October 26, 2020 • Category: "Big Little Lies"
, "Legally Blonde"
, "Little Fires Everywhere"
, "The Morning Show"
, Articles & Interviews
, Awards & Nominations
, Crate & Barrel
, Draper James
, Elizabeth Arden
, Gallery Updates
, Hello Sunshine
, Media Alerts
, News & Gossip
, Pacific Standard
, RW Book Club
, Type A Films
Advertising and marketing company AdWeek have honoured Reese in their 2020 Hot List and she is on the cover of their October 26th 2020 magazine cover to mark this! The magazine used additional photos from the Emmy magazine photoshoot that was published earlier in the year, and features a new interview in which Reese talked about growing her business and working to be taken seriously as a producer. Read the article below, and find the scans in our Gallery. Congratulations to Reese on being recognised for her fantastic work again!
The 2020 Hot List: Honoring the Year’s Best in TV, Publishing, Digital and Brands
When the pandemic forced us all to begin sheltering in place in March, we leaned on TV, publishing and digital brands more than ever before to connect us with the outside world. So it’s no surprise that Adweek’s annual Hot List, which always honors the best in those three categories, is full of people and brands who were at their best when so many things seemed at their worst.
Take Adweek’s Media Visionary Reese Witherspoon, who has turned Hollywood on its head by creating a successful media company, Hello Sunshine, focused on female-centric stories—for a variety of platforms.
Our TV Creator of the Year, Jon Favreau, helped get Disney+ off to a hot start with The Mandalorian, while TV Executive of the Year, TLC president Howard Lee, showed that linear networks still have plenty of fight in them.
Digital Creator of the Year Sarah Cooper turned her popular President Trump lip-syncs on TikTok and Twitter into a Netflix comedy special, and Digital Executive of the Year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, is helping lead the charge against lies and hate speech on social media.
Our Publishing Executives of the Year—Substack co-founders Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi—are reinvigorating a flagging industry, while Editor of the Year Jeffrey Goldberg deftly grew The Atlantic’s subscriber base during the pandemic while breaking national news of his own.
We’ve also added new categories to spotlight during this unprecedented year, including Hottest Pandemic Pivot, and have expanded the Hot List to include a fourth section: brands.
How Adweek Media Visionary Reese Witherspoon Turned Hollywood on Its Head
She became a producer to make the female-centric stories the industry had long ignored
When she filmed her first movie at 14, Reese Witherspoon certainly didn’t think she’d stumbled upon her lifelong career. “I didn’t know how viable it was to really consider being an actor. I grew up in a practical family of doctors and nurses,” she recalls. But three decades later, Witherspoon has not only amassed a resume that includes several hit films and an Oscar, she’s created a second, even more influential, parallel career path as one of the industry’s most groundbreaking producers—an achievement that has led to her being named Adweek’s Media Visionary.
After early film successes like Election and Cruel Intentions, Witherspoon had her first smash hit with Legally Blonde and later won the Best Actress Oscar for Walk the Line. But when the quality parts started drying up—as they often do for actresses in their 30s—she took matters into her own hands. The voracious reader self-funded a production company, Pacific Standard, and began optioning her favorite books from women authors featuring complicated, meaty female characters. After a promising producing start with the films Gone Girl and Wild, she really hit it big with the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies.
Then, in 2016, Witherspoon doubled down, expanding to a full-fledged media company, Hello Sunshine, focused on female-centric stories. It not only makes film and TV (including all of Witherspoon’s high-profile projects over the past year: Big Little Lies: Season 2, The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston, which helped launch Apple TV+ last November, and the Hulu miniseries Little Fires Everywhere with Kerry Washington), but also podcasts, audio storytelling and digital series—and is the home of her monthly Reese’s Book Club.
Witherspoon has already massively changed the industry but, in other ways, she’s just getting started.
She reflected on the ups and downs of her career, learning to be a businesswoman on the fly and going from getting doors slammed in her face as a fledgling producer to kicking them down as an industry leader. As she explains, “If you want systems to change, you have to rethink how you want the system to work.” Here are highlights from her conversation with Adweek:
Adweek: Election was an early breakout for you. But you’ve said for a long time after that came out, you were typecast as Tracy Flick. Did you see that coming, or was it a shock?
