Kathleen Kennedy’s Lucas Film – A Case Study in Fractal Empires

On 22nd April 2020, featured by Variety; there was a leak of a supposed ‘Star Wars’ project in the works by Lucas Film, with a female centric cast – headed by Leslye Headland. The details around this are particularly interesting, such as the lack of a set script, or near enough anything other than the identities of those involved set in stone; and the fact that it seems to be the case that no one in the upper management of Disney seems to be aware of such a project. However, the fact that this has generated a lot of media attention – is itself enough to lend the project some clout. This would appear to be quite clearly an example of Conquest’s third law of politics: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies”, and more generally: the fractal nature of empires, as laid out in Samo Burja’s “Great Founder Theory”(http://samoburja.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Great-Founder-Theory-v-1.43.pdf).

The background first then, drawing from two videos on the subject (https://youtu.be/VVNDMuQtipo, https://youtu.be/tggrP-l4q1Q): after the recent slump in revenue generated by the Star Wars releases, the head of Lucas Films – Kathleen Kennedy (a long time assistant to well known creators such as Spielburg,) has much of her authority and autonomy stripped when then CEO of Disney – Bob Iger, took personal blame for the failure of the projects publicly, and ensured that all future projects would require his approval. Although speculated on at length, the reason for the failure of Kennedy’s overseen Star Wars films is not tremendously relevant here, merely that she has been stripped of power, and likely expects to be removed from her position entirely at the next convenience. The primary power at her disposal to prevent that is her preferential relationship with various media outlets, which would – thanks in part to their common ideological leanings – be able to hurt the brand image of Disney at large, but Bob Iger in particular. Therefore, it seems likely that the leak was not incidental, but was instead planned by, or at least conducted with the approval of Kennedy. At time of writing there is no concrete evidence for this, but the timing, and the way that this slots into the overall power struggle is so perfect and logical that it will be treated as fact for the purposes of this essay.

An empire, as defined by Burja, is a group of coordinated actors working around a central power. However, empires are fractal, meaning that an empire may have sub-empires within it. Within each of these contexts, there will be an arrangement of actors, according to their power: High, Middle, Low, and Outside. In this case, High would be the final authorities of any given production decision, and those with the authority to install or remove candidates for project level authority. These individuals with project level authority, such as directors, writers, and producers, or with the power to alter the project level product – would be the Middle. Meanwhile the Low constitutes production staff with minimal decision power on the direction of the project, and Lucas Film at large. The Outside consists of actors outside both Disney and Lucas Film.

In the earlier stages of Disney Lucas Film, Kathleen Kennedy seems to have enjoyed near undisputed rule over her empire. Therefore she was able to use the property to further her own ideological ends, and in doing so, and solidify her power base. This seems to have been one of the primary goals, and means of ensuring loyalty; made evident by the fact that although the trend was extant in the first of the new films – the financial success gave her more confidence and freedom of maneuver. Using this freedom, and having placated the High actors in the wider Disney empire, she was able to stack the Middle with candidates more purely aligned with her goals. Through this mechanism, she could both expand her power base inside the empire by creating a cadre contingent on her continued patronage to thrive, and reduce coordination costs through delegation built on trust – established and maintained by the continued signalling that they have the same goals. Crucially however, these goals are not aligned with those of the wider Disney Empire, and may have been partly to blame for the subsequent reversal of fortunes. Perhaps due to this emboldening, the second film was rejected by a significant portion of the audience, whose brand loyalty was significantly damaged – to the extent that later films began to suffer. In the short-term however, there was simply some backlash, somewhat covered by another group which Kennedy has managed to add to her roster of allies: media outlets (an Outside in this case). Through shared goals and signalling, she was able to amplify her message through reputable media outlets, and identify herself as an ally to them – whom they would defend. Unfortunately for Kennedy, whether through the incompetence of her subordinates, or a rejection of her preferred messaging in the films, or general mismanagement, the viewership numbers began to rapidly plummet to half of their original levels which had allowed her such freedom. Consequently, the original plans for the final film of the primary trilogy were altered, either by her scrambling to avert the consequences, or Disney executives trying to salvage what they could, which included bringing back the director of the first film of the trilogy to hopefully repeat the same success. Regardless, by this point Kennedy’s sidelining had already been completed, as any of her projects required approval by Iger. She had therefore been turned from a near unchecked high, with the functionally owned power to green-light projects as she wished, to a supervised high – lacking the power to push through any projects without permission from above. Not only that, but her contract was approaching its end, with almost no hope of having it renewed.

In that context then, she had two assets left: her Middle loyalists, and her Outside supporters in the media. Her loyalists are her best hope at continuing influence of a sort, or at least maintaining some momentum towards what are ultimately her ideological goals, and so she oversaw the leaking of a yet non-existent project which would ensure a powerful medium-term position for an close ally – helping to stack the Middle with her loyalists into the future. Her media allies then generated a storm of interest in the project, making it difficult for Iger and Disney executive management to deny the leak without provoking backlash – which would potentially hurt the wider Disney brand through exposing it to attack by these same media outlets, and also may hurt Iger’s image on the eve of a speculated political career. Kennedy’s hope, as implied, would be to pressure Iger and Disney into accepting this new project – effectively ending her tenure, but giving her aspirations the best chance of fruition going forward, as whomever replaces her has to contend with an entrenched Middle wishing to continue on towards Kennedy’s goals.

Through all of this, Kennedy’s empire has functioned as one with its own set of priorities, power dynamics, and goals; nested within the wider Disney empire. The divergence of these empires was so great that Disney was forced to reassert authority over Kennedy in order to ensure coordination between the two, as profitability (the central aim of Disney) was being subordinated and outright neglected in favour of ideological messaging and loyalty to Kennedy (thus attempting to secure her own position and internal freedom of movement). To her credit, internal freedom of action seems to have been maintained, but this came at the cost of a loss of independence, and severe brand damage. Her dismissal will likely not be lamented by either long time fans of Star Wars, nor Disney’s executive management, but it remains to be seen whether her final gambit to leave a lasting impact on Lucas Film will succeed, and allow her influence to be carried forward, potentially striving towards her goals for a long time to come.

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