Back when I worked for Kathy Kennedy, my first real job in the film business, more or less (reading books for CAA, getting $1100 a month, but only going to the office three days a week as I was zhiving through my oral exams up at Berkeley, using a nice Selectric typewriter and getting high in the parking lot, probably doesn’t count), we became amused by the word HUGE, and started using it with gusto. In the wake of the $4 billion Lucasfilm sale to Disney, it seems worthwhile to reflect on Kathy and her cronies and this latest level of HUGE.
The story has been told many times. Kathleen Kennedy, already working hard at a San Diego TV station in her early 20s, while her identical twin covered the counter culture side of the coin up in Canada, got a tip from a friend that Steven Spielberg and John Milius, laboring along with Belushi and others with youthful insouciance on 1941, needed a “Girl Friday,” as it used to be called, whatever that means, though I suppose it’s a literary reference (this being a litblog, sort of), going back to Daniel Defoe and the birth of the novel in English. Kathy was a huge fan of Close Encounters, which gave her a sense of the infinity of cinematic imagination, and she loved Spielberg’s ability to bring widescreen storytelling down to a human level. George Lucas was partnering with Spielberg as his director on his next project, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Spielberg arrived with Lawrence Kasdan’s script in place, and the production crew marshaled by… Frank Marshall. Spielberg brought one person to the project, Kathy Kennedy. She received a tidy Girl Friday credit, Associate to Mr. Spielberg, and one assumes she was paid a modest weekly sum. Frank and Kathy bonded, hit it off, fell in love, consolidated, whatever you want to call it–it’s called Kennedy-Marshall, officially–, while Spielberg told Kathy she should look around for another movie for him to do. They made E.T. for 10 million dollars, and the credits show Kathleen Kennedy and Spielberg as the producers. It was Kathy’s first real credit, and she was so focused and worked so hard that Spielberg thought her meager entry-level fee was insufficient, and he gave her a point of his backend. The film came out one week after Kathy’s 29th birthday, she was nominated for an Academy Award, and it has grossed just short of $800 million.
It could have ended there, quite satisfactorily. Spielberg’s next film was the sequel to Raiders, Temple of Doom, bringing the Lucas-Spielberg-Frank Marshall team back together, with Kathy upgraded to Associate Producer. But by this time she was more than a Girl Friday. She was the female yin to the Lucas-Spielberg yang, and she and Frank had their own hetero intimacy mindmeld thing going 24/7, putting their operational and administrative skills in service to the two genius partners. Kennedy and Marshall didn’t get married until 1987, just because people took their time with those things back in the day. They were busy, it was a time when Speilberg’s creative expression and needs were their most voracious and sharklike, and it was just the two of them, making it all go. When Lucas and Spielberg went off to Hawaii to build elaborate sandcastles together after locking their latest blockbuster, Kathy and Frank cloistered themselves with Sid Ganis, the #2 at Lucasfilm ever since the shocking success of Star Wars, and launched the marketing and distribution campaign.
Kathy and Frank cleaved to Spielberg, working with him on his wholly-owned Amblin label–with the sale of Lucasfilm, will somebody buy Amblin now, and what would that “company” be worth? How would that work with Dreamworks?–these are a few tangential questions suggested by the rather surprising sale of Lucasfilm to Disney. The Spielberg-Kennedy-Marshall triumvirate made a lot of movies, many of them spectacularly successful. Up in Lucas Valley in Marin County, George Lucas bathed fairly peacefully in the ever-surging tide of Star Wars receipts and brand management, puttering around a quaint empire not unlike C.F. Kane’s Xanadu, but one with a techno sector provided by ILM, which built dinosaurs for Spielberg and dominated the transition of visual effects into the digital age. Lucas didn’t make a lot of movies, and when he went back to supplement the first Star Wars trilogy it didn’t go very well. Kathy and Frank, meanwhile, had branched out from Amblin to form their own company, Frank directed a few movies, and they slowly gained their familiar level of prestige and success at the Kennedy-Marshall label. Crucially, Kathy came in on occasion to produce Spielberg movies, not all of them, just a few monsters here and there.
