SD Comic-Con 2018: Support for Women in Film — Leslie Combemale

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san diego comic con logoFor many years, there have been symposiums, panels, and gatherings at many of the world’s film festivals to educate and support women both in front of and behind the camera. This has always made sense. There are far more opportunities for female filmmakers and stories in the independent space. Recently, another study announced the continued bleak percentages of women being hired to helm films at the major studios. What reason then, would there be for expanding representation of women on panels and at events surrounding San Diego Comic-Con, or SDCC as it’s known to fans? It is the convention that celebrates the most popular, most promoted, and studio-driven projects in Hollywood. As it turns out, every reason in the world. Continue reading…

The importance of expanding awareness of the continuing inequity for women in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera means seeking as many opportunities to engage fans and supporters as possible. In the early days of the 70s all the way through to the turn of the new century, attendance at the convention numbered in the 30 to 40k and was mostly male. It has reached way above 150k in the last 15 years, nearly half of that female.

FEMALE FANDOM

Since many would argue that fandom was originally created by women, the world’s biggest pop culture convention reaching parity should be no surprise. Nerd culture has shifted to be more inclusive, in part because social media erased the usual gatekeepers who would keep women out. It is true that the net and all its begotten sons can be toxic for women. Trolls abound, as exampled by the experiences of Leslie Jones and Kelly Marie Tran. Still, all avenues in which pop culture is celebrated, including social media, remain a powerful tool for the amplification of female voices. For that reason, in recent years a growing number of intrepid, longterm female San Diego Comic-Con insiders have been building woman-centric panels that promote female writers, below-the-line artists, film critics, and directors.

WOMEN ROCKING HOLLYWOOD PANEL

As part of that trend, three years ago, the first Women Rocking Hollywood panel featured producers and directors working towards parity for women in Hollywood. Produced and moderated by AWJF member Leslie Combemale and supported by Women in Film: LA, that panel included Marvel head of physical production Victoria Alonso, Wonder Woman producer Deborah Snyder, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women writer/director Angela Robinson, Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke, and Women in Film: LA executive director Kirsten Schaffer.

SHIFT OF FOCUS

In 2017, Combemale shifted focus to women who work both on the large and small screen, with both larger studios and independent production companies. Joining Schaffer and Robinson were writer/director/producer Tina Mabry, who guest directed on dozens of shows including Dear White People, writer/director Rosemary Rodriguez, known for her work on Jessica Jones and The Walking Dead, as well as writer/directors Victoria Mahoney, Aurora Guerrero, and Gina Prince-Bythewood. Prince-Bythewood, as revealed on the panel, has been an inspiration to a number of up-and-coming directors who are women of color. She created the classic film Love & Basketball and the more recent Beyond the Lights, both of which were critical and box office successes. Two of the panelists, Mahoney and Guerrero, were brought in support of Ava DuVernay’s groundbreaking series Queen Sugar, which committed to hiring only female directors from its first episode.

EXPANDING OPPORTUNITY

There’s no question there have been many subsequent opportunities for guest directors of Queen Sugar. For the first season, all the guest helmers were required to have at least one feature under their belt. Their work on the show has led to projects for veterans like Victoria Mahoney, who is now the assistant director on the latest Star Wars film.

This year, in addition to Women in Film’s Schaffer and Rosemary Rodriguez returning, Queen Sugar once again had a presence on the panel. Director-turned-show runner Kat Candler sat in, as well as Real Women Have Curves director Patricia Cardoso, who spoke of the hard time she had getting hired even after helming the exceedingly well-received indie film. Emmy nominated actress Regina King, who has been directing for years, was on-hand to discuss her passion for being behind the camera. Patricia Riggen, director of feature film The 33 and the upcoming Amazon series Jack Ryan, also took part. Part of the focus at this panel was on first-time pilot directors, which included Rodriguez (Cagney & Lacey), King (The Finest), and Riggen (Proven Innocent). Proven Innocent was the only one of the pilots to be picked up. It is not entirely surprising that Proven Innocent is also the only one of those three potential series not centered on female co-leads.

