In Defence of Kathleen Kennedy
Kathleen Kennedy co-founded Amblin Entertainment in 1981 with her husband Frank Marshall and director Steven Spielberg, for whom she used to work as an assistant. She is a producer on basically all your ’80s and ’90s geek franchises and properties: Indiana Jones, E.T., Back to the Future, The Goonies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, and Gremlins. She has been nominated for an Oscar 8 times. Her films have made somewhere around $11bn worldwide, with three of them in the list of the top 25 highest grossing movies of all time. Those three films have happened in the space of as many years, during her tenure as President of Lucasfilm, a title she inherited after George Lucas himself chose her for the job. If one were to choose a figure to bestow upon the title of the most powerful woman in Hollywood, Kennedy would win hands down.
She is not destroying Star Wars. She is not ruining your childhood. She is not going to lose her job at Lucasfilm. Get over it.
If you were to ask the regular movie-going public to describe what a director does, I think most of them would be able to offer a solid description of that job. They would know what a screenwriter does, what an editor does, and maybe what a cinematographer does. They may not be able to go into minute detail with each of these occupations, but the basic components of cinema are reasonably simple to grasp for those who pay attention. Yet, if you were to ask them what a producer does, I’m not sure the answer would be so clear.
I don’t say this to be a snob or dismiss audiences for their lack of obsessive industry know-how. I’m doing a film studies degree and I know people who still struggle to explain what it is a producer actually does. It’s the most maligned element of film-making, yet probably the most misunderstood at the same time. Generally speaking, a producer’s job is to oversee a film’s production. They can be put in place by a production company or they can be the head of the operation, shepherding a project from origin to premiere. Sometimes, they hire the big names, like the director and screenwriter. They make sure things are done on schedule, on budget, and on the level. They’ll play a major role in a film’s distribution and publicity, and possible awards campaigning. Ideally, your producer is with you for every stage of the operation.
Film historians and critics have spent decades trying to understand this role and the impact some of the biggest producers in Hollywood had on the medium: From David O. Selznick to Stanley Kramer to Jerry Bruckheimer to Harvey Weinstein to Megan Ellison and beyond. Directors get to be the artists: Producers are the bean counters ruining the fun. If compromises must be made, the chances are the producer will be blamed.
Women don’t tend to do a lot of producing in Hollywood. Like everything else, it’s a man’s game. It took until 1973 for a woman producer to get the Best Picture Oscar (if you haven’t read producer Julia Phillips’ gloriously bonkers book, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, I urge you to order a copy now). Nowadays, the studio heads are still mostly male, with the major exception being Stacey Snider of 20th Century Fox. Even the indie companies are still the bastion of dudes, unless you’re coming at it with your own money, as Megan Ellison at Annapurna did.
In the franchise age, with figureheads positioned as producers turned creative forces, the visibility of this job has become greater than ever, but that’s not to say our understandings of it have. People like to imagine Kevin Feige at a massive desk with an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia-style conspiracy chart on the walls, plotting every detail of the Marvel cinematic universe by himself. The same holds true for Kathleen Kennedy.
We know that Kennedy has immense power, although it is not infallible due to Lucasfilm being owned by Disney, and that company being headed up by the almighty Bob Iger (as noted by Vanity Fair, Iger was more heavily involved with The Force Awakens than most studio heads would be with such a film). She has to make the difficult decisions that are ultimately thankless: If she does her job well and executes the perfect Star Wars film where everything goes right and the fans love it, she won’t get any of the credit; if she fucks up then she’s the cause of every ill in the franchise.
The Star Wars fandom is a tricky one. Many have joked that nobody hates the franchise quite like its own fans, and as dismissive as that claim can seem, it’s not without merit. The post-Disney era of Star Wars has been surrounded by insidious pseudo-political anger, with the usual suspects ranting about the apparent liberal agenda of movies that cast women and people of colour in prominent roles. If the movies adhere too much to nostalgic bliss, then the franchise isn’t evolving and fails. If they make more drastic changes to allow the films to shift into the modern day then they’re ‘betraying the fanbase’. Directors Rian Johnson and Ron Howard have already faced the brunt of the social media fury, but it’s Kennedy whom the reactionaries placed the biggest target on.
Kennedy has done something that few of us ever thought would happen: She helped to engineer a major upheaval and reboot of one of pop culture’s most beloved franchises, one that even its creator had written off following the questionable results of the prequels. She has been handed the keys to a universe that so many hold dear to their hearts, and as much as she respects that, she’s savvy enough to know that such things cannot be frozen in carbonite. She has had to make various extremely tough calls and do them all in public, because that’s how the trade reporting works nowadays. Her ruthlessness has gotten her a lot of flack - as if Disney themselves weren’t notorious for chopping and changing directors, often midway through production - but she’s proven that she’s got the nerve most producers don’t have. There are no favourites or chosen ones in her gaze. Remember, the story about Colin Trevorrow leaving the 9th film, who alleged that he thought he was safe because he was a Spielberg choice (and directed a film Kennedy’s husband produced).
This is not to say that every decision has been good or without suspicion. It’s ridiculous that we’re in 2018 and the franchise’s directors have all been white men. It shouldn’t have taken them this long and this many shifts to decide what kind of directorial style they want to go for. Kennedy can be criticized, and she should be, because there’s a lot riding on her shoulders, but there’s still so much she can do. The problem comes when her power and occupation are sorely misunderstood. Kennedy is not sitting atop a throne of skulls and dictating every element of Star Wars to a chained-up J.J. Abrams. She answers to her bosses too, and Disney have been clear on how they want to make Star Wars a regular expanded franchise in the same manner as Marvel. Talk all you want about franchise fatigue and the necessity of so many movies, but Kennedy’s helped to pull off what was demanded of her. Of those four films made under her tenure, three of them are in the top 25 highest-grossing movies ever. That Solo has underperformed will be a disappointment, but in the grand scheme of this business, money talks and her background speaks loudly enough to deal with such questions.
Kennedy herself has never been one to toot her own horn as one of the few women on her level in the producer business, but the visibility of her gender in relation to this franchise has certainly impacted how certain groups discuss her. For the sad men who think Rey is a Mary Sue, Kennedy’s mere existence is proof of their conspiracies. These are people with the astounding ignorance to claim that they know more about the inner workings of the franchise and studio system than the woman who produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lincoln. They’ll ‘well, actually’ us all into an early grave over what the franchise should be doing, completely lacking in the context of the complex business machinations Kennedy has to deal with on a grand scale. This problem isn’t exclusively rooted in misogyny - the hate Rian Johnson gets to this day from that minority of angry fans is testament to that - but it would be foolish to overlook the implications of screeds of men repeatedly insisting to anyone who listens that they know how to do this job better than a woman.
Like I said, this is not a blanket endorsement of everything Kennedy has done at Lucasfilm (seriously, hire, like, one female director already?!), but merely a call for understanding of what she does, how she does it, and why she’s not geekdom’s public enemy number one for doing so. The most powerful woman in Hollywood probably doesn’t need my endorsement. She’s one of the most truly respected figures in the business too, and she earned that without having to scream people into submission. Kennedy isn’t going anywhere at Lucasfilm, and nor should she. I doubt she’s concerned about the rantings of boys and their webcams. This woman helped to mould the pop culture pantheons they fetishize so much, so she’s already won.
(Image of Kathleen Kennedy striking down fanboys courtesy of Getty Images).
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