The following is an in-depth look at Kathleen Kennedy’s Lucasfilm… no part of this article is intended to demean or disparage any person associated with Lucasfilm or Disney. While most of this article is based on historical facts and references, parts of the article are the well-intentioned opinion of the author.
On October 30th, 2012, The Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm from George Lucas for just above $4,000,000,000 (that’s four times a billion). Placed in charge of Lucasfilm in George’s stead was Kathleen Kennedy. Let’s look at what happened next and how that’s going today. Specifically, let’s talk about whether or not there is a civil war at Lucasfilm, and what the divisions really look like.
One of the first things that Kathleen Kennedy did after taking charge of the company was hire Kiri Hart to run the Lucasfilm Story Group which would be in charge of Star Wars narrative moving forward. However, as a matter of how the Story Group would actually operate, the individuals brought on board for it were actually less interested in Star Wars and more interested in quotas for sex and race for narrative moving forward. This was to such an extent that Kiri Hart’s very first action as head of the newly-formed Story Group was to make sure only women were allowed to guide Star Wars.
NY Times Article on Kiri Hart Keeping Men Away from Story Group
One of the implications of this was that Star Wars gurus at Lucasfilm were kept out of major decisions from 2012-2015, essentially the nascent development time for the sequel trilogy. Dave Filoni was completely kept out of any significant guidance. Instead, writers with no Star Wars background like Carrie Beck and Rayne Roberts were brought in to have campfire discussions with Hart about how to bring in female characters to the new Star Wars. Meanwhile, this was pitched to Disney executives as a way to bring girls into buying up Star Wars merchandise — and Disney was all too happy to believe that they could double Star Wars toy sales if only little girls would buy those instead of dollies.
The problem was that not only did Lucasfilm’s femme force want to insert sex, gender, and racial quotas into their new Star Wars products, but they also wanted to discriminate against Caucasian males. Despite this being the majority of their consumer demographic, the Story Group and new Kathleen Kennedy hires wanted nothing to do with the old Star Wars. Their ridiculous and petty hatred of people groups went so far as to have them drawing a giant red X on Luke Skywalker (their main protagonist and hero of the franchise) in posters at Lucasfilm. Luke represented the patriarchy and male dominated narratives, and for that reason, Mr. Skywalker would just have to go.
This needs to go viral.–
How much does Lucasfilm hate Star Wars? Hate what George Lucas built? Hate what fans value? If "TLJ" wasn't enough to prove how much they hate Luke, check out the "X" on his face, prominently displayed next to host Andi Gutierrez on an official channel. pic.twitter.com/boEFZyGhim
— RebeLibrarian (@rebelrealcanon) February 28, 2018
JJ Abrams was brought in to do The Force Awakens with Lawrence Kasdan assisting in writing. The guidance given to them from Kathleen Kennedy and the story group was simple: make New Hope for a new generation, make its protagonist a woman, and make Star Wars look like our world. As Abrams has said:
“From the beginning of discussions, the notion of a woman at the center of the story was always something that was compelling and exciting to me. And not just at the center. We knew that, in addition to Leia, who was a critical piece of this puzzle, we wanted to have other women – not necessarily human, but female – characters in the story.”
But with teaser trailers for Star Wars leaning heavily on nostalgia and the legacy characters fans loved, The Force Awakens opened to earth-shattering box office results. Despite harming the persona of one of the legacy characters and killing the same characters, fans were excited to find out what would happen to the new female lead (Rey), the minority storm trooper (Fin), and see just how the new baddies came to be. To be fair, many fans pointed out that unless this new galaxy was fleshed out, it seemed odd that the work of the prequel and original trilogy had essentially been undone. Some were also disappointed that Luke, Leia, and Han hadn’t been together… but surely they’d get that chance in the next one. Maybe Han would be brought back as a ghost, a vision, a flashback, or something to get the gang back together again.
Meanwhile, Kennedy was beginning to have director issues. Behind the scenes, Rogue One was a mess and it was time to get rid of the current leader on that film. But beyond that, there was the problem of Colin Trevorrow. Unbeknownst to Star Wars fans and cinema journalists, the Story Group had been working with Rian Johnson on the big flip of expectations for the current trilogy. Just like fans had been surprised before that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, this time the surprise would be that Luke was a failure and Rey was a nobody who would rise to take his place as the hero of the galaxy. While Abrams had worked with Kasdan on The Force Awakens script, Johnson was working with the Lucasfilm Story Group in a way that not even JJ Abrams was aware. For weeks, Rian Johnson would meet with Kiri Hart’s Story Group behind closed doors, planning out a detour for The Last Jedi.
