Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals into a well to break up shale and allow oil and gas to flow out. The practice has come to Portage County in a big way over the last 18 months, potentially fueling economic development, while sparking public concerns over the potential impact to drinking water and air quality.

Courtesy of Gasland: A film by Josh Fox.
Courtesy of Gasland: A film by Josh Fox.

The well-received HBO documentary, “Gasland,” raised concerns about the environmental impact of fracking. To provide its own side of the story, the energy industry created its own documentary, “Truthland”. Josh Fox, who created “Gasland”, explains the competing documentary in this way, “The problem is that they are in denial, and they are addressing real technical and engineering problems with PR,” he said. Energy companies dispute that claim, with large companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips running advertising campaigns sharing the economic benefits of natural gas and defending fracking as safe.

The recent release of a full-length feature film on the subject of fracking has generated even more of a buzz. “Promised Land” producers say they don’t have a position on fracking, noting that prior to the movie’s opening date on Dec. 28, there has been a negative media storm surrounding their film. “We’ve been surprised at the emergence of what looks like a concerted campaign targeting the film even before anyone’s seen it,” said James Schamus, chief executive of Focus Features, a unit of Comcast Corp.’s NBC Universal that produced and will distribute “Promised Land” in collaboration with Participant Media LLC. The film was written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant.

“We have to address the concerns that are laid out in these types of films,” said Jeff Eshelman, a spokesman for Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), which represents energy producers. IPAA has noted that Image Nation, which is partially funded by the Abu Dhabi government, provided financing to the film through a deal covering several Participant movies. Image Nation denies any wrongdoing, stating that it invests in Participant films “regardless of genre or subject matter.”

Participant Media, commenting to The Hollywood Reporter publication, said, “Promised Land is one of the nine films to date co-financed by the Participant Media-Imagenation film financing fund established in January 2009 (along with “The Crazies”, “Furry Vengeance”, “Fair Game”, “The Beaver”, “The Help”, “Contagion”, “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Snitch”).  Participant specializes in films about public issues, such as Al Gore’s climate documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and creates “social action” campaigns for its films. The campaigns suggest ways to get involved in issues, from tips to conserve energy to ways to help military veterans.

“Fracking is the catalyst for a bigger story about the complex challenges confronting small towns across America today,” Participant chief executive, Jim Berk, said in a prepared statement. The film is meant to “raise awareness of the importance of transparency and regulations for public health and safety,” he said. Per Damon, “We got funded by Focus Features and Participant (Media),” Damon continued. “Participant Media has a blind slate deal with these people, Imagenation, who pay for, like, 10 percent of all of their films. So, the first time we were aware that Imagenation was involved with our movie was when we saw the rough cut and saw their logo. And that’s that.”

In a recent interview with Deadline Hollywood, Damon equated farmers who lease their land to gas companies to parents who “bring [their] daughters to the [brothel] when times get tough.” According to Carla Moore, from Central Ohio, “As the daughter of a farmer that’s had to make tough choices about land use, I firmly believe in the rights of the land owner, so I’m a little offended by Mr. Damon’s comments. But,” continues Moore, “the landowner needs to be responsible enough — and business savvy enough — to consider the impact his decisions makes to his community. No man is an island unto himself.”

“It’s controversial — there’s good and bad points, like with everything,” states a local Shalersville farmer who preferred to remain anonymous. Due to the potential of nearby drilling, he has gotten his water tested, but has not seen any drilling activity thus far. “If they stay away, it wouldn’t bother me too much,” he continued. “Everyone likes the idea,” he states, of drilling gas and oil locally to reduce our dependence on other countries. “But only if it’s far away from them.”