HOLLYWOOD REPORTER ON THE LEGENDARY ASHLEY BOONE
I was lucky enough to meet Ashley Boone shortly after I arrived in Hollywood. Here’s why it was a big deal:
He Was ‘Star Wars’ ‘ Secret Weapon, So Why Was He Forgotten?
Ashley Boone Jr., the first black president of a major Hollywood studio, helped make George Lucas’ quirky space opera a hit in the 1970’s — yet chances are you’ve never heard of him: “He was way ahead of his time.”
When thousands gathered Dec. 16 in Hollywood for the world premiere of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — supposedly the last Skywalker film — they heard Bob Iger, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams thank everyone from creator George Lucas to the actor who played R2-D2. But one name was not so much as whispered, despite this person’s critical 1970s role in launching what would become the most successful movie franchise of all time: the all-but-forgotten Ashley Boone Jr.
Although his contributions have been mostly lost to history — he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page — Boone, who died in 1994 at age 55, was a marketing and distribution wizard who championed Lucas’ space opera when nearly everyone else — including the board of 20th Century Fox — thought it was a wacky idea doomed to fail. He shaped its release date and the number of theaters in which it rolled out and renewed its promotional campaign four times in order to keep it surging in theaters. He worked on a slew of other milestone movies, too, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Chariots of Fire, Ghostbustersand Thelma & Louise. Eventually, he became the first black president at a major Hollywood studio — even if that job lasted a grand total of four months — and went on to break many other barriers. And his kid sister left her job as a Pan Am flight attendant to follow him into the business and in 2013 became the first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“He was a star in every way,” Cheryl Boone Isaacs says of her brother, 11 years her senior. “He was the cool, hip guy. Handsome, smart, down-to-earth. He was like Obama.”
Boone’s father sorted mail for a post office in Springfield, Massachusetts. His mom was a homemaker. After studying economics at Brandeis University, he thought about working at the World Bank — he wanted to help underdeveloped countries — but after a chance encounter with the co-chief of United Artists, he took a trainee gig at the studio’s New York office, where he quickly rose through the ranks promoting movies like Lilies of the Field, Tom Jones and James Bond films to overseas audiences. “The [foreign marketing] department was in such bad shape,” he later recalled to Black Enterprise magazine, “that they said, ‘You’re a bright kid. You can’t be any worse than the guy who’s doing it. Why don’t you go for it?’ So I did.”
Boone had never left the country, but suddenly he was jetting between New York and Europe, living a life his sister describes as “something out of Mad Men” and making friends with people like Quincy Jones. “The backlots and executive suites looked very different than they do today,” Jones tells THR. “There weren’t even brothers working in the kitchen. So when I became aware of Ashley during his time as a young executive at UA, we immediately bonded because our community was so small.”
Boone’s career took on even more momentum as he moved to CBS’ film division, then to Sidney Poitier’s production company (Poitier tells THR a half-century later that he had “the deepest respect” for Boone) and then to work for Motown mogul Berry Gordy. He ultimately landed at Fox in 1972 and spent the next eight years thriving in movie marketing and distribution.
“My supervisors would give me the pictures they said couldn’t succeed,” Boone later said. Some were “black films,” like 1972’s Sounder. “It was a movie that needed careful handling,” he explained. “You had to build a reputation. You had to treat the movie just like any Academy Award-nominated movie before it was nominated.” Boone screened the film to schoolchildren around the country before releasing it widely, and it eventually would be nominated for best picture.
In 1974, a year before the practice became commonplace with Jaws, Boone pioneered saturation booking, releasing the Peter Fonda chase movie Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry in a mass of theaters on the same day in a bid to quickly recoup costs. It worked: The picture grossed $12.1 million ($62.8 million today), making it Fox’s biggest hit of the year. Later that year, The Pittsburgh Courier described Boone as “perhaps the most knowledgeable black man in America when it comes to national and international distribution of motion pictures.”
