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How did Hollywood’s most storied franchise also become its most prominent champion of female empowerment? For the second year in a row, Lucasfilm is releasing a Star Wars movie with a woman as the lead — Felicity Jones’ reformed thief Jyn Erso in Rogue One, following 2015’s Rey (Daisy Ridley) in The Force Awakens.
Consider it a natural outgrowth of a company whose executive team, led by Kathleen Kennedy as president, is more than 50 percent female. “When you have a balance of men and women, there are all sorts of things that enter into the discussion,” she says, calling the Rey-Jyn doubleheader a “coincidence” that the studio (and parent Disney) embraced. “Because women are always in story meetings, [no one has] to go, ‘Hey, what would a woman think?’ ” says creative executive Rayne Roberts. “The reason Rey is strong and technically capable and compassionate and driven is that the women who were in that room, including Kathy, reflect those qualities.” Adds Jones, “Kathy has given women the kind of roles they’ve always dreamed of.”
Kennedy credits Lucasfilm founder George Lucas with establishing an inclusive culture, which lieutenants say was amplified when she took the helm in 2012. Among her moves: hiring senior vp development Kiri Hart to oversee story across the Star Wars universe and elevating Lynwen Brennan to executive vp and general manager.
The diversity of the staff is vital to running the diversified company, which in addition to simultaneously developing at least four other Star Wars movies also produces Disney XD’s popular Star Wars Rebels animated series, creates games and licenses other merchandise, and operates full-time visual effects and sound design houses. “Our company being global and matrixed — there are so many projects we’re constantly juggling — is tailored to the strengths of female leaders, who are really good multitaskers,” says vp production Janet Lewin.
It isn’t unusual for Lucasfilm employees to be near-lifers, which many consider a tribute to the company’s culture of mentorship and acknowledgement of work-life balance. “There’s a stereotype that when you have too many women in a room, it’s going to be catty,” says vp franchise marketing Kayleen Walters. “It’s nothing like that at all here. I call up Rhonda [Hjort, deputy chief counsel] or Lori [Aultman, vp finance] for advice. The more we support each other, the better we all do.” Adds Jacqui Lopez, vp animation production: “It’s really hard to balance a career with kids, but if I have a parent-teacher conference or a school play, I don’t have to make an excuse about it. That’s really important to all of us.”
One notable area that needs improvement: No woman yet has directed a Star Wars film. (“We want to make sure that when we bring a female director in to do Star Wars, they’re set up for success,” Kennedy said recently.) And boosting gender balance in the male-dominated technical departments is a company-wide priority. “We are proactively looking to bring women in” to the Industrial Light & Magic VFX business, says Vicki Dobbs Beck, the executive in charge of immersive entertainment division ILMxLab, while Brennan adds that Lucasfilm has launched internship and academic outreach programs to encourage girls to pursue tech careers in entertainment.
“You have to cast a broader net when you’re interviewing and looking at possible prospects,” says Kennedy of the trick to achieving gender balance. “In the creative community, there’s no excuse for not making a more equitable environment. It literally comes down to companies that just aren’t trying hard enough.”
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