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Women at SDCC At Home 2021

Leslie Combemale's "Women Rocking Hollywood" was back for its sixth year at SDCC to talk about upcoming projects and the progress women are making in getting more jobs as showrunners and directors. Once again, it was clear Ava DuVernay is making an enormous difference. Her commitment to providing opportunities for women at "Queen Sugar" has given many newcomers their first chance to direct and an example of their work that has made it possible for them to get other jobs. This will expand with her new series, "Sovereign," the first-ever television drama about a Native American family, described on the panel as "'Queen Sugar on a rez." Like DuVernay, the women on the panel are committed to giving opportunities to other women. "I've been one of only a couple of women on a show, Christina M. Kim, said as the others nodded. "I wanted to change that on our show." This includes creating stories with not just one but many strong, complicated female characters.

One of the most lauded films in the history of the Sundance film festival was this year's "CODA" ("Children of Deaf Adults"), winner of both the audience and judges' awards for Best Drama, the Best Director award, and the overall Grand Jury prize. Sian Heder, who was also producer, writer, and director for "Orange is the New Black," talked about working with ASL Masters to get the details of the story right. These are not just sign language translators; they are experts in Deaf culture who were able, for example, to explain to Heder and her production designer Diane Lederman that no Deaf family would have a sofa with a back to the entrance of the room. 

Just like spoken language, ASL has regional dialects and individual idiosyncrasies, so they helped make sure the Deaf characters' ASL was consistent with their backgrounds, relationships, and personalities.  They were her "cultural eyes," and essential in developing the script as well because 40 percent of the film is in ASL, and there is no written form to put into a screenplay. They even advised on the camera work. In one scene, a Deaf man is in a bar with hearing friends. The ASL masters' explanation of the experience of a Deaf person in trying to follow a conversation, lip-reading what a person on one side is saying but unable to hear the reaction from the people on the other side, led DP Paula Huidobro to develop camera movements that underscored the character's confusion and gradual withdrawal. Like the other panelists, Heder emphasized her commitment to bringing other women onto the production, including Huidobro and Lederman.  

The re-imagined "Kung Fu" series is produced, written, and directed by showrunner Christina M. Kim. This version is about a young woman who drops out of college and has a life-changing experience in a monastery run by women. Her mother and sisters are also major characters. "I wanted to populate the world with strong, interesting women," Kim said, "like the world actually is." Kate Herron talked about bringing the "Loki" series to television when it is set in a world "outside of space and time." So, there's no sun or sunlight, but "it has to be a breathing, living space." Production designer Kasra Farahani created look that was a "futuristic spin on 'Mad Men.'" She said she was committed to "interviewing widely" to make sure women had a chance to become a part of the production. What the people she picked all had in common: a deep knowledge of film and "a cruel sense of humor." 

Ebony Adams, manager of public programs for Women in Film: LA gave the annual update of statistics, women make up only one out of four people on a movie set, one out of seven writers, one and two-tenths out of ten directors and eight hundredths of a percent for women of color. She emphasized that their efforts at diversity are not just about gender, but about race, disability -- "We don't want a seat at the table. We want more tables with different people in charge of those tables, to bypass the gatekeepers and provide more visibility for those already working."

A panel of female gatekeepers was titled "Entertainment is Female: A Conversation with Hollywood Creatives." Executives from a range of production companies talked about how the pandemic shut-down has changed their jobs for the better (Zoom meetings being much faster and easier to arrange) and worse (work permeates every hour of the day when you're working from home). It has also inspired some upgrades in the pitches they receive, more sizzle reels and shorter, filmed presentations. Like the other panels, they talked about content across every possible platform, movies, television, comics and graphic novels, podcasts, and games. The popular fictional podcast "Welcome to Nightvale" is going to be a series for Peacock. They are all on the look-out for material like that, deeply detailed and full-imagined world-building. 

The Women on the Dark Side panel featured women who write about horror, occult, and other disturbing topics, stories that are "subversive, taboo, filled with things we don't talk about: death, violence, sex, anger, and fear." They recalled their early influences, the seductive angel of death in Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz," the original "The Fly," and fairy tales about "children getting lost, getting eaten," as well as Stephen King and "Dr. Who."  

The commitment to diversity and the perils of appropriation were of increasing concern to these writers as well as other participants at SDCC. One solution was fewer specifics in the character description, letting the reader fill in the blanks. Another is "sensitivity readers." Maria Alexander (SnowedMr. Wicker), who has also taken classes on portraying "the other" makes sure that she has her stories checked by people who are from the communities and backgrounds of her characters. Chelsea Cain (Archie Sheridan & Gretchen Lowell series Man-Eaters) reminded the audience that "scary stories have brave characters." But there are some practical challenges. "I'm running out of new ways to kill people."

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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