Over the next few years, Boone helped The Rocky Horror Picture Show become a cult hit through midnight screenings and, in 1976, laid the groundwork for the blockbuster box office for The Omen and Silver Streak through a series of national sneak previews. These successes landed Boone, then 38, on Alan Ladd Jr.’s radar. The studio’s head of production promoted him to vp domestic marketing and distribution, two areas that had never been under one umbrella before. “Ashley was just a very bright person,” Ladd told the PGA’s in-house publication in 2008. “I never considered his color. That had nothing to do with it. He was simply the smartest guy around.”
“I had a bad time with the studios,” George Lucas tells THR. “The only one I didn’t have a bad time with was Fox, and it was really because of Ashley and Laddie.”
Boone’s relationship with Lucas began in 1977, when he traveled to Northern California to see a rough cut of Star Wars. The screening was held outside San Francisco in a room full of sofas and easy chairs. “It was a weeknight, and the bus got lost on its way … arriving almost two hours late,” author Dale Pollock recounted in his 1984 book Skywalking, quoting Boone as thinking, “Someone has got more courage than they are entitled to because this group is just liable to sit down and fall asleep.” No one fell asleep, least of all Boone. Later, during dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant, he sat slumped in his chair, blown away by what he’d just seen. And also, presumably, a little daunted.
The film had to sell $32 million ($135 million today) worth of tickets for Fox to recoup its investment, though it secured only $1.5 million in guarantees from theaters. But Boone started thinking outside the box. The summer movie season had always begun in late June, after schools let out. Lucas and Boone argued for opening Star Wars a month earlier, around Memorial Day, on just a couple of screens in big cities, betting that it could attract young people who would spread word-of-mouth while they were still in school. John Krier, then president of Exhibitor Relations, would recall: “Ashley was an astute judge of pictures. He said Star Wars would do over $200 million before anyone had seen the picture.”
On May 1, about three weeks before its release, a test audience was assembled in San Francisco, and Ladd, Boone and other Fox execs sat in the back row to monitor reactions. Boone Isaacs — who was working on another 1977 sci-fi film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind — also was there as Boone’s guest and, 43 years later, recalls the crowd’s reaction: “By the time that Millennium Falcon got across the screen, everybody was standing and screaming. I remember the guys — Laddie, Ashley and all of them — were kind of huddled together and hugging.”
Star Wars debuted May 25 in 32 theaters nationwide. According to Pollock, “Boone gambled by opening it on a Wednesday rather than the weekend and began shows at 10 a.m. in New York and Los Angeles. By 8 a.m., when the theater doors opened, there were long lines in both cities.” Lucas wanted to be far, far away when the weekend grosses came in, so he scheduled a vacation in Hawaii. Boone was the one who phoned him regularly to report the numbers. And there were big numbers to report. Star Wars propelled Fox to its most commercially successful year ever and ultimately became the highest-grossing film of all time, with $776 million worldwide ($3.3 billion today). An Associated Press story back then noted, “Time-worn methods of selling movies are getting a shake-up by a new generation of marketers, and one of those leading the revolution is Ashley Boone.”
Star Wars not only made Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford famous but also, at least inside the industry, Boone. A Sepia magazine profile titled “Hollywood’s Top Black Executive” noted that he worked out of “a spacious executive office in Twentieth’s Administration Building” and oversaw a 450-person staff.
A year later, following an internal power struggle, Ladd left the studio. After six weeks of uncertainty about who would replace him, Fox announced that the job would be split, with Sandy Lieberson becoming president of production and Boone serving as president of distribution and marketing. It was the first time a black person had ever reached that high a rank at a major studio.
It quickly became clear, though, that not everyone in Hollywood was on board with the idea of a black man in a position of authority. Boone would often recall a 1979 visit he paid to a Fox branch office when a secretary who didn’t recognize him refused to let him past her to see the branch manager. He took it in stride, just as he did when a journalist asked him whether being black had helped or hurt him in Hollywood. “There is this in my favor,” he responded. “I stand out in a crowd.”
In October 1979, Boone faced an insult much harder to swallow. Fox chairman and CEO Dennis Stanfill hired Alan Hirschfield, Columbia’s former chief, to fill a newly created job of vice chairman and COO — in other words, to become Stanfill’s No. 2, effectively demoting Boone. “Reports abound about why Fox — which is in an enviable financial position because of the success of Star Wars — should want to rock the boat so soon after appointing Ashley Boone as president of distribution,” noted The New York Times. But rock the boat Fox did. And Boone jumped ship. On Dec. 4, less than four months after being appointed president, he announced he would leave at year’s end.
