When Kathleen Kennedy took over the Star Wars franchise last year, she became an important test case in an industry with few female executives.
A major assumption undergirding conversations about diversity and inclusion not just in Hollywood, but in business more broadly, is that putting women and people of colour in positions of power will change who gets hired and who gets opportunities for promotion.
But though Kennedy said last year that she was eager to hire a female director to helm an installment of the franchise, even after hiring a whole raft of men, it's proving complicated.
Kennedy's now taking fire for an Variety interview about Rogue One, the latest Star Wars movie, in which she told Brent Lang she was struggling to fulfill that particular ambition.
"We want to make sure that when we bring a female director in to do Star Wars, they're set up for success," she said. "They're gigantic films, and you can't come into them with essentially no experience ... We want to really start to focus in on people we would love to work with and see what kinds of things they're doing to progress up that ladder now, and then pull them in when the time is right."
The idea that there are no women, or people of colour, or actors with disabilities, or ... whatever with the requisite chops to direct a movie, or to carry a film on the weight of the strength of their own stardom, is one of the oldest canards in this particular conversation. It's infuriating because it shifts the burden of responsibility, absolving an industry that has consistently failed to take chances on and nurture talented people from underrepresented communities, and suggesting that the problem is actually with individuals with underdeveloped résumés.
And as Forbes' Scott Mendelson points out, these concerns hardly every come up when a young male director gets a crack at a movie with a huge budget and hefty corporate expectations.
"Walt Disney gave Joseph Kosinski the $170 million Tron: Legacy sans any feature experience of any kind," Mendelson writes. "Ditto Robert Stromberg who was hired to direct Maleficent sans any directing experience whatsoever, and come what may the film had to be rescued via John Lee Hancock-directed reshoots. Rupert Sanders got to make his feature film debut on Universal's Snow White and the Huntsman back in 2012, while the likes of Marc Webb, Colin Trevorrow and Josh Trank snagged big franchise properties off of one well-liked lower-budget picture."
It's true that the bigger the budget, the more complex the movie. Wrangling more people means more schedules, more riders, more complex craft-services orders and more egos. More action sequences means more logistics, more risks, more stunt-people and more special and physical effects. Going a couple of percentage points over on your budget is more consequential when your movie costs $150 million than when it's budgeted at $30 million. And in a franchise context, where one underperforming movie can spur panic, there may be less leeway for dramatic shifts in tone or gambles that don't pay off.
But that's precisely the reason that big franchises might have more leeway to take chances on female (and nonwhite) directors with promising but short résumés.
Star Wars, Marvel and DC movies almost certainly have some built-in audience, which means any director who steps up to the helm has at least something of a cushion, whether it comes from American audiences or international ones. (Both Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice clicked more overseas than they did at home.)
There are also creative limitations in big franchises that limit risk to a certain extent. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige carefully oversees the tone and overall plot arc of the Marvel franchise. Kennedy is meant to play a similar role with Star Wars. People such as John Mahaffie, the second-unit director on The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and Spider-Man: Homecoming, create a coherent action style across franchises and take some of the pressure off directors who might have less experience with blockbuster climaxes. Franchise pictures might be bigger than independent movies, but in some ways they involve much less creative leeway and much more oversight.
In other words, franchise heads such as Kennedy may actually be in the best position to give female directors precisely the kind of experience directing big action movies they're looking for those women to find elsewhere. Watching and waiting isn't a way to help women succeed. It's a way to evade responsibility.