Broad Cinema: Thank God Kathleen Kennedy Was A Bad Secretary

Man hires a secretary. Man realizes she’s not fit for the job. Woman inherits the empire.

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia Commons

From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.

This week, we're honoring Kathleen Kennedy. Live in an Alamo market? Get your tickets to the Jurassic Park Movie Party here!

Kathleen Kennedy’s resume is insane. How insane? She’s been involved in damn near every Spielberg film since 1981 in addition to other projects with George Lucas. Oh, and she and her husband Frank Marshall created Amblin Entertainment. Even though it would take you weeks to watch every film Kennedy has worked on, a fair majority of people hadn’t heard of her until 2012 when she was handpicked by George Lucas to take over Lucasfilm. But Kennedy didn’t start off as producer extraordinaire. She started off as an assistant, and rumor has it she wasn’t a great one. Thank god for that.

Though she’s been a cinephile all her life, it was seeing Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind that convinced her that she needed to be in the film industry. While there were surely trials that led up to the moment she got her first assistant job to John Milius, Kennedy isn’t one to talk about how difficult it is for women in the business. Women know how difficult it is for them in their respective fields, and she’d much rather help them navigate whichever respective obstacles they face than blubber about why it’s hard. (Insert A League of Their Own quote here.) Kennedy wasn’t with Milius for long. He was producing 1941, and Spielberg made quick work of hiring her away as his own assistant. Their first project was Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Whether it’s in her Wikipedia article, or in her several Vanity Fair profiles, reports are all the same—Kathleen Kennedy was not meant to be someone’s assistant. As a self-proclaimed terrible typist at the time, she’d be the first to agree with that. If you talk to Spielberg about it, he’ll tell you that she was too busy talking about ideas for the film to really be an effective secretary. Which is exactly why when it came time for the two to work on E.T. together, he looked at her and told her she was ready to produce the thing.

Though she admits to being terrified of that first big producer role, that feeling has long since passed. In her thirty years in the business and her ninety-two production credits she’s not only figured out how to navigate things, but spends much of her time empowering other women to do the same. One of her first notable accomplishments as a producer was sorting out E.T.’s lifelike eyes. Being a producer means you’ve got to think of creative and effective solutions, and often on the fly. After spending half a day staring at drawers full of prosthetic eyes, and rushing to and from the Poltergeist set (Spielberg’s other project at the time), Kathleen convinced the young woman from the Jules Stein Eye Institute to help her. She couldn’t accept payment from other sources, so they made a handshake deal to furnish her apartment. And thus, E.T.’s iconic eyes were born. It may have been Kennedy’s creativity that found a solution to the problem, but she gives credit where credit’s due. When asked about the eyes in her Fortune profile, Kennedy’s quoted saying “She found the look. She found the soul.”

The confidence she has gained throughout her prestigious career doesn’t just come from Lucas and Spielberg’s unyielding trust in her, but also a constant life of trial by fire. Kennedy didn’t wake up one morning and become the president of Lucasfilm, she worked for decades and learned from the talent around her. Spielberg would find a problem, look at her, and simply tell her to take care of it. Finding writers, production crews, artists, developing scripts to fit the films needs better, whatever it was, it was in her charge. So, for those worried about not having any damn idea what they’re doing— Kennedy didn’t, and neither does anyone else in the beginning.

That grace under fire and level-headedness was what made Kennedy George Lucas’ first pick to take over Lucasfilm when he left. He wanted someone he knew well and trusted, as well as someone with business acumen that would still care enough about the creative side of things to keep them a priority. When she and George sat down to lunch, she had thought that he was asking her for recommendations. This was in 2012 and after literal decades of working with the man, so never doubt that she’s maintained a certain level of humility while constantly adding to that insane resume of hers. It’s also worth considering just how protective Lucas is of the Star Wars franchise and the Lucasfilm name. There was no doubt that he and Kennedy would see things differently, but he trusted her well enough to hand the reigns of his empire over anyway. Disney has since acquired Lucasfilm. With their partnership and Kennedy’s team, the Star Wars franchise has seen new heights in the five years she’s been at the helm.

Speaking of her team: half of her immediate staff are women. Kennedy knows what it took to get her where she is, and she wants to be that to the women around her as well. She’s got them in the door, now it’s up to them to do as she did and find a reason to remain in the room. Having that many women involved in the higher up day to day workings of an entertainment company is impressive, but she doesn’t stop there. Kennedy wants a woman to direct a Star Wars film before all is said and done. She wants to continue to guide her personnel and the women under them to navigate a male driven industry, without spending time weeping about how it got that way and why things are difficult. Lucas has been quoted saying that she’s just one of the guys, but I think Kennedy’s showing the world what one of the girls can do with a little opportunity and a hell of a lot of drive.

Get your tickets to the Jurassic Park Movie Party here!