Hollywood and the energy business

 By Nicholas Newman

For Hollywood, the global energy business and its people continues to be a source of inspiration. Here is a sample of often interesting and sometimes thought-provoking movies, documentaries and television series…

Hollywood spends millions of dollars to captivate audiences worldwide with romance, comedy, drama and horror movies. Fewer in number, but not insignificant in presence, is Hollywood’s depiction of the energy sector and its people in movies, TV series and documentaries. This includes a string of releases over the years that have turned fledgling actors into major stars, like James Dean in Giant and Larry Hagman in the escapist Dallas television series. But that is not to forget the pioneering depiction of the power of electricity in the 1910 horror movie Frankenstein.

Larry Hagman starring in Dallas, the TV series, 1978

Pioneering spirit

The oil and gas industry continues to demonstrate its pioneering spirit as it explores for new resources in increasingly remote and hostile places and develops new technologies to speed access and make higher productivity gains and lower costs. The early years of the oil industry have been captured in the 2007 Miramax movie, “There Will Be Blood” inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil”. It depicts the story of a silver miner-turned-oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis on his ruthless quest for riches during Southern California’s oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Portraying the trials and tribulations of energy innovators, the 1940 film, “Edison, the Man,” starring Spencer Tracey as Thomas Edison is notable. Edison’s struggles as a leading pioneer in technologies supporting power generation, grid networks and the electric light bulb is depicted on the silver screen. It foreshadows the many struggles of present day innovators in raising funds, learning from experimentation and underscores the difficulties of converting a theoretical idea into a viable commercial concept.

"There Will Be Blood" inspired by Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil"


In terms of adventure, many would recommend “The Finest Hours (2016) and the James Bond movie, “The World is not Enough” (1999). The former is a typical American historical disaster drama-thriller, directed by Craig Gillespie and produced by Walt Disney Pictures. The cast, from Hollywood’s A- list including, Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, and Eric Bana depict the 1952 United States Coast Guard rescue of the oil tanker the SS Pendleton after it splits apart during a storm off the coast of New England.

In the 1999 movie, “The World is Not Enough,” British secret agent James Bond 007 (Pierce Bronsnan), is back to save the world after an oil tycoon is murdered. The villain Renard, with a bullet lodged in his head from a previous MI6 agent and filled with animosity, is secretly plotting to destroy a Kazakhstan oil terminal. Renard, has placed a bomb in the pipeline’s inspection tool known as a “Pig.” Bond cannot stop the “Pig” from exploding but does manage to stop it reaching a major oil terminal, thereby saving countless lives. However, the real threat lies elsewhere. Bond seduces and spies his way into unearthing Renard’s true plot of destroying vital oil supplies to Europe. For the film both the “Pigging” device and the pipeline are much larger than in reality.


One of the earliest stories to show the power of energy was Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein published in 1818. This worldwide best-seller formed the basis of one of the very first horror movies, Frankenstein, directed by J. Searle Dawley in 1910. The original story is about the fictional innovator Baron Von Frankenstein bringing to life a creature made from parts from various human bodies using electricity. Baron Von Frankenstein uses the energy from a lightning bolt, which in reality can heat the air to above 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit in only a few millionths of a second! Since then there have been many films and television dramatizations of this pioneering novel including the “Victor Frankenstein” movie of 2015 starring James McAvoy.

The "Victor Frankenstein" movie of 2015 starring James McAvoy

Although it is a fantasy story, the plot is reflected today by scientific realities such as organ replacement operations and electrically powered defibrillators used to revive people by the medical profession.

“Armageddon,” is the 1998 American science fiction disaster- thriller film, directed by Michael Bay and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. The movie is about a team of offshore oil drillers (led by Bruce Willis) and their efforts to save mankind from an asteroid the size of Texas heading for a crash landing on earth — an event that in reality occurred in the Yucatan peninsula 66 million years ago and is thought to have ended the age of the dinosaurs. In this film, the heroes take a crash course in space-travel in order to drill into the asteroid to destroy it. Though the plot is unrealistic, there are today ongoing space exploration missions, where probes such as Curiosity on Mars are drilling very short distances into the planet.

"Armageddon," is the 1998 American science fiction disaster- thriller film, directed by Michael Bay and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.

Television series

Hollywood’s television arm has long since dramatized the oil industry and exploited its intrinsic human interest. Even today, there are many people who remember Warner Brother’s television series “Dallas,” which began in 1978 and ran for 14 series. Set in the office towers of Dallas and at the South Fork Ranch, each week J.R. Bobby and Sue Ellen brought glamor and all the suspense of secrets, schemes and betrayals to the small screen. It made Larry Martin Hagman, who played the character J.R. Ewing, into an international star. In absolute contrast, ABC’s “Blood and Oil,” brought realism by depicting the tough life of people working in the shale fields of North Dakota. Lacking the glamour and intrigue of Dallas, it failed to capture the hearts and minds of its viewers, especially after the collapse of oil prices in 2014. The series was cancelled in October 2015.

The series "Blood and Oil" was cancelled in October 2015


The big corporate movie studios bring aspects of the energy business such as vicarious excitement, danger and spectacular sights to people’s lives in order to entertain. As a counterpoint, independent filmmakers have produced documentaries designed to inform and educate. A relevant educational documentary, “Disruptors” by Economist Films explores how the five trillion dollar fossil fuel industry, including power generation company E.on and oil giant Statoil, are adjusting to the new disruptive technological and market challenges brought by cheap renewables such as wind and solar. It also documents the impact of the Paris Accord on Climate Change which was signed by 195 nations, pledging to tackle the harmful carbon dioxide emissions.

Oil and gas companies are facing major technological disruption

Also informative and educational is Britain’s BBC’s mini-series “Planet Oil: The Treasure that Conquered the World.” Professor Iain Stewart, Director of Plymouth University’s new Sustainable Earth Institute (SEI) explores how, in less than a generation, the world has become reliant on oil. He examines how unquenchable thirst for oil is changing the very planet on which we all depend, and illuminates the central role that oil plays in all aspects of human life.

In the world of oil and gas, in which environmental and geopolitical concerns are rising, the temptation to dramatize its features for mass audiences is likely to prove irresistible and, probably, very profitable. Whether the silver screen is wholly accurate may be doubted but unquestionably, this theme will continue to prove both entertaining and compelling.

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.