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Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy on 'Star Wars,' 'Lincoln' and Secret J.J. Abrams Meetings (Exclusive)

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2013 Issue 5: Kathleen Kennedy
Art Streiber
Kathleen Kennedy on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter

In her first in-depth profile, Kennedy reveals how she landed Abrams to direct "Episode VII" as THR talks to Steven Spielberg, David Fincher and producer husband Frank Marshall, who remembers meeting her: "There was no way I was going to screw this up by hitting on Steven's assistant."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In November, a journalist asked J.J. Abrams what seemed like an obvious question: Was he interested in directing the next Star Wars movie? Disney had just paid a whopping $4.05 billion to acquire George Lucas' iconic Lucasfilm and had stated its intention to turn out new Star Wars films every two to three years beginning in 2015. The prolific Abrams, who had sparked the flagging Star Trek series in 2009, seemed a natural fit. But he quickly shot the idea down. While Star Wars was "the first movie that blew my mind in that way," he said then, he wanted to focus on original material.

Kathleen Kennedy, the 59-year-old producer who in June had been placed atop the Lucas empire, was not so easily deterred. The Lucasfilm job was just the latest beat in a remarkable 35-year career replete with hits from filmmakers as diverse as Clint Eastwood (The Bridges of Madison County), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and, above all, Steven Spielberg -- from 1982's E.T. The Extra Terrestrial to his current Oscar contender, Lincoln.

Kennedy already had called Beth Swofford, Abrams' CAA agent, and been told Abrams was too deeply engaged in the next Star Trek movie and other obligations at Paramount -- not to mention innumerable television projects -- to consider the job. Nonetheless, Abrams agreed to meet with Kennedy on Dec. 14 at his Bad Robot offices in Santa Monica. Famously plain-spoken, she summarizes her pitch like this: "Please do Star Wars." And she had cards to play. Not only was Oscar winner Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) writing the script, but Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote 1980's The Empire Strikes Back and 1983's Return of the Jedi, was on board to consult. Abrams "was flipping out when he found out that Michael and Larry were on the movie already," says Kennedy.

PHOTOS: A Force to Be Reckoned With: Photos of Kathleen Kennedy

Abrams tells THR, "I learned firsthand how incredible and persuasive she is." Some -- but not all -- of his reservations were dispelled. "The thing about any pre-existing franchise -- I'd sort of done that," he says. "But when I met with Kathy, it was suddenly very tantalizing."

Kennedy, Abrams and the writers met secretly for about three hours Dec. 19, and "J.J. was just on the ceiling when I walked out the door," she recalls. But still, she says, Abrams had "very genuine concerns" about his obligations elsewhere and the impact on his wife and three kids, given the likelihood that the film would not be shot in Los Angeles. And then there was the unique nature of the franchise. "If there was any pause on J.J.'s part, it was the same pause everybody has -- including myself -- stepping into this," she says. "Which is, it's daunting."

Indeed, the six Star Wars films have grossed more than $4.3 billion at the worldwide box office and spawned an empire that includes TV spinoffs like The Clone Wars, books, theme park rides and, of course, merchandise sales. Disney has said Lucasfilm generated about $215 million in licensing revenue in 2012 without having released a Star Wars-related movie in five years. Managed correctly, Star Wars by far is the most valuable franchise in Hollywood, making Kennedy -- its new steward -- one of the most powerful figures in entertainment.

STORY: Kathleen Kennedy to Become Co-Chair of Lucasfilm

So Kennedy had to do what she does so well: put one of the industry's most prominent directors at ease. And she's known Abrams since he was 14, when Spielberg had read an article about him winning a Super 8 moviemaking contest and hired the future director to restore his own childhood Super 8 videos. "We spent a lot of time talking about how meaningful Star Wars is and the depth of the mythology that George has created and how we carry that into the next chapter," she says. Finally, after a day of furious negotiation, the deal closed the afternoon of Jan. 25. To the bitter end, Abrams was telling associates that he still wasn't fully committed to directing the project. But Kennedy is confident that he will be in the chair when the cameras roll. She is less clear that the first film in the new trilogy will be ready by 2015. "Our goal is to move as quickly as we can, and we'll see what happens," says Kennedy. "The timetable we care about is getting the story."

Sitting atop Lucasfilm as the founder's handpicked successor, Kennedy clearly has the clout to make her voice heard loud and clear. Kennedy, married since 1987 to producer Frank Marshall and the mother of two teenage daughters, reports to Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn, though the importance of her domain ensures that she also has the ear of Disney chairman and CEO Robert Iger. She has great ambitions to restore the 1,500-employee, San Francisco-based Lucasfilm to "a full-fledged production company" making "as many good films as we can." That's in addition to managing its successful Industrial Light & Magic effects division and LucasArts gaming branch. But the main order of business must be getting the first movie right.