HEAT VISION

'Star Wars' Uncertainty Extends to Kathleen Kennedy's Disney Future

The Lucasfilm chief has a director lined up for a 2022 film even as she has yet to settle on the direction for the marquee franchise's 'evolving' mythology — or her own future.
The Lucasfilm chief has a director lined up for a 2022 film even as she has yet to settle on the direction for the marquee franchise's 'evolving' mythology — or her own future.

Are there any fans more implacable than Star Wars fans? Probably not. And with The Rise of Skywalker (aka Episode IX) set to wrap up the original saga when it opens Dec. 20, it's fair to say some are waiting with knives out to see what comes next.

The overarching and billion-dollar questions for Disney: Where does the Star Wars universe go from here? Will Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy stay or exit? Will Disney CEO Bob Iger and film studio chief Alan Horn give her the chance to steer this balky behemoth into a smooth flight path? And given the rocky recent past filled with fired and sidelined directors and aborted projects, which filmmaker(s) would even dare to take on the next phase of Star Wars?

Asked to comment on these topics, Disney has nothing to say. (All eyes on Episode IX, please.) And Kennedy, 66, may be reading into the silence. Asked how long she might stick around in her job, she recently told Rolling Stone: "What happens in the future, and how long and how much longer I do this? I don't know yet. I'm looking at all of that."

Kennedy hasn't offered any specifics, but the new Disney+ series The Mandalorian seems to provide a strong hint regarding her ideas about how to plot the future of Star Wars — if she's given the opportunity. Note that those plans involve a very limited role for Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige, who is set to produce his own film take on the franchise.

On Nov. 13, Disney held a premiere, showing three episodes of Mandalorian at its El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, creator Jon Favreau was the star of the night. Perhaps some of the most lavish praise for the Mandalorian experience came from eccentric filmmaker and Mandalorian actor Werner Herzog, who raved about the cutting-edge technology on display in the series. But his words seemed to be freighted with meaning beyond that. "What you are creating is an entire universe," Herzog said. "This universe is filled with new mythology. Not very often in the cultural history have we had new mythologies. And I find it very significant."

Creating a new mythology is, of course, the challenge that Disney faces with Star Wars. Kennedy is an experienced and competent producer, but she is not a creative visionary. (She made her name as a producer for creative visionary Steven Spielberg.) So who better than Favreau to play a leading role in charting the course? He has fan loyalty. He is as Team Disney as they come, having directed The Jungle Book and The Lion King. He worked with Kennedy on the all-important effort to launch Disney+. And having consulted on, executive produced and acted in Marvel movies, he is also close with Feige.

So with or without Kennedy, sources say it seems likely that Favreau will have a lot of say over the future of Star Wars. These sources also say Kennedy's ideal team includes key roles for Michelle Rejwan, a producer on Episode IX and Lucasfilm's senior vp live action development and production, and Dave Filoni, the veteran animation director and George Lucas protege who directed live action for the first time with two episodes of Mandalorian. Even if remaining at Lucasfilm is not in the cards for Kennedy, this plan would enable her to trumpet that she has done the job she was hired to do — completing the Skywalker saga — and left the franchise in good hands.

But on the movie side, nothing is going to happen fast. Iger already noted a Star Wars film "hiatus" in a Nov. 7 earnings call. In September, he told The New York Times that Disney "put a little bit too much in the marketplace too fast." (Was he the one who pushed to hurry out Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018 despite Kennedy's misgivings? Well, yes.)

Sources say Kennedy has a film on deck for 2022, but not the one being developed by The Last Jedi filmmaker Rian Johnson. (No announcement is planned until January.) Kennedy's contract is up in 2021, so whether she will be on the job when this film is completed is not clear. Kennedy insists she's enjoyed running Lucasfilm, but in some ways it's hard to see how. She has had one of the hardest jobs in Hollywood: inventing stories under a white-hot spotlight and dealing in a universe where rabid fans have plenty of ideas, mostly about what they don't want. And she was picked by Lucas before he sold to Disney, not Iger. It's not hard to imagine that Iger would like to install his own choice to head this bauble that cost $4 billion and has generated some headaches since. It's also not hard to imagine that Iger has not enjoyed the negative noise around the franchise, despite the nearly $5 billion in global box office from Disney's four installments since 2015.

Fans were thrilled when THR reported that Feige had pitched a Star Wars movie. But for now, his plate is loaded. He is at a pivot point with the end of the Infinity saga in terms of films. He has taken control of the Marvel characters that previously belonged to Fox. And another Spider-Man movie just plopped into his lap (now that Sony Pictures has come to its senses). Feige also is launching shows in rapid sequence for Disney+, starting with Falcon and the Winter Soldier in fall 2020. And of course moving him to Star Wars risks tampering with the Marvel magic. But a number of industry observers still believe that Feige, 46, is the future. Given his track record, says one film agent, "If you're Iger, you've got to figure out a way to use that person."

Aaron Couch contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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