There is no question that the biggest story of the year, as far as The Walt Disney Company is concerned, has been Star Wars. As we publish this, Star Wars: The Force Awakens continues to break records and will be the highest performing Disney film of all time. Who deserves credit for this? Bob Iger for bringing Star Wars into the Disney fold? George Lucas for creating this universe that has prospered for over 30 years? J.J. Abrams for directing a film that is both a critical and box office success?
Of course, the answer is all of them. However, behind this box office phenomenon there is someone who is new to the Disney family, but orchestrated everything that happened behind-the-scenes to create a phenomenon that likes of which we have ever seen. That is why LaughingPlace is pleased to name Kathleen Kennedy our Disney Person of the Year.
Born in Berkley, California — not far from where Lucasfilm is based — Kennedy began her career in television in San Diego. After seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind, she decided to move to L.A. where she became an assistant to John Milius who was producing 1941. Through that film, she met Steven Speilberg who hired her as his secretary. While they both admit she lacked in the secretarial functions of the job, her production ideas and insights were spot-on. She was credited as an associate to Steven Speilberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark and became an associate producer on Poltergeist.
From there her career took off. Along with her future husband (Frank Marshall) and Steven Speilberg, she co-founded Amblin Entertainment where she worked on some of the world’s most iconic films including Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. She went on to found the Kennedy/Marshall Company with her husband and produced more modern classics including The Sixth Sense and Signs.
Things changed when her old friend from her Raiders days, George Lucas, invited Kathy to lunch in New York in April 2012. He said he was thinking of retiring and wanted her to be his successor. Following a courtesy call to Steven Speilberg from Lucas, Kennedy took the job and was named co-chair in June. The original idea was that Lucas would create the first film in a new trilogy and then sell it to Disney, but things moved faster than was originally planned leading Lucasfilm to become part of the magic of The Walt Disney Company in December. For the first time, Kennedy was an executive at a big corporate studio.
Although Lucasfilm remained a leader in special effects, Kennedy felt that storytelling needed to be restored as a focus for the studio. She created the Story Group led by Kiri Hart to ensure all aspects of Star Wars storytelling meshed and complimented each other. She also was underwhelmed with Lucas’ original plot for Episode VII.
In what might now be seen as her biggest coup, she convinced J.J Abrams to come onboard to direct The Force Awakens despite his initial reservations. She also enlisted Star Wars legend Larry Kasdan to work with Abrams on the script. Despite early concerns from fans that Disney would be too intrusive with the franchise, Kennedy made all of these moves without interference from her corporate overlords — she simply told them the people she needed and Iger and company consented.
While production of the film was underway, she won over a fanbase that felt let down by some of the recent Star Wars stories. First she made it clear the film will be using practical effects, acknowledging that the CGI overload was a major criticism of the prequels. But Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim was truly her coming out party and moment to shine.
Buying pizza for the fans waiting overnight was a much-applauded gesture that seemed to show her honest appreciation for the fans. When she appeared on stage in a white blazer and a Star Wars t-shirt, her enthusiasm for the galaxy far, far, away was effervescent. Her strong fan rapport continued with a surprise symphony at San Diego Comic-Con which was billed as a "thank you" to the fans that have stood by the franchise.
You can now find Kathy Kennedy cosplayers making the rounds of the convention circuit. In many ways, she has claimed the mantle of Fan-Girl-in-Chief. Her enthusiasm continues for the upcoming saga films, but also the spin-offs, and even a new installment in the Indiana Jones franchise.
What’s next with Ms. Kennedy? Will she return to her roots as an independent producer? Will she rise the ranks of The Walt Disney Company to be named head of the studio or even President? Or will she be content to run her fiefdom at Lucasfilm? Time will tell, but there is no question that her determination, strong-will and commitment to storytelling helped The Force Awakens reach the heights that it has. For that reason, she is rightfully being named our Disney Person of the Year.