Having been without a top executive since February, Industrial Light and Magic has signed on veteran producer Sam Mercer as its head of studio — just in time for a slew of new Star Wars blockbusters.

At first glance, it seems like an odd fit, given that ILM’s new leader, who assumes many of the oversight duties of general manager (and former president) Lynwen Brennan, has never actually worked in the visual effects industry proper. Mercer is most notable for his long-running partnership with director M. Night Shyamalan on seven films, including The Last Airbender, the controversial live-action adaptation of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Peadbody-winning animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender.


Mercer also co-produced Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, as well as Congo and other films, with Amblin Entertainment co-founder Kathleen Kennedy, who in 2012 became president of Lucasfilm and brand manager of the rebooted Star Wars franchise. Mercer’s extensive experience with Kennedy led her to suggest him to Brennan, who was promoted in February to general manager of Lucasfilm and to whom Mercer will report. Indeed, Kennedy asked Mercer “point blank” if he wanted the ILM job on the set of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, Amblin co-founder Steven Spielberg’s directing debut for Disney, which Kennedy is also co-producing with Mercer.

“I am thrilled that Sam will be leading ILM into our fifth decade,” said Brennan. “His vast experience as a producer together with his long history with visual effects including eight films with ILM provides a valuable perspective within the VFX industry. As visual effects becomes increasingly integrated into filmmaking from pre-production through to post, Sam’s filmmaker point of view enables us to provide a unique level of creative collaboration and partnership with directors, producers and studios to bring their visions to the screen.”

Monday was Mercer’s first official day on the job, which includes oversight and coordination of ILM’s four studios in San Francisco, Vancouver, London, and Singapore. Mercer’s hiring was a deliberate bid to bring someone in from outside the VFX industry, which ILM has influentially shaped since its 1975 founding.

“We have such a great bench here of people who know how to run a visual effects studio,” Brennan told Variety. “We wanted someone who is a storyteller and could have a relationship with the people we work with. We really wanted someone who had relationships in the industry at a different level than you generally have within the visual effects industry.”

“ILM is unparalleled in the industry in terms of their artistry and legacy of innovation,” said Mercer in a statement. “Having worked with them on eight films, I know firsthand the incredible talent at the company and from a filmmaker’s point of view they are one of the few companies that consistently delivers not only with regard to achieving the creative vision but from a scheduling and budgetary perspective as well.”