Kathleen Kennedy saved the Star Wars franchise. Handpicked by George Lucas to run Lucasfilm after the studio was acquired by Disney in 2012, Kennedy had the gargantuan task of reviving one of cinema's landmark properties. Star Wars has been a pop culture staple since its debut in 1977, but the property had been dormant for many years following the release of Revenge of the Sith. What's more is that the Mouse House dropped $4 billion to get their hands on the Star Wars rights, meaning they had big plans for the brand that went beyond just making a new trilogy in the Skywalker saga.
On-paper, Kennedy read as an excellent choice to follow Lucas. A longtime collaborator of Steven Spielberg, Kennedy has been a top Hollywood producer for decades, and her résumé includes some of the best films of all-time. Of course, she was entering new territory being the president of a studio and overseeing one of Hollywood's biggest franchises, but she was more than qualified for the job. Six years have passed since the Disney/Lucasfilm merger and Kennedy's tenure has had its various ups and downs, but as she prepares to lead the galaxy far, far away for three more years, it's safe to say she rescued Star Wars.
Star Wars Was Almost Dead Before Disney
Before we examine Kennedy's contributions to Star Wars, it's worth taking a look at where the franchise was before its time under the Disney umbrella. George Lucas released the prequel trilogy through 20th Century Fox between 1999-2005, and everyone thought that was it. The story of Anakin Skywalker's rise, fall, and redemption had been told and the saga came to a close. Yes, Star Wars existed in other mediums (the Clone Wars TV show, novels, etc.), but it largely faded from the spotlight with no new live-action movies on the horizon. In a 2005 interview, Lucas even went so far as to say there is no Episode VII and he was moving on to other projects.
A lack of fresh material hurt, but Star Wars' reputation was also sullied by the mixed reactions to the prequels. While the films definitely have their fair share of fans (and more have come to appreciate their merits in recent years), that trilogy didn't resonate with the zeitgeist as strongly as the classic films. Criticism from vocal corners of the fan base is primarily what caused Lucas to retire from blockbuster filmmaking, as he felt it wasn't worth the trouble anymore. If Disney never agreed to buy Lucasfilm, chances are Star Wars is still a six-film series, with many wondering what might have been if Lucas brought in other directors to make the prequels. Of course, Star Wars is now here to stay, and that's in large part because of Kennedy.
Kennedy's Big Decisions To Bring Star Wars Back
It's impossible to overstate the importance of Episode VII. Disney spent a small fortune on Lucasfilm, and there were plans in place for an entire slate of new movies. Before The Force Awakens hit theaters, its fellow sequel trilogy installments had creative teams in place, and spinoffs Rogue One and Solo were in the works. If Episode VII failed to connect with audiences, it would have been a disaster. Few people understood that more than Kennedy, and that's why she worked diligently to ensure the movie was as strong as it could be. She convinced an initially hesitant J.J. Abrams (who successfully revived Star Trek) to direct, and commissioned a script rewrite when it was determined Michael Arndt's draft wasn't working. There was also a conscious effort in early marketing materials to distance Force Awakens from the prequels, embracing the tone and aesthetic of the original trilogy.
The end results speak for themselves. At the time of its release in December 2015, The Force Awakens was the most critically acclaimed series entry since The Empire Strikes Back and hailed as a return to form. It also rewrote the box office record books, grossing an astonishing $936.6 million domestically (a figure that will likely never be topped) and more than $2 billion worldwide. While some were quick to point out the obvious parallels between Force Awakens and A New Hope, the general consensus was that Star Wars was back and people were excited about the future. Kennedy also (controversially) wiped out the old Expanded Universe, relabeling it as Legends. While supplemental materials like books and comics aren't a requirement to understand the movies, the reboot made them more accessible for newcomers interesting in reading more. Also, all mediums would be united under one canon, creating numerous storytelling possibilities.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019