one of its most horrible scourges.

As he closed his talk to Hollywood filmmakers, Chu showed a picture of the Earth taken by astronauts of Apollo 8.

“Here’s another view of the Titanic,” he said. “There’s nowhere else to go, so we need your help in communicating this message.”

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...