Rian Johnson Plans Out the Last Jedi
But back to that director issue. The problem was that the director for Episode 9 needed to know what the heck was happening in Episode 8 before he could even get started on formulating ideas. With Abrams and Kasdan blind to what Johnson and the Story Group was doing, it was Trevorrow who would receive an outline first for The Last Jedi. What he saw shocked him, and immediately he started making calls. “I can’t make Episode 9 without Luke Skywalker,” he told them. “I have to have Luke Skywalker. The fans are going to go berserk if there’s no Luke Skywalker.” The answer back to him from Kiri Hart and Kathleen Kennedy was a resounding “no”. He would have to use the current Last Jedi concepts to finish the trilogy. Confused, he reached out to Mark Hamill to gain leverage, but Hamill had zero influence with this group… and Hamill himself was disgusted with his role in Episode 8. So Trevorrow began working on a different idea — one to essentially resurrect Luke Skywalker, explain the Force Ghost concept, and have all the old Jedi join together to help Rey defeat the Sith forever.
The Leaked Trevorrow Plan B Concept
But upon finding out that Colin Trevorrow wouldn’t let Luke Skywalker go, Trevorrow was told it was he who would have to go.
Then came the fall of Lucasfilm. With the release of The Last Jedi, while they attempted to steer the narrative online and through influenced reviews by access media, the fan reaction was quickly realized. The Last Jedi had not only divided the fans, but it had failed financial expectations dramatically. The new talking point was put out that Empire had seen a lower box office haul than New Hope too… but that ignored that New Hope was in theaters months and months longer than Empire at a time when theaters often only had two screens. It also didn’t stop the negative feedback. Quickly the tides turned on Stars Wars and Lucasfilm… talks of a Rian Johnson trilogy became mostly just Rian Johnson talking about a trilogy. The California elites of Lucasfilm began to blame the fans – surely it was the bumpkins in Nebraska, Idaho, Texas… flyover country that were hating this film. And surely it was only because of chauvinists, Trumpsters, and other deplorable white males.
“If someone is responding to diversity negatively, fuck ’em. Ninety-five percent of my interactions on Twitter are absolutely lovely and constructive and wonderful with Star Wars Fans. I think the fandom has to take a stand against getting defined by a very small slice of it that does not represent the lion’s share.” — Rian Johnson in regards to critics of The Last Jedi
But the damage was done. While Bob Iger had signed off on The Last Jedi, he immediately recoiled when he saw the reaction to Episode 8. This was different than anything he had seen from Pixar or Marvel… this was mass disgust from consumers. Simultaneously, the director of this film was disparaging the consumers, attacking viewers, etc. While the public presentation of protecting Last Jedi by Disney continued, the writing was on the wall behind executive closed doors. As Solo also lost its directors (fired by Kennedy), Iger’s confidence in Kennedy had come to an end. She was scrubbed from his autobiography and Iger reached out to Jon Favreau to begin righting the ship.
Jon Favreau was the best bet Disney had out of anybody they had worked with. He was the one who had gotten the entire Marvel universe off the ground — while Kevin Feige receives and deserves much of the credit, it was Favreau who had created the Marvel blueprint for movies. Favreau was the only director to have successfully created a holiday classic in decades. Favreau was working on new film technology that blew away anything on the market. In Iger’s mind, Favreau was and is the modern-day George Lucas. And while people like Lassater, and even Iger himself, were being pulled into “me too” controversies, Favreau was known in the industry for being ethically outstanding — squeaky clean.
In late 2017, Favreau had begun talks to produce a series for Disney+ based in the Star Wars universe. Iger had arranged for the talks and was ready to back Favreau with a theatrical-release level budget in an attempt to give their future streaming service something to get it going. Ignore hokey talking points from Disney about Favreau wanting to randomly do online streaming series about Star Wars westerns… that’s not how things work at the level of a director for blockbusters. Favreau is likely the most respected big-budget director in the world – he doesn’t ask to lower himself to doing online streaming series unless there’s already a very big plan in place.
In Iger’s opinion, Netflix represented the biggest threat to Disney over time, and the company was about to focus huge amounts of attention to their online plans. Favreau was placed in contact with Dave Filoni by Kathleen Kennedy; he was a decent enough writer, had worked on some animated series, seemed to know a lot about Star Wars, and didn’t rock the boat. Favreau wanted someone who knew Star Wars inside and out, and since he wasn’t interested at all in the Story Group, Filoni would do. Kennedy was busy with the big stuff, and a series on a streaming service was below her and her attention. Little did she know Iger and Favreau had cooked up a very big idea.
