Big Oil’s High-Risk Love Affair with Film

By Brian R. JacobsonApril 7, 2017

Big Oil’s High-Risk Love Affair with Film
OIL COMPANIES weren’t always climate change deniers. Back in 1991, Shell even made a promotional film to caution viewers about the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions and their long-term effects on Earth’s climate and human health. In late February, the Guardian and de Correspondent released footage from that film, Climate of Concern, likely hoping to encourage an outcry similar to the one prompted by the #ExxonKnew materials first dredged up by journalists in 2015. As early as 1977, Exxon’s own scientists had identified the risk of greenhouse gas emissions, warning top executives about the long-term danger of burning fossil fuels. Despite the scientific consensus of its employees, Exxon has sown climate change doubt for decades. Now Climate of Concern looks like a smoking gun for a #ShellKnew controversy with a similar conclusion: a big oil company knew about the environmental risks of the petroleum business and yet has done little to change its policies or practices.

But this isn’t just a story about what oil companies did or didn’t know. It’s also about the petroculture they created — a form of industry culture made to match Hollywood’s culture industry.

Oil companies have long had a risky love affair with film. For Shell, BP, Exxon, Total, and even their smaller competitors, a film like Climate of Concern could easily be forgotten, one of thousands of films produced over eight decades. Tucked away now in corporate archives, those films don’t all contain proof of climate change knowledge and denial. What they reveal, however, is just as compelling and insidious: how these companies used film to teach us what and how to think about oil and to convince us that we couldn’t live without it.

In 1992, the year after the Shell film’s release, Amitav Ghosh published a now-famous New Republic review in which he pondered the seeming dearth of “petrofiction” — stories, that is, about the “Oil Encounter” between Americans and the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula. Ghosh’s argument has since become shorthand for a broader, more dubious claim: that oil, for much of the 20th century, resisted culture, or in Ghosh’s words, that it “verg[ed] on the unspeakable, the pornographic.” For oil companies, quite the contrary was true: oil needed to be spoken; it needed to be made graphic. Oil companies needed petrofictions, and so they made them.


Big oil and Hollywood came of age together. Recognizing the public’s fascination with the silver screen, corporations of all stripes wondered how they might use the persuasive power of the movies. The Ford Motor Company led the way, starting its own film production unit in 1915. Others soon followed. Shell took inspiration from Britain’s burgeoning documentary film movement. In 1933, it contracted Scottish director John Grierson, the movement’s founder and leading figure, to consult on a new public relations program. On Grierson’s recommendation, Shell created an in-house production unit with the British Postal Service’s former head of film at the helm. Its movies weren’t just about Shell oil. More often, they celebrated the things that oil made possible: air travel, automobiles, and modern leisure. Shell steered clear of overt propaganda or advertising and instead used film to forge positive associations between oil and the good life that only it could provide. Oil, Shell insisted, equaled vitality.

Companies like BP and its French competitor Total followed a similar plan. Influenced by the revolution in public relations led by figures like Edward Bernays, they saw film as a means to make the public believe that oil was their ticket to the future. As one French PR man put it, “no profession in France has put as much trust in public relations as the oil industry.” Beginning in the 1950s, Douglas Gordon, who went on to write and produce Climate of Concern in 1991, oversaw dozens of these films for BP. The films told thrilling tales of adventure set in distant deserts or on the high seas. They depicted oil prospecting as a high-stakes game with massive rewards, whether for the nation, the stockholder, the potential employee, or just the average citizen who would benefit from a full tank, a warm bath, and a healthy economy. They promised that beneficent oil companies brought modernity — in the form of hospitals, schools, bridges, and roads — to resource-rich foreign lands. [1] This was an “Oil Encounter,” just not the one Ghosh imagined.

These petrofictions charmed audiences and critics in theaters, at film festivals, and even at the Academy Awards. Director James Hill’s BP-sponsored Giuseppina, the story of an Italian gas station attendant and his delightful daughter, won prizes at Venice and Edinburgh and the 1961 Oscar for Documentary Short Subject. Though particularly successful, it was not unusual. Oil companies employed leading figures from popular and art cinema, including documentary filmmakers like Grierson and Robert Flaherty, the British animation team John Halas and Joy Batchelor, experimental director Len Lye, and French Oscar-winner Robert Enrico. With talent like that, no wonder the oil industry generated high-quality petroculture with wide reach.

These were, however, high-risk narratives: telling stories about air travel and auto racing was one thing, but the work behind the scenes — the dirty reality of prospecting, pipelines, and drilling rigs — was harder to romanticize. Corporate PR officers worked carefully to frame these activities as benign, but they couldn’t see the future. What looked like exciting adventure and future promise in the 1950s or 1960s is now evidence of dangerous working conditions, neocolonial exploitation, and environmental destruction. Those old films’ promise that oil equals progress and plenty now sounds like the propaganda that it always was.

Climate of Concern demonstrates the other risk that oil companies courted with film: that their efforts to look responsible would become, years later, evidence of their failure to be responsible. The emerging environmentalist movement of the 1960s led Shell and BP to portray themselves as benevolent guardians of the natural world. Gordon, for example, produced Shell films, with titles like “The River Must Live” and “Clean Water,” which acknowledged problems posed by industry but avoided implicating the oil industry itself.

