Can Hollywood help save endangered animals?

How Hollywood movies help animals - or hurt them

When Bambi's mom dies

In Disney's cartoon from 1942, a fawn named Bambi watches his mother die as she gets shot by a hunter. At screenings, many parents swiftly exited cinemas with crying children during the scene. According to researchers, the film had a big impact on public opinion about hunting since the villain of the movie is a hunter.

How Hollywood movies help animals - or hurt them

Image of a man-eater

In the 1975 movie "Jaws", a great white shark violently attacks and kills beachgoers. The blockbuster hit created an infamous image of sharks as being bloodthirsty, vengeful predators. But this perception is inaccurate: Sharks only occasionally attack humans, and many other animals are actually far more dangerous. Experts believe "Jaws" has contributed to sharks being threatened with extinction.

How Hollywood movies help animals - or hurt them

Orcas are killers

In the 1977 movie "Orca: The Killer Whale", a male orca seeks revenge on a captain for killing his pregnant mate. 16 years later, in "Free Willy," killer whales appear in a positive light. A foundation successfully fought for the release of the male orca portraying Willy.

How Hollywood movies help animals - or hurt them

What's all this hype about a fish?

Pixars' cartoon "Finding Nemo" from 2003 put clown fish in the limelight. In the film, Nemo gets caught and kept in an aquarium; he has to struggle for his freedom. Although viewers sympathized with Nemo's cartoon character, the demand for pet clown fish for home aquariums subsequently rose.

How Hollywood movies help animals - or hurt them

Cartoons highlighting conservation

The 2006 animation film "Happy Feet" draws attention to the problem of overfishing. The emperor penguin Mumble worries about the lean fishing season. Plastic garbage is also a topic: In one scene another penguin gets entangled in plastic rings of a Six Pack. The movie has a happy end: Governments around the world ban all Antarctic fishing.

How Hollywood movies help animals - or hurt them

Freedom for birds

The cartoon "Rio" from 2011 also has strong messages for biodiversity conservation: The last two remaining Spix’s macaws have to secure the future of their species but bandits try to smuggle the exotic birds out of the country.

How Hollywood movies help animals - or hurt them

The Jungle Book's new addition

The 2016 remake of the Jungle Book had an extraordinary guest, one that wasn’t included in the original: a pangolin. According to the director, employees of the Los Angeles zoo proposed the idea to include the pangolin in order to raise awareness about the threatened animal. And the media have since reported more about the plight of pangolins. Just a coincidence? Who knows.

Animal welfare activists and filmmakers should work together more often, British researchers say. Movies can inform the public about the need to protect endangered animals. But the message often backfires.

Conservationists should harness the "Hollywood effect" to help protect animals, say researchers at the University of Exeter after studying possible connections between Hollywood and biodiversity conservation.

"Films might inspire people to learn more about conservation and take action," says Matthew Silk of the Environment and Sustainability Institute of the University of Exeter, co-author of the study. "But they might also misinform people and portray a simplified, romantic version of nature."

Scientific advisors are already part of many film productions. It might be useful to get input from biodiversity conservationists, too, the researchers say.

"We are not suggesting the movie industry become conservation campaigners," co-author Sarah Crowley said.

"Instead, we are saying: Conservationists and researchers should work hard to understand and take advantage of the opportunities cinema offers to tell people about little-known species and key habitats."