Jenette Kahn AB '68 (Co-Founder & Partner, Double Nickel Entertainment;
Producer, The Book of Henry, Gran Torino; Former President, DC Comics)
By Terence O'Toole Murnin
At a time when mere mortals may be content to rest on their laurels, Jenette Kahn AB '68 continues to tell powerful stories with words and images at a dizzying pace suggesting the best is yet to come.
In what has been an extraordinary life—in April of 2000, the Library of Congress bestowed on her the Living Legends award in the “writers and artists” category for her significant contributions to our country’s cultural legacy—Jenette Kahn has known two constants: art and basketball. So, in 2003, when Kahn left DC Comics and MAD Magazine after 27 years heading the two companies to pursue a new role as a film producer, she named the venture she founded with Adam Richman after one of the most infamous moments in Madison Square Garden’s annals.
Kahn, an ardent hoops fan, recalls that notorious night, March 29, 1995. “After an unimpressive stint in baseball’s minor leagues, Michael Jordan returned to basketball, strode into the Garden, and scored 55 points against the Knicks. It was so devastating,” says Kahn who was at the game, “that it was said on the street that he dropped a double nickel on the Knicks. But it was awesome, too, the height of excellence, and that’s what we constantly strive for at Double Nickel.”
Having produced such films as The Flock, starring Richard Gere and Claire Danes, and Gran Torino, which Clint Eastwood directed and starred in, Double Nickel partnered with Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Focus Features to produce The Book of Henry. Directed by Jurassic World-helmer Colin Trevorrow who is also directing Star Wars: Episode IX, The Book of Henry stars Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Lee Pace, Sarah Silverman, and Harvard’s own Dean Norris AB '85. The film was written by another Harvard alum, Gregg Hurwitz AB '95, and Focus will release the movie June 16th.
“It’s a film that makes you laugh—and cry—and laugh again,” declares Kahn, “and even though I’ve seen the movie many times, I always laugh and cry again.”
Kahn and Richman have also teamed up with Jim Parsons’ company That’s Wonderful Productions and they’ll soon begin shooting A Kid Like Jake. Based on Daniel Pearle’s acclaimed play, it stars Claire Danes and Jim Parsons as a couple wrestling with their precocious four-year-old son’s desire to wear tutus as they navigate the competitive world of Manhattan’s private school admissions.
“At a time when our country is witnessing the roll back of transgender protections, this is a critical film,” notes an impassioned Kahn. “Stories can change how we see the world—and we hope that movies like this will inspire us to make it a better one.”
Asked about her time at Harvard from which Kahn, an art history major, graduated in 1968, she recalled, “It was a far less progressive and inclusive place than it is now. There were very few students of color, and on the academic side, there were no studio arts courses or even courses in film history. But it was also a time of ferment with fervent anti-Vietnam protests and where people offered you LSD-laced sugar cubes in Harvard Square.”
For her first act, Kahn founded three influential magazines for young people: Kids, written and illustrated by children for each other; Dynamite, a title credited with rocketing the fortunes of Scholastic Inc., and Smash, a title for which Kahn was famously able to lure the legendary Milton Glaser to come aboard as its designer.
“I’m a lucky-ducky,” smiles a modest Kahn, a quality that belies her fierce tenacity and determination.
For her second act, in 1976, the then 28-year-old Kahn became publisher of DC Comics, a division of what is now Time Warner, and home to some 5,000 characters, including Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
“I was known as the ‘cheesecake behind the beefcake,’” laughs Kahn. “After all, we manufactured male fantasy.”
Kahn relates that there were very few women at DC in those early days and if she really needed some time alone to think, she just went to the ladies room “because there was usually no one else there.” Although responsible for changing the face of the industry by implementing creator rights, introducing the graphic novel, and transforming comics into a sophisticated art form, one act that is particularly close to her heart was welcoming Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster back to the comics community. Banned from the industry once they sued to have a share in the sensation they created, Siegel and Shuster had been living near the poverty line. Kahn flew them to her first ComicCon as DC’s honored guests where they were at long last lauded by their peers and the countless artists, writers, and readers they had inspired.
At 33, Kahn assumed the role of President and Editor-in-Chief of DC Comics, and along with editor and executive vice president Paul Levitz (Kahn notes that she loved Levitz because he never hesitated to tell her ‘no!’), the company became the juggernaut that it is today, breaking new ground for comic books and graphic novels with its Vertigo line and championing diverse voices such as Milestone Media, a minority-founded and ethnically diverse line of comic books. Kahn also transformed the almost exclusively male-dominated DC into an inclusive company where to this day women and people of color play significant roles in the company’s renaissance.
As a pioneer in the field, Kahn readily admits that her career has been bereft of mentors, but she strongly believes that she is the beneficiary of the wave of feminism created by women such as Gloria Steinem.
“Warner Communications (the present-day Time Warner) had made a significant investment in Ms. magazine just a few years before I was offered the chance to run DC,” Kahn recalls. “Bill Sarnoff, the chairman of Warner Publishing, confessed that he wouldn’t have hired a woman if Gloria hadn’t raised his consciousness.”
Which brings us full-circle to Kahn’s third act, founding Double Nickel Entertainment with Harvard Business School alumnus Adam Richman MBA '96.
“After 27 years, I wanted the challenge of a learning curve. But what transferrable skills did I have? Not many,” grins Kahn. “But I did know how to tell stories in pictures and words. Perhaps I could be a producer.”
And while Kahn spends a lot of time in Los Angeles, she prefers her life and career NYC-based.
“There’s so much going on here—so much diversity—and I think it’s extremely important for storytellers to look outside the boundaries of their comfort zone for continued inspiration,” explains Kahn.
What does the future hold for this incomparable dynamo? Kahn is excited about Fair Fight (the story of Lily Ledbetter’s fierce fight for equal pay from writer-director Rachel Feldman) and Every Second Counts, a limited TV series that tells the thrilling true-life story of Christiaan Barnard and the high-stakes race for the first human heart transplant.
Kahn always has her inquisitive eye out for the best stories—and the preeminent directors—and the finest actors on the planet who can help make these yarns come to life. When asked who she is dying to work with, Kahn without hesitation says: Moonlight's Mahershala Ali, now the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.
Mahershala, if you’re reading this, wonder woman Jenette Kahn would like to work with you and it’s guaranteed to become a story you will never forget.