Reese Witherspoon: It was surprising. I thought, isn’t that what acting is? I guess people didn’t really understand that I was something different. And at the time, there were very few parts for women. That’s why I felt really lucky to get Legally Blonde. I was having a hard time reestablishing that I actually was an actor that had range.
And how did being in your first commercial hit change things for you?
It changed overnight. I had really smart managers and an agent at the time who said the best thing you can do is another film where you are the star, so this isn’t a fluke—we need to get you back on set within a month. They did, and it was Sweet Home Alabama. The movie did really well, and it was a totally different character than Legally Blonde. So at that point, it felt very much like I was able to anchor movies myself.
Fast-forward a few years, and you won the Oscar for Walk the Line. A lot of people think once that happens, your career is set. But that wasn’t the case for you.
Yeah, I think there’s a myth that there’s a secret stash of perfect scripts waiting around for the Oscar winners, but every Oscar woman that I know didn’t experience this windfall of great material. That’s when I started to understand the pipeline problem: There’s pipeline issues with people not developing things for women and not enough female filmmakers and not enough female screenwriters getting the opportunity to write from their own perspective.
That’s when I started to think, 10 years ago, what if I spent my own money developing books that I already know are successful with great female writers that know how to crack a story? That’s when I focused on publishing and looking at books.
You read three to four books a week. How do you make time for that on top of everything else?
I read more books than I watch TV. I’ve always read for 30 minutes to an hour every day. It’s just an extension of what I do to unwind. And I thought everybody read as much as I did. My husband [Jim Toth, then a top CAA agent] said, “No, you read a lot, honey! You should probably option some books.” That’s when it clicked for me. He held up a mirror to me and was like, “You should turn this into a producing company.”
At first, I just produced for myself, and then I kept saying, because I can’t do all the movies, I want to produce for other women. That was a huge goal for me.
Long before Pacific Standard, you had an earlier production company with Type A Films. How was your approach different back then?
Universal gave me a deal that I had from 24 to 29. And I just had no idea what movies I wanted to make. I don’t think I had lived enough life, had enough experience in our business or understood the world in the way that I did more so when I was in my mid-30s. And I wasn’t as confident as a filmmaker about making decisions or understanding the marketplace.
After your early producing successes with Gone Girl and Wild, you started focusing on TV instead of films. What prompted that shift?
Seeing post-Oscar Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson starring in True Detective and seeing how cinematic that was. And then Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s limited series out of Australia with Holly Hunter and Elisabeth Moss. It was as good as any movie I would have ever watched, but I got four great movies instead of one.
My husband and I talk about the business all the time. We started seeing the shift toward premium television shows. And I thought, this is a good way to get into premium television. I’ve got to find the right piece of material that could be broken up into six parts. And then Nicole Kidman and I, at the same time, read [Liane Moriarty’s novel] Big Little Lies. We called each other and were like, “Do you want to do it together? Let’s do it together.”
What were your producing pitch meetings like pre-Big Little Lies and post-Big Little Lies?
Night and day different. The Gone Girl process was really, really frustrating. One day, it’ll be a chapter of a book [laughs]. Even being, at the time, an actress that was in a really enviable position in Hollywood, I could not get any traction as a producer. Multiple times, I got doors closed in my face or people tried to kick me off of [the project].
It was not until Big Little Lies came out, and we got all the Emmy Awards, when everything shifted. People started calling me, going, “What are you doing? You’re self-funding this? Why?” I had learned if you want systems to change, you have to rethink how you want the system to work. It doesn’t work doing the same old studio deal where they pay your overhead, and they put your projects in development for years and they don’t ever get made.
I knew a different way was possible. I knew it was going to take a lot of capital. Right after Big Little Lies, though, I realized I didn’t have enough capital to sustain that business. So I had to go raise money. And that’s where Hello Sunshine came, and we pivoted into all media, not just film and television.
Why did you want to do that?
