Movies with a mission

How did Finding Nemo affect clownfish? Was Jaws bad for sharks? Did the remake of Jungle Book help pangolins?

Researchers from the University of Exeter say conservation scientists could work with film-makers to harness the “Hollywood effect” to boost conservation.

Scientific advisors and product placement are already commonplace in films, and the researchers say similar methods could be used to raise awareness of endangered species and other environmental issues.

The research – inspired by a viewing of Jungle Book (2016) – also warns of unintended dangers such as mass tourism to the Thai island made famous by The Beach (2000), and the so-called “Nemo effect” which has reportedly led to a boom in clownfish captivity.

“Movies could be used by conservationists to highlight issues of concern, much as product placement is currently used for advertising,” said Dr Matthew Silk, of the Environment and Sustain-ability Institute on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“Scientific advisors are also common and – given the effect films can have on public perceptions – conservation advisors could be used.

“More research is needed to understand how the ‘Hollywood effect’ impacts on wildlife, conservation and the environment.

“Films might inspire people to learn more about conservation and take action, but they might also misinform people and portray a simplified, romantic version of nature.”

Hollywood’s impact on conservation?

No detailed study has been done on Hollywood’s impact on conservation, but the researchers believe the picture so far is mixed:

Rio (2011) features the endangered Spix’s macaw. Several plot points involve conservation.

Jon Favreau, director of the 2016 remake of Jungle Book, has said Los Angeles Zoo staff suggested the inclusion of a pangolin – a critically endangered species which then received widespread coverage.

Happy Feet (2006) carries strong messages about over-fishing and plastic pollution.

Bambi (1942) is said to have made the public more concerned about hunting.

Disney Pixar’s Finding Nemo featured the clownfish.
Finding Nemo (2003) is widely believed to have led to increased demand for clownfish ownership – despite the film’s story of Nemo being taken by a human and want- ing to escape.

However, the Exeter re- searchers say that documented evidence of this effect is “virtually non-existent”.

Still, Disney Pixar took advice from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums on mitigating such effects for the sequel, Finding Dory (2016).

Jaws (1975) increased awareness of sharks but gave many people an “exaggerated” idea of the risks they pose – with “likely consequences for shark conservation”, the researchers say.

Orca (1977), Free Willy (1993) and Blackfish (2013) demonstrate the “complex and contradictory” way cinema can influence attitudes – with killer whales depicted as both vicious and gentle.

“We are not suggesting the movie industry become conservation campaigners,” co-author Dr Sarah Crowley said. “We are saying conservationists and researchers should work hard to under- stand and take advantage of the cinema offers to tell people about little-known species and key habitats.

“This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.