The Next Star Wars Movie Terrifies Lucasfilm

Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm
Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney
Matthew Belloni
October 23, 2022

Last November, right after Patty Jenkins’ much-touted Rogue Squadron was placed on the dreaded back burner, I politely asked Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek to remove Star Wars movies from the purview of Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. After five films and about $6 billion in box office under Disney, this A+-level film franchise—a property other studios would kill for—had been essentially left half-digested in a Sarlacc pit. 

No continuing storylines, no new characters worth following, several top-tier creators hired and then discarded, and little overarching creative vision. Lucasfilm was continuing to churn out a mixed bag of competently made and highly-watched series for Disney+, but on the film side, the franchise was essentially dormant, and, at least to me, Kennedy’s stewardship was a stunning example of I.P. mismanagement.  

Maybe I was a bit harsh. But now, nearly a year later, things are… pretty much the same. No new Star Wars film before at least December 2025, which would be a six year gap after the much-maligned The Rise of Skywalker. You can argue that former C.E.O. Bob Iger’s initial one-movie-a-year mandate was too much, and that it led to rushed decision-making and hired-and-fired filmmakers like Gareth Edwards (Rogue One), Lord and Miller (Solo) and Colin Trevorrow (Rise of Skywalker), and that a little break for a reset is a good thing. 

But with Marvel churning out multiple movies and D+ series every year, such a massive pause at Lucasfilm is borderline corporate negligence. And that’s if the 2025 date holds. After all, none of the three projects that are furthest along in development have been officially greenlit. Disney’s D23 event came and went last month without Kennedy offering even a status update on the film side. (Next summer’s Indiana Jones, also from Lucasfilm, did get a spotlight.)

Yes, the company has been focused on stocking Disney+ with Star Wars shows like The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the currently airing (and very good, though underwatched) Andor, and the in-the-works Ahsoka, The Acolyte, and The Skeleton Crew. If Mandalorian hadn’t hit so big right out of the gate in 2019 and established a template for a big I.P.-driven streaming series, would Disney+ be anywhere near 152 million subscribers worldwide? Similarly, Star Wars is still thriving in the theme parks and on store shelves.  

All the more reason why the film franchise seems adrift. At this point, part of the hesitation is simply media management. I’m told Kennedy was advised by Disney to stop announcing projects and creative partners, lest the ravenous nerd press pounce when those projects don’t actually happen, as is the case frequently at Lucasfilm. Remember that hokey video with Jenkins in a flight suit that played at Disney’s investor day in 2020? Ummm… Or the triumphant press releases about new trilogies from The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson and the Game of Thrones guys? Seems like ancient history now. 

I can confirm there’s a new film project in development for the past few months with writer-producer Damon Lindelof, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a TV and documentary short director, is in talks to direct it (which would make her, not Jenkins, the first woman to direct a Star Wars film). That movie could actually shoot before the Taika Waititi project with The Good Nurse writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, which was announced back in 2020 with a spiffy logo and concept art. Taika’s currently in New Zealand making his HBO Max show, Our Flag Means Death, until the end of the year, and in June—two years after the film was officially announced—he said, “I’m still trying to figure out what the story is.” Not great. There’s another concept that’s apparently also far along, and that may be a rumored project from Marvel’s Kevin Feige and writer Michael Waldron. Or not. There’s other stuff in various stages, but nothing is apparently set.

Stars Wars movies will eventually restart, of course, and probably soon. But the Jabba the Hutt-like pace can be attributed to a culture of fear and indecision around the next installment, according to the people I talked to. The nice way of saying it, and a new mantra at Lucasfilm, is “getting it right.” It’s accepted internally that the last trilogy, and especially Rise of Skywalker, was rushed to meet aggressive release dates, and Kennedy played it safe in every possible way, choosing fan service and franchise management over creative swings. Look at her decisions: From jettisoning most of original writer Michael Arndt’s ideas and essentially remaking A New Hope with The Force Awakens, to freaking out and bringing back director J.J. Abrams and the villainous Emperor for Rise of Skywalker after some fans complained about Johnson’s mythology-busting choices in Last Jedi—choices that Kennedy had enthusiastically supported… right up until she didn’t.     

And while the Disney+ shows have kept the brand ubiquitous, they’ve also cheapened it by making Star Wars far less special in the lives of its fans, thus raising the stakes even more for what will be “movie-worthy” in this franchise. (They already burned a showdown between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in the Obi-Wan series, which was initially supposed to be a movie.) While I love Andor, it’s an adult drama and definitely not for some fans, especially kids. That likely explains the lower ratings.     

Kennedy, say those who have spoken with her, seems to realize that the next installment needs to actually be good, and different from the D+ stuff, and also kinda the same, and it needs to steer the franchise away from fan service based on the original trilogy, but also be rooted in what fans love about Star Wars. And did I mention it has to be good? Disney essentially has to re-introduce Star Wars while Star Wars is also constantly on television. This is a very tough task—or a very big hole she has dug for herself, depending on your perspective—far tougher than simply saying yes to these D+ series. 

I returned to my Lucasfilm sources this week when the news finally broke that Michelle Rejwan, senior V.P. at the unit and one of Kennedy’s key right hands for Star Wars, was leaving her post after three years and transitioning back into producing full time for Lucasfilm. Rejwan, who is currently working on Leslye Headland’s The Acolyte, had been telling people about this for weeks; and she may not be the only executive there to either exit or go full producer soon. Lucasfilm declined to comment, as did a rep for Rejwan. (She has her own personal publicist.)  

It’s not acrimonious, both sides insist. But it’s also a common frustration among Lucasfilm executives that the strategy there is often changing, and there have been disagreements on which creatives have the best vision for the franchise. Kennedy, a legendary producer who spent decades with Steven Spielberg, has put a lot of stock in outside creators to figure out the path forward, rather than the Marvel style of developing in-house and engaging filmmakers to execute. And Kathy is said to change her mind often. That’s tough, especially since her executives have to play conduit with the creative community and all the representatives.  

Still, Kennedy has been executing on Disney+, the platform Chapek cares most about. And in the decade since Disney paid $4 billion for George Lucas’s company and installed Kennedy, Lucas’s personal choice to run the unit, Disney has recouped its investment several times over. But it’s clear Disney needs to refresh and restart Star Wars as a film franchise, which, of course, is how the whole thing began back in 1977. 

This isn’t quite a do-or-die moment, I don’t think. Avatar, as a franchise, has way more riding on whether The Way of Water performs this December. If it grosses less than $1 billion and leaves audiences limp, where does that leave the three planned sequels? But Star Wars does need a big swing, though. Given how badly the franchise was damaged by the last trilogy, the easy choices will no longer cut it. That’s what Kennedy, a seasoned moviemaker who has been playing it safe for years, likely knows well—and it probably terrifies her.