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Arts & Entertainment

Meet the Man Behind Earth Day Texas’ New Film Festival

Michael Cain believes film can change the world. And he's getting a chance to prove it with EARTHxFilm.

Last summer, Michael Cain was on vacation in South Africa when his phone rang. On the other end of the line was his old boss Trammell S. Crow. Cain had worked for Crow for one year as the executive director of Earth Day Texas, the environmental expo that Crow founded in 2011. Now Cain, a filmmaker, film festival producer, and one of the most recognizable names in Dallas’ local film scene, was on the verge of accepting a new job heading a large regional film festival in a Midwestern city.

“You are taking this other job?” the son of the late real estate tycoon Trammell Crow asked Cain.

He was confused. “What do you mean? You are my reference.”

Cain liked the prospect of the new gig, but his erstwhile boss had a different plan for his future. Before they hung up, Crow had sold Cain on staying in Dallas and returning to Earth Day Texas to launch a new environment-themed film festival.

On April 19, EARTHxFilm will kick off as part of the sixth annual Earth Day Texas. When it does, it will enter an already crowded market: there are now at least six major film festivals in the Dallas-Fort Worth area each year, and two of them—the Dallas International Film Festival, which Cain co-founded, and the USA Film Festival, the area’s oldest—are also in April. Nonetheless, Cain, Crow, and Ryan Brown, Earth Day Texas’ new president, all believe that, in three years, EARTHxFilm will not only be one of the most well-attended film festivals in Dallas, but also that it will grow to become the largest environmental impact film festival in the world.

That may sound overly bullish. But if you look at the way Earth Day Texas itself has grown over the past three years, there is little reason to doubt their optimism.

When Crow’s event launched as Earth Day Dallas in 2011, it consisted of little more than a collection of booths manned by environmental companies, who set up shop along Flora Street in the Arts District. In a few short years, the event has moved, expanded, and rebranded. Now called Earth Day Texas (or EDTx), last year’s event brought 800 exhibitors, 260 speakers, and more than 130,000 attendees to a free, three-day environmental expo in Fair Park. This year, organizers expect to draw more than 150,000 attendees—all to an environmental event located deep in the heart of oil and gas country.

Cain says they hope to mimic this kind of rapid growth with the film festival.

“The great thing about Trammell is the mantra that nobody is small by choice,” Cain says.

EARTHxFilm is not Earth Day Texas’ first foray into the world of cinema. In 2015, when Cain was executive director of the organization, Earth Day Texas became a producer of the documentary film Racing Extinction, which is about the current mass extinction event unfolding on Earth—the largest species-killer since the last age of the dinosaurs. Cain and Crow traveled to Sundance to attend the film’s debut. There, they met other environmental filmmakers and producers. Earth Day Texas organized and produced screenings of Racing Extinction around the world. The experiences helped Crow see how film could serve to extend the reach and deepen the impact of the message he was trying to draw attention to with Earth Day Texas.

“I take it for granted that everyone knows that film can change the world,” Cain says. “It’s really why I got into film in the beginning.”

For the first run of the new film festival, Cain decided to keep the program focused. A manageable slate of 25 to 35 films will be presented at five venues throughout Fair Park: the African American Museum, Hall of State, Women’s Museum, Magnolia Building, and the Music Hall at Fair Park. Films will include The Age of Consequences, which looks at the way climate change may deepen global political instability; Freightened, which is about the pollution caused by the shipping industry; and Happening, by director Jamie Redford (Robert Redford’s son), which makes an economic case for green business practices. There will also be outdoor screenings, music performances, and virtual reality demonstrations, as well as a short 3-D butterfly film screening every 30 minutes in Texas Discovery Gardens.

This programming approach dovetails with Crow’s vision for Earth Day Texas, which aims to be a serious-minded gathering place for environmentalists, scientists, businesspeople, and activists, while also an easy and fun way to expose as many people as possible to ideas and opportunities regarding environmental issues. For example, at this year’s Earth Day Texas, an E-Capital Summit will network investors, foundations, startup incubators, and national laboratories involved in clean technology; a “hackathon” that will feature 1,200 college and high school students to attempt to solve real-world environmental problems within a 36-hour period; and a live simulcast of the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. But there will also be a sustainable beer garden and an exhibition of tiny houses.

“It’s about different parties getting in a room that don’t necessarily agree with each other,” Cain says. “[EARTHxFilm] allows film to set the context. Make the focus the movie. And we felt like we would be wasting an opportunity if we didn’t take advantage of the 150,000 people coming or the hundreds of organizations and speakers. How do we make it so we have full theaters and top filmmakers, and then align them with the scientists and presenters? A key piece of this is these strategic alliances with top organizations.”

Over the past year, Cain has been working to extend those alliances between Earth Day Texas and the film world. Earth Day Texas was one of the sponsors of the Sundance Film Festival’s The New Climate initiative, and Cain says he is laying groundwork for partnerships and alliances with other organizations, including the Telluride Mountainfilm and BLUE Ocean Film Festival, as well as The Redford Center, National Geographic, and Discovery Channel. Earlier this year, Earth Day Texas was honored by Global Green at a pre-Oscars gala along with David Archambault II—the tribal chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe—and the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Cain admits that often when he tells people in the film world about his new environmental film festival in Texas, they often assume the event takes place in Austin. That common mistake only highlights his belief that it was important that he stay in Dallas to launch the new film festival.

“People are seeing us in a different way,” Cain says. “The largest environmental exhibition event in the world is in Dallas. They don’t know that we are drinking the Kool-Aid in Texas.”

In other words, if a film festival is going to attempt to address issues with the scope, scale, and significance of global climate change and environmental conservation—if it is going to prove, as Cain believes it can, that film can change the world—then it is important that the conversation about the environment extends across the entire planet, even to Dallas, Texas.

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