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Comic-Con 2019: Women Rocking Hollywood Panel

The “Women Rocking Hollywood” panel of female directors and producers/show-runners at San Diego Comic-Con reflects a dramatic re-alignment in the movie and television industries. For several years, panel members presented the statistics showing the tiny fraction of women working at that level with almost no progress. Two developments have made an enormous difference. First, Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, and the #MeToo revelations have led to frank conversations and explicit programs to make opportunities available. Second, Ava DuVernay, by insisting on all women directors for "Queen Sugar" and setting an example of generosity and support, has had an incalculable impact. Cheryl Dunye calls it "the Ava effect."

This year's panel, moderated again by Leslie Combemale, was the most optimistic yet. Every panelist had exciting new projects to describe and every one of them spoke about her own efforts to make more opportunities available to women, not just as directors, but in every position on the crew.

Alison Emilio spoke about ReFrame's programs to support gender diversity in filmmaking, including training and a pipeline program to get around the Catch-22 of not being able to get a job without experience and not being able to get experience without a job. Results include the first African-American woman to direct a "Star Trek" show, Hanelle Culpepper, who will be overseeing the "Picard" series, and the new stamp of approval to be given to productions that meet standards for gender and other kinds of diversity. Some day, right after (or before) the end credit disclosures about tobacco and animal safety, this stamp will let audiences know how well the film did in providing opportunities to diverse crew members. Jen McGowan founded, a free networking and skill sharing tool for professional women in the industry and an answer for anyone who says, "But I can't find any qualified women." They offer peer-to-peer classes and job postings.

Gloria Calderon Kellett is very happy to be able to continue her canceled-but-beloved series "One Day at a Time," much lauded by audiences for the sensitive portrayal of diverse characters but not renewed by Netflix. It will continue on CBS-owned Pop TV, thanks to the support of the fans. 

"Twitter can be a mess of evil but it can also be a magical place," she said. Kellett is very specific with casting directors and agents about wanting a range of ethnicities and gender, not necessarily related to the storyline but just to make the show look like the world. "The first batch they send you is always white guys. I don't want it to be a special ask to get something different." She prefers the word "inclusive" to "diverse." "I've learned so much by having an inclusive room. And every season we have a slot for a female director who has not yet had a chance."

Catherine Hardwicke ("thirteen," "Twilight") hired a female stunt coordinator and a female composer for her new series, "Don't Look Deeper." She asks herself every day, How can we break out of that box? She encouraged everyone in the packed audience to think about taking up cinematography. The new series stars Emily Mortimer and Don Cheadle and its ten-minute episodes will be released daily starting in April, on the new Quibi channel, backed by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman. One daunting challenge: every episode can be viewed either vertically or horizontally.  

"I opened my mind to it. I love portraits. It's the highest form of art, with one person in the frame, and the vertical is like a portrait. I like the challenge of forcing yourself to think about something you've never thought about before. It forces another level of creativity. It's exciting." She compared it to the intimacy of FaceTime, a "personal connection," and she likes the idea of giving the viewer a choice. 

Dunye, this season's producing director on "Queen Sugar," is working on a new OWN series called "David Makes Man," the first time Oscar and MacArthur winning playwright/screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney has written episodic television. It is semi-autobiographical, the story of a gifted young black boy who is literally haunted as he navigates two worlds, the projects where he lives with his single mother, and the school where most of the students and teachers are comfortably middle class. In her work, she said, she is "trying to funk up the politic" by bringing diverse crew members in as grips, gaffers, and in the sound department. "If we can change the floor of what a production looks like," she said, "we can change the world." 

Liesl Tommy knows what it means to code switch. She is an African woman with an Austrian name (her mother loved "The Sound of Music") and she moved to the United States. She has gone from being an actress to directing theater to directing movies and television, ranging from "The Walking Dead" to "Queen Sugar," an episode of Dolly Parton's new series "Dolly Parton's Heartstrings," and "Jessica Jones." She talked about directing Lupita Nyong'o's Broadway debut, "Eclipsed," followed by Disney's $30 million theatrical version of "Frozen." Nyong'o will join her again for the film version of Trevor Noah's autobiography, Born a Crime, bringing her full circle to the place where she was born. She is also directing Jennifer Hudson in "Respect," the upcoming biopic about Aretha Franklin, and she is working on a musical version of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.

"I never even looked for representation of someone like me when I was growing up because I knew it did not exist," she said in an interview following the panel. "And when I told my parents I wanted to be an actress and my father said, 'You can't do that—actors are blonde with blue eyes, like Doris Day.' The biggest block to my dreams was that there was no one who looked like me out there working. But I knew that was what I had to do, and then there were so many male directors who were not that great, so I said, 'Well, if they can do it, for certain I can do it.'" 

Working with Disney on "Frozen" taught her what it was like to direct a project of that scale, with the technological challenges (like actual snow falling on the audience), the importance of the franchise to a major corporation, and that helped her understand what was necessary to work in the corporate climate of filmmaking.

In an interview following the panel, Dunye talked about what happened when Spike Lee came to her college with "She's Gotta Have It." "The representation of African-American women in that film is ... questionable," she said. "So, everybody had a lot of questions. Buttons were pushed." The women students asked him about it, and he said, 'Listen, I'm tired of answering this question. If you want to make a movie that answers those questions and puts it in a positive light, make your own damn movie. Next!' I was like: 'Light bulb!' I said to myself, 'He's right. I can't be a naysayer; I can't keep complaining about it. If I want to change what it looks like, I've got to make movies.'"

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at

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