She produced million-dollar blockbusters with Spielberg; now she’s pulling in billions for Star Wars as president of Lucasfilm. But don’t let the dollar signs fool you: This powerhouse is one of the greatest storytellers in Hollywood
—Seth Plattner (Elle US, Nov 2017)
As with every Jedi in the Star Wars universe, the ascension to Master doesn’t come without some prequel. For Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy—who, in 2012, became one of the most powerful executives in Hollywood when George Lucas handpicked her to succeed him as head of the biggest, most profitable, most rabidly fan-consumed movie franchise ever—the same holds true.
The daughter of a theater actress and a judge, Kennedy grew up in Redding, California, a small town “where I didn’t actually see a lot of movies.” Nevertheless, she began honing her producing skills by managing her high school’s talent shows. As a telecommunications and film major at San Diego State University, she immersed herself in various media jobs: camera operator at a local station; news desk assistant; morning talk show producer. “At the time, they simply interested me,” she says. “They were the jobs you do when you’re just starting out. And they all kind of coalesced into what I wanted to do with my life once I met Steven.”
Spielberg, that is. Inspired after seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Kennedy moved to L.A. in 1978 and began working as the secretary to Spielberg’s friend, screenwriter John Milius. In short order, Spielberg poached her to be his own assistant, and a few years later, he was so impressed by her ideas and willingness to voice them that he gave Kennedy, then 29, her first producer credit—on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. “I spent a lot of that time blinded by terror,” she says with a laugh. “But fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s always a good place to start.”
From there, Spielberg, Kennedy, and her future husband, Frank Marshall, formed Amblin Entertainment in 1982; a decade later, Kennedy and Marshall—who now have two daughters—started their own company, The Kennedy/Marshall Company, which continued to work closely with Spielberg and which Marshall runs solo today.
Through those years, Kennedy oversaw one record-breaking blockbuster after another— Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—as well as Oscar-crushing dramas—The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Lincoln. In total, she’s produced 70 films, which have racked up 125 Academy Award nominations (eight of which have her name on them) and grossed more than $11 billion worldwide.
Since taking over as president at Lucasfilm, Kennedy has shepherded 2015’s The Force Awakens to a more than $2 billion global box-office gross and made stars of the film’s newcomers, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. Rogue One, the first stand-alone spin-off in the franchise, hauled in $1.1 billion the following year, and industry insiders speculate that next month’s The Last Jedi, the eighth “episode” in the now 40-year-old saga, could pull in even bigger numbers. But it’s not all about money: “Kathy told me, ‘Rian, it’s just more zeros,’ ” says Rian Johnson, whom Kennedy boldly hired to direct The Last Jedi (despite rumblings that he was too green to take on a project of Star Wars proportions). “ ‘It’s making a movie, telling a story, just with more people and sets.’ There’s an easygoing confidence with Kathy. Her whole thing is having close relationships with and supporting filmmakers. She gives you a safe space to work and play in.”
In line with her commitment to spot and foster fresh onscreen talent with diverse perspectives, Kennedy cast Ridley, a virtual unknown, as The Force Awakens’ Rey, the first female lead in Star Wars history. “I have and still do feel supported through all parts of my life,” Ridley says. “I was recently struggling in a job, and she sent some wonderful emails reassuring me it would turn out well. That’s what makes her so special.”