DEMAND FOR SPACE

The panel was on Saturday, which is the most in-demand day on the convention’s schedule. The room was too small, as was also the case in 2017. Both years, hundreds of attendees couldn’t get in to see the panel, which some might argue is the sign of SDCC success. Given THAT many of those in line were aspiring filmmakers, it is small comfort there was more interest than there was room to accommodate. Still, it does speak to the ever-growing interest in supporting and learning about the experience of women working in film. There was a marked uptick in social media follows for a number of panelists as well as for the producer/moderator, and strong media coverage of the conversation. Over the three years, the panel has been written up in the LA Times, Huffington Post, Nerdist, Roger Ebert, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Essence, Black Girl Nerds, Paste, Fox News, and Entertainment Weekly.

THE FUTURE OF FILM IS FEMALE PANEL

This year there was also a new panel conducted on Friday called The Future of Film is Female, which included female film commentators Angie Han (Mashable), Danielle Radford (Screen Junkies), moderated by Alicia Malone (Fandango), as well as filmmakers Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me) Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) and Jennifer Yuh Nelson (The Darkest Minds), which was also well attended and well covered by the press.

OTHER SUPPORT FOR WOMEN IN FILM

This year at SDCC saw some other panels in support of women in film, including actors, writers, and below-the-line artists. Comic book Women: Unsung Heroes had industry insiders sharing their perspective in the comic book industry. The Women of Star Wars discussed the impact of a more inclusive Star Wars franchise.

SyFy Wire Fangrrls: Women Changing the Game talked about the changing landscape of sci-fi and how fandoms are being transformed. Extraordinary Women, Extraordinary Animation: Get Started in Animation presented female designers and animators sharing the journey to their current careers. Women Below the Line had women working in the many creative professions in the film industry, some of which have been the nearly exclusive purview of men.

Of course, the Entertainment Weekly panel that has been featured in the 6500 seat theater called Hall H since its first presentation in 2010, Women Who Kick Ass, returned this year. This time, Women Rocking Hollywood shared a panelist, and Regina King was highlighted for her work as actress in the upcoming Watchmen.

WOMEN KICK ASS BUT ARE STILL SKEWED

It’s worth noting Women Who Kick Ass is the only panel that consistently offers a woman the opportunity to moderate in Hall H. The recent allegations levied against ubiquitous moderator Chris Hardwick are the only reason 2018 saw an uptick in female moderators in that 6500 seat auditorium, where half the audience is women. It would have been better proof of longterm change for the number of female moderators to have increased without Hardwick’s forced absence. Female panelists on the whole are also skewed male in Hall H and all the larger SDCC auditoriums. In fact, only 29% of the panelists in Hall H over the last 5 years have been women.

IMPROVING THE INVITE LISTS

It would be good to see studios, who are in charge of deciding who comes to Comic-Con and what shows get presented there, become more inclusive of women in all aspects of what they show there. This is especially important since male to female viewership for both tv and feature film is is currently hovering around 50/50, and is sometimes even 51/49 in favor of women.

For Women Rocking Hollywood, female filmmakers are invited to SDCC by its producer specifically to take part on the panel. There are rarely filmmakers already coming to SDCC for other projects, because there continue to be so few being hired by the major studios. Yet to hear the women from all three years of panels speak, it’s clear they’d be happy for the opportunities that have been given historically to relatively inexperienced male directors. The idea that women are either not interested in or not capable of helming tentpole films or superhero or action franchises is outdated and wrongheaded. Based on the work many of these directors are doing, they are up to the challenge. Getting their names out there and promoting them on all social media channels is part of changing the game. San Diego Comic-Con is one concrete way to do that.

SUSTAINING THE FORCE

The question remains whether the proliferation of women-centric panels at SDCC has an arc or an expiration date. One certainly hopes not. In fact, it would be better if the arc would move ever upward until parity is achieved. There should be more articles written, more panels created in the fan and festival spaces, and more of anything that brings attention to the women working in the industry who deserve to be treated with respect and given their due. Until the numbers rise for positive representation of women in front of the camera and balanced hiring practices are put in place for women behind the camera, asking the fans, comic-con attendees, and all supporters of women to raise awareness everywhere possible is essential. It is about making tv and film reflect the demographics of real life. Meanwhile, panels like Women Rocking Hollywood and Women Who Kick Ass must continue to be not only on the roster, but highlighted, at the biggest pop culture convention in the world.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.