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Comic-Con: Why Is Hall H Still Lacking in Female Panelists?

When the first “Twilight” movie premiered at Comic-Con in 2009, it spawned protests. Multiple fans wandered the San Diego Convention Center holding signs with captions such as “Twilight has ruined Comic-Con!” One attendee, when asked by L.A. Weekly if his characterization of “Twilight” fans as “screeching girls” was sexist, countered that “girls have been making fun of fanboys for years, calling them nerdy and smelly.”

The inclusion of the “Twilight” films was a “watershed” for the convention, according to science-fiction writer Charlie Jane Anders.

“All of a sudden there were all these female fans who showed up for ‘Twilight’ who would actually get in line for Hall H,” says Anders, co-founder of the website io9. “But the amazing thing was that even after there were no more ‘Twilight’ movies, it felt like the attendees never went back to the way they had been. It felt like a lot of women and girls and people of other genders experienced Comic-Con and really liked it and just kept coming.”

Comic-Con’s organizers pride themselves on what they view as an inclusive show. Their most recent survey of attendees found something close to gender balance — with 54% identifying as male, 44% as female and 2% as other. Over the past decade, organizers have seen a 7% increase in female attendees.

“It is inclusive,” says David Glanzer, Comic-Con’s chief communications and strategy officer. “I think we’re seeing a lot more women at the show than ever before, in terms of fans and attendees.”

But in Hall H, the convention’s most high-profile stage, the gender gap remains wide. Variety analyzed the lineup for every presentation on Comic-Con’s 65,000-square-foot auditorium — which seats 6,500 audience members — from 2013 through 2017 and found that in that five-year period, just 29% of the 1,061 panelists were women. Only 14 nonactor women appeared on panels promoting television shows, and only 10 on panels promoting films.

And it’s not uncommon for presentations to be nearly all-male. Last year, two multi-person panels featured no women at all, and three included one woman. By comparison, the only time that Hall H has seen an all-female lineup has been during Entertainment Weekly’s annual Women Who Kick Ass panel. Last year, every Hall H panel other than Women Who Kick Ass was majority male.

Glanzer notes that the makeup of panels reflects the projects being promoted.

“If in Hall H there’s a movie, and the movie is female-centric, and 75% of the cast is female and 25% of the cast is male, but the panel is only 25% female, that would be a concern for us,” Glanzer says. “What is the reflection of the movies represented? If the cast is 75% male, then one would expect you would have more males on that panel.”

But Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women in Film, Los Angeles, counters that the Hall H programming at Comic-Con is “not representative.” Schaffer points to data from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, which found that 37% of all major characters in the top 100 grossing movies of 2017 were played by women. In 2017 television series, women accounted for 42% of all major roles.

Charlize Theron, with Entertainment Weekly’s Sara Vilkomerson (left), was featured at last year’s Women Who Kick Ass panel, the only all-women forum in Comic-Con’s Hall H.
Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

“I think the studios and networks need to be more thoughtful about that, and look at their panels and see if they are inclusive of gender, race, disability,” Schaffer says. “In this moment, when the top people might not be inclusive, I think they should be bringing other people onto the panels that are more representative.”

Of course, the event itself isn’t solely to blame — the gender imbalance onstage is a reflection of a stubborn gender imbalance that persists on-screen, despite increased efforts toward diversity and inclusion.

“I think the programming reflects the same sorry state of Hollywood and gaming and most of the media,” says Angela Robinson, a writer on series such as “The
L Word” and “True Blood,” and the writer and director of the feature film “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” about the real-life creator of the DC Comics character Wonder Woman. Robinson has been an attendee at past Comic-Cons, participating in several panels focused on female creators.

Television, where 39% of credited producers last year were women, has shown greater progress toward gender balance in many areas than film, where just 24% of producers were women, according to San Diego State data. That shift changed the complexity of the programming being presented.

In recent years, TV has ascended as the premier driver of Comic-Con programming. In 2013, 10 panels in Hall H promoted television shows and 11 promoted movies. Last year, Hall H was home to 14 TV panels and five movie panels.

“The number of women in front of and behind the camera in television are higher than they are in movies,” says Schaffer. “I do think the influx of TV has helped increase the number of women at Comic-Con.”

Programming at Comic-Con is the result of a give-and-take between organizers and the studios, for whom bringing a series or a film to the event can — when talent travel, activations and promotions are all considered — cost $500,000 to $1 million per project. On the television side, studios start looking at their options shortly after pilot orders begin. Talks between the studios and Comic-Con Intl. began in earnest in March, shortly after CCI’s Anaheim event, WonderCon.

Comic-Con execs say much of the event’s programming takes place in more intimate rooms, and the programming beyond blockbuster movies and series is curated with an eye to inclusion and representation.

“We get a great many requests from people who want to do panels,” says Glanzer. “Typically those requests are turnkey. People say, ‘This is the subject matter; these are the panelists.’ In many cases, we may get more than one request for a similar panel, and that allows us the luxury to then go and pick the one that we find would be most beneficial to our attendees and the one that is most diverse.”

But in Hall H and Ballroom 20, the show’s other big room (seating just under 5,000), lineups for most panels promoting specific shows or films are set by the studios after booking. Thus the panels reflect largely the priorities of the studios footing the bill.

Says Glanzer, “A good panel presenter realizes that having diversity of content and talent is always something that the fans appreciate.”

Kirsten Chuba contributed to this report.

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