Before getting to the present day, a neat trick–Spielberg’s bag of cinematic tricks is truly wizardly–in Spielberg’s production schedule might be worthy of note. It goes back to an Amblin franchise (anybody with not a few billion dollars want to do not just Jaws and Jurassic Park, but also Back to the Future 4, or a new millenium reboot? Actually the beauty of Star Wars and Lucasfilm is that it owned the Star Wars franchise, while most of the Amblin franchise catalogue is owned by Universal. Damn!), directed by Bob Zemeckis–hey Bob, welcome back to making movies with humans, and with a great script and fantastic actor no less! Can’t wait to see it, and very excited about reliving the intense plane crash anxiety I only managed to quell a few years after your last human movie, which which had its own intense plane crash and came out the Christmas before Sept. 11, fortunately, you know, back when we didn’t know who had been elected president and the Supreme Court got to decide how fucked up the next 8 years were going to be. I guess it’s a new decade thing, right? Are you saying we should we be worried about this election, about next year, about planes falling out of the sky all over again? The Amblin gang and Zemeckis and his writer, Bob Gale, were sitting around plotting the sequel to Back to the Future, when they decided that doing all the work and spending all the time and money and then coming back to do it all over again, not to mention the time travel thing, would be a big drag. And so they built, with Zemeckis’ producer Steve Starkey, a Frank Marshall crony, an epic production schedule, and shot sequels 2 and 3 together. The experiment was a success, and at some point, it made Spielberg say to himself, hmmm. And in one of the darker creative hours of his career, after Always and Hook (when I “worked” at Amblin, not coincidentally I suppose, zhiving hard and stumbling around aimlessly, bringing and feeling the funk), he put together a consecutive production schedule, shooting Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List back to back. After the barely-managed chaos of Amblin Hooking up with the newly-installed Guber-Peters Sony regime, as Ganis lost his mind and was branding Last Action Hero with a space shuttle launch, Kathy was saying that “Steven needs to get away, just go off somewhere with a small crew, and make a movie the way he used to do it.” And Spielberg did just that, but he shot Jurassic Park first, and then he got on a plane to Poland, more or less by himself, and shot Schindler’s List. Branko Lustig and Gerry Molen produced Schindler’s and won Oscars, while Kathy stayed home and worked with George Lucas and ILM on the visual effects and post-production of Jurassic Park, building raptors and rexes and sending stuff to Spielberg in Poland with some sort of cutting edge technology that would seem laughable at this point. The early 90’s, so quaint, so long ago! Gerry Molen had taken on Frank Marshall’s slightly mysterious, quiet and seemingly effortless producing duties, as Frank had directed Arachnophobia, and he was working on Alive, the first production of the Kennedy-Marshall Company–speaking of plane crashes. Schindler’s List, Oscar and $325 million; Jurassic Park, $915 million, and a franchise. Just saying. At any rate, as Kathy and Frank started their own company, Spielberg realized that he could maintain a hearty output, keep printing money AND win awards, stay as sane and steady as ever, and even take on the new role of menschy paterfamilias by shooting two movies back to back, starting post on one while he films the next. A very neat trick, and worth keeping in mind as we try to figure out what Kathy and Spielberg might be up to in the future.
And maybe Kathy, who seems to have mastered the concept of super-multitasking alongside Lucas and Spielberg, had this history in mind when she started talking to George about his company. I’m delving into the backgrounds and longstanding partnerships here because it’s fun to try to get it right and the news that we’re getting now, the actual closing of the Disney-Lucasfilm deal, is all part of a slow-rolling sequence, with a number of its elements already determined. Let’s not forget that Kathy was producing Spielberg’s Lincoln as this whole thing got started. But her conversations with George may have begun long before that. These are the questions to be asked by a real journalist who is trying to get the story straight. The announcement that Kathy was going to run Lucasfilm was timed, presumably, to the completion of the heavy lifting on Lincoln, a springtime trot that suggested a change in fashion during the fall season. It was an intriguing transition, but a bit of a head-scratcher, and it would be interesting to look back at the coverage to see if anybody guessed it was all about selling the company. The good part, of course, is to look back at it now, and to try to line up the dominoes and put them in their proper places. Obviously the idea of selling the company and reviving the Star Wars franchise was always part of the discussion, and part of the plan. But is it something that George Lucas gravitated towards on his own, based on years of conversations and deals with Disney? What was Kathy’s role, or that of the precedent of Disney’s Marvel acquisition? Was there a wait while Avengers opened, and did its success this summer affect the plan, providing a new ceiling for blockbuster brands?
Mainly, however, Kathy Kennedy jumping over to Lucasfilm, and standing behind George Lucas as Robert Iger handed him one of those over-sized poster board checks with a 4 and 9 zeroes on it, is about a sterling level of quality control for the future of the Star Wars franchise, along with great energy and focus and new initiatives for Lucasfilm. The mid-10 figures day was all about Lucas and his accomplishment and legacy, his future in philanthropy, and the tidy fit with Disney, how the deal makes sense and how the company can exploit the asset. It came with a necessary announcement that Lucas had written out a few detailed treatments for the next Star Wars trilogy, along with a production schedule. No one was going to step on Lucas and Iger’s big day, least of all Kathy or, you know, her colleagues. But it’s safe to say that this is the beginning and there’s already a plan in place, more than a thin file typed up by George Lucas.
Out here in the movie world, the ball now bounces back to Spielberg, as he and Kathy are beginning the roll out of Lincoln next week, mounting what figures to be a dedicated, not to say huge, Oscar campaign, one which probably won’t be interrupted by any major announcements. But you tell me–can you think of any filmmakers who might do a good job of moving forward the Star Wars franchise for Kathy Kennedy, Lucasfilm, and Disney? Maybe some one whose new Oscar-bait project is being released by–ahem–Disney? I’m sure that there are a number of promising candidates, but for me, one guy seems to stand out as the starting point. Not a bad question to confirm or deny, or maybe just say maybe. Some things never change: huge is huge.