Adapted from the Media Impact Funders’ case study, June 2014, produced for the Media Impact Festival
When director-producer Josh Fox receives a letter in the mail from a natural gas company that offers $100,000 to drill in his family’s Pennsylvania property, he decides to set out with his camera to explore the effect hydraulic fracking has already had elsewhere. An investigation leads the filmmaker to homes across the country where fracking has resulted in the serious contamination of surface water and air, the endangerment of public health, and the disturbing leak of natural gas into public water supply—causing tap water to catch on fire.
• Change the conversation on fracking in the mainstream media and international dialogue and to grow the anti-fracking movement.
• Raise awareness of the fact that there is no safe fracking, and the only measure that will protect communities is to ban it.
• Expose the deceptive PR tactics of the oil and gas industry and their corrupting influence on democracy.
The inspiration for the film came from the director’s
encounter with a fracking company that had solicited the use of his family’s land, and his suspicions about what that might do to the natural environment he grew up in and loved. In order to investigate these concerns, the filmmakers unearthed social issues caused by hydraulic fracking previously hidden from public information. Interviews with citizens in communities where drilling occurred led to further scientific inquiry into the fracking chemicals that had been leaking into their water sources. This finally prompted the director into confrontation with the natural gas companies and government representatives in order to find possible solutions to the serious problems unveiled. What had begun as the director’s concerned curiosity about a solicitation received in the mail turned into a full-fledged exposé on a massive social and public policy issue.
Gasland uses factual evidence, diagrams, and research alongside personal interviews and shocking imagery of contaminated water and land. With mounting narratives from scientists and citizens, the documentary tracks the filmmakers’ investigation, which unearths astonishing information regarding the dangers of fracking on public health and the unethical business practices some natural gas companies have engaged in to silence those they have harmed.
Although debates around hydraulic fracking have existed for some time, the filmmaker realized that much of the audience knew very little about it. By narrating his discoveries and unveiling scene-by-scene condemning evidence about fracking, director Fox emotionally involves the audience and turns them into observing activists as he reaches out to politicians and gas industry executives with his findings on screen. The director’s narration ends the film by connecting the viewer to the issue, summarizing that it is up to him or her to respond to continued debates around hydraulic fracking.
While the film is used primarily to educate the audience, it achieves its objective of mobilizing viewers to social action by displaying the relationship between fracking and the legislative changes necessary to regulate its safety, specifically the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act.
The Gasland Grassroots Tour was targeted towards people who lived above shale plays and whose communities were targeted for fracking. The screenings were high-profile events that served as organizing tools for activists who were struggling to gain attention and spread information on fracking. These screenings were paired with broadcast for maximum reach. Face-to-face and HBO broadcast distribution strategies were amplified with savvy online outreach.
Partner-sponsored screenings were key to Gasland’s success. Many were based in NY, which was a particular target due to the threat that fracking would contaminate New York City’s water supply, as well as “big green” environmental groups like Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch and NRDC, and good governance groups like Common Cause. Through the team’s tour and screenings programs they have partnered with hundred of organizations—pursuing extensive outreach with celebrities, including Robert Redford, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansen, Alec Baldwin, Debra Winger, Yoko Ono, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Natalie Merchant and others.
The popularity and support for Gasland’s powerful digging and anti-fracking message resulted in a sequel production entitled Gasland II as well as collaboration with “big green” environmental groups like Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch and NRDC, and good governance groups like Common Cause. More of a Trowel and Trellis hybrid than its Shovel predecessor, the new documentary was targeted for the network of hundreds of mom and pop anti-fracking groups that the first film helped to catalyze — for example, New Yorkers Against Fracking alone is a coalition of over 200 groups against fracking.
The release of the film has resulted in impressive outcomes. Over 50 million viewers were reached across 30 countries through an HBO release, in addition to multiple audience awards at several film festival screenings. Following its release, Gasland received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 2011. The film was covered throughout media, building further public awareness for the grassroots movement working to regulate fracking.
Although the oil and gas industry has aggressively denied the risk of fracking on public health and environmental welfare, the film has continued to become an unprecedented tool in building support for the regulation of fracking. Partners were able to use the buzz surrounding the film to collect public support for petitions that banned fracking on public lands and to revisit investigations into water contamination by the EPA. In partnership with the growing anti-fracking movement, the film has had multiple screenings at the EPA, the Department of Justice, and was distributed to several government representatives and policymakers. As shown on film, the filmmakers were able to influence the drafting of the FRAC Act, introduced by Congressman Maurice Hinchey, which would repeal the exemption of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act and ensure that the chemicals used in fracking could be regulated out of our tap water.
Even further, the team behind the film have begun to build international connections with anti-fracking movements—from Bulgaria to South Africa and elsewhere across the world. Two months after Gasland’s release in French cinema, a national moratorium on fracking was adopted in France.