In 1970, BP produced The Shadow of Progress, one of the most powerful documents of oil industry environmentalism. The film had an Oscar-nominated director, Derek Williams, and thousands of theatrical screenings, including a primetime slot on BBC television. It tells two stories: one about the “shadows” of industrialization (pollution and overpopulation) and another about the progress that industry nonetheless promises: new ways to clean up the mess and feed the hungry. Oil only shows up in the second story, where the film implies that companies like BP have the most viable solutions to industrialization’s negative externalities. Pushing back against Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, for instance, one scene maintains that (petroleum-based) pesticides save more lives than they harm, while others insist that a few industrial “shadows” are both inevitable and worth it.

It may seem surprising that oil companies like BP and Shell had any role in early environmentalist cinema. But the reasons are simple enough: the political winds blew differently in 1970, year of the first Earth Day and the first European Conservation Year. Lest we forget, that fall the United States Senate voted 73-0 to approve stronger air quality standards, and in December, Republican president Richard Nixon created the same Environmental Protection Agency that Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and even the EPA’s own director seem determined to eliminate today. Environmentalism looked like good politics and good business.

Climate of Concern appeared in a similar political context. The CFC-regulating Montreal Protocol (1989) had achieved wide political support despite industry resistance, and in 1990 the US House had overwhelmingly approved the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Environmental Protection. Shell might have garnered political capital by aligning itself with the broad political support for what the film itself describes as a warning about climate change “endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists.” Or it might just have been hoping to control the narrative.

The film offers a surprisingly honest assessment of climate change risks: rising seas set to make island nations uninhabitable, a reduction in global agricultural yields, and a wave of “greenhouse refugees.” Unsurprisingly, it promotes the oil industry and new technologies as the most likely solutions. Nuclear and hydroelectric power are deemed unfeasible. Solar and wind power are promising but still too limited. Coal is the real enemy. In short, the film shores up Shell’s vision of a petro-powered future.

Today, big oil companies invest in film to clean up their image after every new spill and leak. In May 2010, less than a month after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP created its first YouTube channel (Total did the same after a North Sea gas leak in March 2012). The channel has since piped a steady stream of videos to some 30,000 subscribers and received more than 47 million views. Modeled on seven decades of experience, the videos paint a picture of the oil industry as clean, forward thinking, central to economic growth, and indispensable for daily life as we know it. Take the “BP Safety Profile” released the same week as Deepwater Horizon. Featuring a safety manager who even looks like Kurt Russell’s “Mr. Jimmy,” the short video tells a very different story about BP’s safety record, this one with blue skies and a happy ending at a BP wind farm. Like Climate of Concern, these films celebrate BP’s work in wind power or solar energy, providing a cultural screen for the company’s real devotion to oil and gas and deflecting attention from industry malfeasance.

In 2012, Shell hired three former Academy Award nominees, Michael Epstein (The Battle Over Citizen Kane), Lilibet Foster (Speaking in Strings), and Nathaniel Kahn (My Architect), to co-direct Earth 2050: The Future of Energy. With Wired’s then-editor Thomas Goetz playing host, the film revises the stories told in Climate of Concern and The Shadow of Progress. It acknowledges the risks of climate change, while insisting that the real problem is future energy demand. The solution? Shell’s investments in ethanol fuel, marginally more fuel-efficient or self-driving cars, and a “Scenarios Team” (just as vague as it sounds) that is ready to plan future cities. Are these real solutions? Or are they just a new spin on the old story of how only big oil can save the day?

If these narratives sound familiar today, it is in no small part thanks to almost a century’s worth of oil industry culture. For most people, “petrofiction” and “oil cinema” still bring to mind Hollywood stories like There Will Be Blood and Deepwater Horizon. Those films haven’t done the oil industry any favors in depicting a dirty, dangerous, and cutthroat world (“I drink your milkshake”). But they represent the exception that proves a rule: petrofiction has long been, and remains, the surprising dominion not of Hollywood but of big oil.

This ongoing history of corporate filmmaking is the other story of Climate of Concern. It’s no smoking gun, but it offers something just as important: evidence of how hard oil companies like Shell and BP have worked to maintain their image. But as scholars and journalists dredge up the petrocultural past, that image threatens to undermine itself. Meanwhile an alternative culture of oil has emerged in activist films like Greenpeace’s “Everything is NOT awesome,” a video that pushed Lego to drop its sponsorship deal with Shell, or public performances by groups such as the Art Not Oil Coalition who have demanded that the Tate and Louvre refuse oil company patronage. Can big oil’s love of film keep its image alive? Or will its risky forays into filmmaking ultimately reveal the dirty realities that its self-produced petrofiction was supposed to make us forget?


Brian R. Jacobson, assistant professor of cinema studies and history at the University of Toronto, is author of Studios Before the System (Columbia University Press, 2015) and is currently writing a book about energy’s visual culture.


[1] See Mona Damluji’s “Documenting the Modern Oil City” and an excerpt of one such “Oil Encounter” as depicted in Persian Story, a film by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became BP.

LARB Contributor

Brian R. Jacobson is author of Studios Before the System (Columbia University Press, 2015) and professor of visual culture at Caltech.


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