In this week’s cover story, Reese Witherspoon—Adweek’s Media Visionary—talks about how she turned Hollywood on its head by becoming a producer to make the female-centric stories the industry had long ignored.
“If you want systems to change, you have to rethink how you want the system to work,” she told Adweek.
The Oscar-winning actress, and founder of the Hello Sunshine media company, had so much to share about her journey, we couldn’t fit all the details into our cover story. Here are highlights from the rest of my discussion with her, including the most meaningful changes she’s brought to the Hollywood system.
Bypass the usual development process
One of Witherspoon’s first producing projects was her 2014 film Wild. The film was based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir about her 1,100-mile hike across the Pacific Crest Trail as she reflects on her life, including her struggle with heroin addiction.
Strayed wanted Witherspoon to play her in the film adaptation. When the author first reached out to the actress/producer about turning the book into a movie, Witherspoon offered a few caveats about the process.
“I said to her, ‘I’m not going to sell it to a studio because I don’t think they’ll want me to be a drug user. I think they might want to water it down a little bit to make it more palatable for more people—but I think it’s going to lose its potency, if we don’t tell the truth of your story,” Witherspoon recalled.
Instead, Witherspoon opted to bypass the usual film development process to ensure that she could make the film she wanted: “We independently financed the development through a great company. Then we just took it to market and I was like, ‘This is it, I’m starring in it, I’m going to shoot it in September.’ I took it out more of as an auction to [Hollywood], instead of a long-term development project, which is what the studios have been doing: they buy books, and then they develop them anywhere from two years to 10 years. Sometimes they got made, and sometimes not.”
Not only did Witherspoon’s unconventional approach get Wild made, but the film was an indie hit (grossing $37.9 million in the U.S.). It also received two Oscar nominations: Witherspoon for best actress, and Laura Dern for best supporting actress.
Play the field
While many creatives are signing exclusive deals with one outlet, Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine have opted to play the field. The production company has worked with most of Hollywood’s biggest networks and streamers, including Amazon, Apple, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix and Starz. She didn’t want to follow the footsteps of colleagues who signed deals and only to end up “getting their projects stalled and stuck in development. I really wanted to get movies and television shows made,” she explained.
And because her team does all the development ahead of time, “we were bringing projects that were fully baked to the table. They weren’t having to spend the development money. And we would say, we have a star and we have a writer and we’re ready to go, we have the option. So it made it easy. And then, after Big Little Lies, we had a seal of approval—it was like the Good Housekeeping Seal on our work.”
Adapt to the shifting media landscape
One of the reasons that Witherspoon founded Hello Sunshine, was to make projects not just for TV and film but also podcasts, audio storytelling and digital series. The goal was to adapt to the many ways that consumer habits have changed.