But after the public reception failure of The Last Jedi, after the DVD and Bluray sales tanked, after Solo’s directors were fired, and after Solo became the first-ever Star Wars film to lost money… Kathleen Kennedy’s reign was over. Yes, she was still the figurehead, and yes she had a contract extension. However, Bob Iger went to such a degree that he even publicly killed expectations of future Star Wars releases in the near-term after the sequel trilogy would conclude. For Disney, that was unheard of. But Kennedy was allowed to stay on – bitter and mostly powerless – as removing her was deemed too potentially damaging from negative publicity, and nobody in Hollywood wanted to take her place after the industry fallout that would result.
As toy sales crashed, video game revenue cratered, and Rise of Skywalker barely made half of The Force Awakens’ box office revenue, Disney execs began working with Favreau more and more. Kennedy would help develop some minor Star Wars properties going forward, even while her first original animation series (Resistance) was dismally received. Favreau, and his Star Wars guru Filoni, were given the green light to go big with their series The Mandalorian. For Burbank, this was the Hail Mary. If The Mandalorian failed, Star Wars was likely to be unpopular for years. If The Mandalorian failed, Disney+ was likely to limp out of the gate. A rare move was made to give Favreau complete power over The Mandalorian; Kennedy could only provide him with notes, she could not dictate anything about the series. In one set of notes, she recommended going with Boba Fett as the lead character right out of the gate. Favreau overrode.
In the midst of all this, Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland had opened in late May of 2019. Whereas Iger had announced to the world that crowds would flock to the expansion without even any advertising, whereas Disneyland had gone multi-million dollar renovations to handle the increased crowd sizes… Galaxy’s Edge was an incredible flop. Attendance to Disneyland actually dropped. The destruction of Star Wars was complete, and now expectations were that The Mandalorian might fail as well. Iger had been embarrassed, Star Wars was a failing franchise, and they had just used up all of Disneyland’s last free acreage on a development that actually cost them attendance.
And then The Mandalorian launched.
On November 12th, 2019, The Mandalorian launched on Disney+… and it seemed to be successful. In fact, it seemed fans liked it. It actually grew in popularity over time. It returned to looking like a Star Wars film from the original trilogy. It was devoid of the flaws of the Kathleen Kennedy Star Wars brand. And best of all, it wasn’t just popular, it was selling Disney+. People loved the new baby Yoda character! Toy sales began skyrocketing once manufacturing kicked into high gear for baby Yoda toys.
While Kennedy became embittered over the success of the one Star Wars property she had no control over, her Story Group had essentially been gutted. In 2019, Kiri Hart fled Lucasfilm as a consultant to join Rian Johnson’s T-Street Studio… which has not produced a single success in two years. Don’t count on them getting a trilogy anytime soon either. Kennedy continued to work on more series within Star Wars, but she would have no theatrical releases, and Favreau had complete control over whatever he wanted to do with the brand. His plans involved creating a streaming version of the MCU in which multiple series at cinema-quality bring forth an interwoven narrative that culminates in cultural event crescendos.
But the ultimate catastrophe for Kennedy came in early 2020. Just as the global pandemic was getting ready to strike, Kennedy lost yet another director… this time for her only theatrical release she had in the quiver: Indiana Jones 5. This one was a stinging rebuke because it meant the man who had originally brought her into the fold had abandoned her. Kennedy’s first major role had been as Spielberg’s assistant on the original Indiana Jones. Now decades later, she had lost his confidence. James Mangold would be brought on as a replacement, but it would be he who would write the script with input from Harrison Ford. The movie might not even come out while Kennedy was still under contract with Lucasfilm.
Some say there is a civil war at Lucasfilm. Others deny it and claim it’s all a grandiose lie. In reality, behind the doors of Lucasfilm is a fractured studio of three ideological divisions. There are the old-timers who remember the days of George Lucas. They are the apolitical, non-ideological artisans. For those, most have kept their heads down and tried to keep themselves from being fired or disparaged by the Kathleen Kennedy crew. The KK Crew, on the other hand, are the hires since 2012 – the ones who held the keys to the sequel trilogy, but now have been relegated to comic book releases and young adult novels. The third group is the Favreau-Filoni bunch. This new group is comprised of Favreau loyalists brought in and generally work outside the confines of Lucasfilm proper. They get to bypass Kennedy and the KK Crew, and their budgets come straight from the top of Disney.
Where this goes in the future is anybody’s guess. And how a company can continue with such stark differences is a wonder. But, as best as I know and can tell, that’s the story of Lucasfilm in the Kathleen Kennedy era.