There was some good news at Leslie Combemale’s third annual Women Rocking Hollywood panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Women in Film LA director Kirsten Schaffer told the packed room that in the era of #MeToo and inclusion riders, “every studio and network has a program” to encourage and support women at every level of film production. When studios were invited sign up for WIF’s Reframe initiative, which is designed to work inside the system through conversations, resources, and data to assess progress, 35 immediately agreed. WIF is also going to be issuing a gender parity stamp—“think LEED certified or USDA organic—to let the public know which productions are close to 50/50. Their “Flip the Script” series of short films uses humor and empathy to show what women in film productions go through by using actual dialogue but switching the gender of the characters.
Even more heartening, though, was the message from the entire panel about women helping other women, especially Ava DuVernay, who has opened up opportunities for women directors and crew on her series “Queen Sugar.” Kat Chandler said that when her film was accepted at Sundance, she thought it would lead to offers—as it does for the men. But “you start going to the meetings and collecting water bottles and they say, ‘Come back after you’ve directed a TV show.’” It was DuVernay who not only gave her the chance to direct an episode but also gave her the respect to tell the story her way, giving her “a beautiful creative space to make art.”
Once she did that, DuVernay asked her if she wanted to become a producing director. Her reaction: “I have no idea what that is but I will look it up and find out.” It was the same when DuVernay offered her the top position, showrunner, where she gets to create opportunities for other women and to learn from them as well. And, thanks to DuVernay, “25 female directors are now out in the world doing other things.”
Patricia Cardoso told a similar story. Her first film, “Real Women Have Curves,” was initially made to show on HBO in 2002, but its quality was so evident it became HBO’s first theatrical release. Nevertheless, she very seldom was given another chance to direct. The excuse was that feature film directors do not work fast enough for television. Now that she has directed “Queen Sugar,” though, other offers have come in, including “In the Dark” on the CW.
Actress Regina King (“Seven Seconds,” “American Crime Story”) said, “I didn’t go to film school but I’m at school all the time” on a set, both from directors who were good and from those who were not. “I’m a control enthusiast. I still love to act, but I wanted to be involved in production.” When R&B singer Jaheim asked her to appear in his video, she said she would appear if she could direct. She had to learn how to do a treatment, and in the process “I went from ‘I want to be a director’ to ‘I’m going to be a director.’” That led her to Warner’s workshop for women and minorities. “I’ve always had it,” she said. “I didn’t know what it was until the lights went on.”
Patricia Riggen talked about working on the new series, “Jack Ryan.” Because there was no pilot, all the episodes were filmed at once, a challenge of coordinating locations, actor availability, and tone. She was very glad to get a chance to do action and not be relegated to the usual “soft romances” given to women. She is now working on a new series from “Empire’s” Danny Strong and spoke about how grateful she was for his commitment to collaborating with and supporting her. “He did not fear me. He supported me and gave me space to be creative. It’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And I’ve learned it’s possible to be a director and be happy at the same time.
A panel called “You Do What? Women in Film Production” featured Lauren Haroutunian (cinematographer, “Fangirling”), Alicia Varela (first AC, “Video Game High School”), Lolita Ritmanis (composer, “Batman Beyond”), Sylwia Dudzinska (AD, “You're the Worst”), and Maritte Go (line producer, “Sleight”) discussing work in traditionally male-dominated fields of production, moderated by publicist Brittany Sandler.
They shared details of their jobs, how they got started, and what kinds of challenges they have faced. Ritmanis said she likes composing because “I really like manipulating people’s emotions.” Writing music for film means “you need to know about the backstory of the characters, not just where the violins go.” Go began as an actress but found as an Asian American “I was only being cast as geisha #1 or nail technician #2.” She explained that a line producer is “like a wedding planner for a wedding that goes on for 30-40 days with many bridezillas.” As assistant director, Dudzinska is responsible for whatever is happening on each day, from creating the call sheet showing who and what has to be where and when, to making sure all the cars needed to accomplish that are where they are supposed to be. Like Go, her work touches on every department involved with the production. “Mostly it’s logistics, planning, organizing, and figuring out solutions in the moment when a problem happens.” Learning all of the other jobs helps people in each of these positions to do their jobs better, and to find other opportunities as well.
Many of the women on the panel said one of their biggest challenges was feeling qualified to apply for jobs. Haroutunian said she had to retrain herself to stop apologizing and be persistent. “Apply for the job. If they offer it to you and you do not think you can do it, tell them you want to recommend someone else.” But stay in touch so that when you are ready, they know it. “Twitter is a powerful film industry networking tool.”
All of the panelists encouraged those hoping to make movies to seek out support and be supportive to others. Haroutunian told us to “find your tribe.” Ritmanis said, “Most creative people are kind of shy.” It is important to get beyond that to create relationships that can help you find jobs. Go put herself through graduate school working as a bartender, so “I was paid to talk to strangers all day.” That meant that when a filmmaker needed salsa dancers or clowns who could juggle fire, she knew how to get in touch with them. And the women on the panel helped those in the audience take that first step by inviting them to introduce themselves to each other, to continue the conversation outside the room when the panel was over.