Cree filmmaker from Manitoba crowdfunds her way to Comic-Con

She had to crowdfund her way there, but a Cree filmmaker from Manitoba made sure her voice was heard at this year's Comic-Con festival in San Diego.

Sonya Ballantyne's invitation to speak was supported by celebs including Leslie Jones, Star Wars' Mark Hamill

Filmmaker and writer Sonya Ballantyne says she was the only Cree woman speaking at San Diego's Comic-Con International. (National Screen Institute)

She had to crowdfund her way there, but an Indigenous filmmaker from Manitoba made her voice heard as a speaker at this year's popular Comic-Con festival in San Diego.

"I was like, I would love to go to Comic-Con and talk about the special challenges faced by Indigenous creators when they want to make films and comic books and novels that aren't about poverty porn," said Sonya Ballantyne, who's from Misipawistik First Nation near Grand Rapids, Man.

Ballantyne wants to break the stereotypes around images of Indigenous people and show a range of characters, from heroes to villains.

"It was because I didn't have those characters in the past that it was important to me to make sure that another generation had those characters."

So when she was invited to speak on issues of diversity and media as the only Cree panellist at Comic-Con — a renowned fan convention that gets about 130,000 visitors every year — she didn't want a lack of funds to be the reason she had to bow out.

Canadian Sonya Ballantyne, seated in the centre, attended Comic-Con in San Diego this week as a panellist speaking from an Indigenous perspective about diversity and media. (Sonya Ballantyne)

Didn't want a 'handout'

"I was really hesitant to go with the crowdfunding model because of things I'd heard in the past about Native people needing handouts and I didn't want to be that person with the handout," she said. "So I basically went with the bare minimum of what I needed."

She reached out to a number of celebrities on Twitter, including comedian Leslie Jones and Star Wars' Mark Hamill, hoping to get a few extra views. To her surprise, they responded with their support.

"It went crazy immediately. It reached its funding goal in four days." She raised more than her goal of $3,400 and generated interest even after she closed the fund.

She says posts from supporters told her how important it was for Indigenous voices to have a platform that can help defy stereotypes.

"I really am a big advocate for the normalization of my people so that we're not just stories about residential schools, even though those are important as well, but not just those stories," she said.

Comic-Con in San Diego is a popular fan convention that brings 130,000 visitors a year and has become a popular venue for Hollywood to showcase some of its biggest upcoming films and shows. (Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images)

Industry is listening

Expressing her perspective at an event like Comic-Con is significant because the convention has a major influence on the industry, according to Henry Jenkins, a media professor at the University of Southern California. 

"Comic-Con is where Hollywood goes to meet its audience," said Jenkins, who has written multiple books on fan culture and hosts a podcast on the topic. 

"The industry is there to listen. [The convention] forms a mental image when they go back to work and when they make decisions about what to do in the upcoming year."

So it matters, if the convention includes women and people of colour, he says,.

Black Panther is among the films that gained early momentum and a fan base at Comic-Con, and responded to a lack of diversity in superhero franchises. (Disney)

He points to Wonder Woman, Black PantherAnnihilation and the "re-structuring of the Star Wars franchise" — all successful films which have been big participants at previous Comic-Cons —as evidence that the industry realizes the value of listening to audience demands when it comes to diversity and female-driven projects.

"These kinds of panels become a space where fans articulate together what kinds of expectations they have. The reality is that fans are pushing Hollywood to go quicker."

Ballantyne says while the positive support is what got her there, the negative messages — and yes, she did receive several during her funding campaign — were even more motivating.

People were saying things like, 'Why would we want to hear an Indian talk at Comic-Con?' so it was really hurtful to me," she said. "Then I realized — that was the reason why, because people are still asking."