Boone set up his own consulting firm, with Lucas as client No. 1. “Part of it was loyalty,” Lucas says. “I thought he was a great guy. And I thought he did a great job on Star Wars.” In his new capacity, Boone handled the marketing and distribution for 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back (he kept life-sized Star Wars characters beside his desk) and worked on campaigns for films like Chariots of Fire, which won the 1982 best picture Oscar. In 1983, he decided to go in-house at Columbia and as president of domestic marketing and distribution ushered Ghostbusters onto screens. He then rejoined Ladd at Lorimar as head of worldwide marketing in 1985. “There’s only one Ashley,” Ladd said around that time.
Boone was a trailblazer long before words like “diversity” and “inclusion” became common parlance. In 1983, he was among the first black speakers at the annual convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners in Las Vegas. In 1986, he was a signatory — with such A-listers as Cher — of an open letter to SAG urging divestment from apartheid-era South Africa. That year, he served alongside Michael Douglas on the advisory committee for the U.S. Film Festival, which would become Sundance. And in 1991, he was elected to the Academy’s board of governors as a rep of the executives branch, joining his sister, who already was representing the PR branch. For the next three years, they overlapped on the board, the only siblings ever to do so.
But the last years of Boone’s career were probably disheartening. He was let go by Lorimar following a corporate takeover in 1988. In 1990, he reunited one last time with Ladd, serving as head of distribution and marketing at Pathé, which then merged with MGM, where he helped launch Thelma & Louise. But his place in history already was starting to be erased. A March 1989 article in Premiere titled “Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret: Why There Aren’t Any Black Executives” noted that Boone, though a former president of Fox, wasn’t even mentioned in a recent history of the studio. “No one says it out loud, but race is a dirty little secret in Hollywood power politics,” the article stated, noting that “there are still no black executives with the power to greenlight a project.”
In October 1993, after rapidly losing weight, Boone was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Two months later, he stepped down from his post at MGM and was hospitalized at UCLA Medical Center. Few knew how sick he was until they read, on the front page of the trades on May 2, 1994, that he had died the day before at his Beverly Hills home. At his insistence, there was no memorial service. Obituaries noted that survivors included “his companion,” Mark Bua. “Even in the family, I was probably the only one who knew [he was gay],” Boone Isaacs recalls. “Ashley was very private.”
UA and Warner Bros. ran full-page tributes in THR, and Ladd called him “the most decent man I’ve ever met.” But Boone was missing in the next “In Memoriam” montage at the Oscars.
His impact, however, is still being felt by members of Hollywood’s black community. “He understood the industry, and he understood that to be in those rooms, you’ve got to carry yourself a certain way,” says Robert Townsend, one of the young black filmmakers Boone informally counseled. “He was old school, and he shared a lot of information in terms of how the game is played.” Adds another Boone mentee, producer-director Reginald Hudlin: “The tragic part is you can’t point to a black executive today in an equivalent position to where he was all those years ago. And I think that is an industry embarrassment.”
Lucas agrees: “He was way ahead of his time, and unfortunately that time hasn’t come yet.”
The black film executive in 2020 who probably comes closest is Netflix vp original film Tendo Nagenda, who in 2019 was presented with the African American Film Critics Association’s Ashley Boone Award, bestowed annually since 2012 to an “entertainment executive of African descent whose high standards and work ethic provides an example for the next generation.” Nagenda says: “Even though I never got to meet him, I imagined what he had to go through. I’ve kind of wondered, at various points along [my own] journey, what he would have done. You have this imaginary conversation about it. You end up thinking a lot about someone you never met.”
Meanwhile, the Star Wars franchise that Boone helped launch has grown beyond even his wildest ambitions. “I think he’d be like the rest of us — he’d be amazed,” says Lucas. “Like, what happened?!” Adds Boone Isaacs, “He said to me once when he was young that he wanted to be an architect. I felt later that’s actually what he always did anyway — it wasn’t building buildings, but it was building other things.”