Looking at the way my teenagers were consuming media, they weren’t watching television. They weren’t going to the movie theaters anymore. I had a 17-year-old and a 13-year-old, and on Friday night, they were watching YouTube or they’re on Instagram or Snapchat. Consumer behavior had changed, but Hollywood distribution models hadn’t changed. It was clear as day that everything was shifting—and starting a new company, where we were able to be nimble enough to be on every platform, we got to experiment with YouTube and try out Instagram.
My main thing that I wanted to accomplish was bringing the book club into the digital age, because the book club had been so analog, and that pipeline was so analog, but that’s not how people were wanting to connect. So I thought, what if we could create a book club community that was on YouTube, on Facebook, on Instagram Live and invite you into that reading experience in a modern way?
Within a 12-month period, you produced and starred in Big Little Lies: Season 2, The Morning Show and Little Fires Everywhere. Did you plan to do all those, one right after the other?
I wasn’t planning on being that busy, but everything just lined up perfectly. And then each platform that we were on, whether it was Apple or Hulu or HBO, wanted to use it as a real tentpole moment. Particularly with The Morning Show on Apple, because they were launching the service with that show. I hadn’t worked back to back like that, ever.
Also, I’m excited about the mission of our company. It’s not just me. Every time we make a show, we employ 250 to 300 people. And with this mission about having great female partnerships with women like Kerry Washington and Jennifer Aniston, and female showrunners [Little Fires’] Liz Tigelaar and [Morning Show’s] Kerry Ehrin, and working with [directors] Mimi Leder and [the late] Lynn Shelton. It’s an exciting moment where women are getting an opportunity to do things that are groundbreaking. You don’t want to miss it.
How has the pandemic changed the focus of Hello Sunshine?
We’ve always had a mandate of positivity and optimism in our storytelling, and now we’ve doubled down on it, because I think there’s going to be a lot of, to be honest, political fatigue after this year, which has been really hard on people. Being in the middle of the country, you see the toll it takes on people, and they want to escape through entertainment. This isn’t to say everything needs to be light and frothy, but I do think we’ll see a return to the family drama, the romantic comedy, the Christmas movie. And that’s a lot of what we’re developing—feel-good [projects].
At this point, would you act in any projects that you weren’t also producing?
I would love it. I always say to my friends, “I’m an actor available for hire for any of your productions!” Acting is my first love. I love doing it, and I love working with new artists and established directors.
You’ve had a few big brand partnerships over the years, from Avon to Crate & Barrel and now Elizabeth Arden. How do you decide to get on board with the brands you’ve worked with?
I have a very close relationship with my audience; they trust me. And so I really have a high bar. If I collaborate with people, I have to really hit it off with the CMO and the CEO and know what they’re trying to accomplish. When we’re really aligned in our mission, whether that’s reaching women or speaking to them where they are or talking about issues that are on their minds, that’s what I’m interested in. That’s a really authentic partnership. Because you can tell when people are matched with the wrong product.
On a similar note, what was your approach to founding fashion label Draper James?
I wanted to talk to the middle of America, and that was my first foray into entrepreneurship. So I definitely learned a lot. I had my failures; I had my successes. Raising money during that process made me feel more capable when it came to raising money for Hello Sunshine. I had to kind of do business school in three years with people who were patient enough to take time to teach me the vernacular, all the ins and outs of having a company. It definitely is not for the faint of heart. I feel like it taught me how to be a businesswoman: the good, the bad and all of it.
Do you ever think about where your career would be right now if you hadn’t taken that producing leap a decade ago?
When people ask me that, I think about this sign that was on a gym that I used to go to: “Don’t look in the rearview mirror; you’re not going that way.” I don’t look backward that much, because this was always my path. I have always known I was supposed to do something, but it feels good to have figured it out in my mid-30s. It was a slow evolution, but I came to a reckoning with myself that I was here to change the landscape of the business I’ve been in since I was 14.
And then the people that are coming up—I hope they all start companies like this. Because I don’t want to be a lone entity. I want this to be an example that if you work really hard and you really care about whatever it is about storytelling that you care about that it’s possible to start your own company.
6 Ways Reese Witherspoon Is Changing the Film and TV Industry
From playing the field to bypassing the usual development process
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.
There’s even more evolution on the horizon: “Long-form media is going to go through a whole shift,” said Witherspoon, who brings up her 21-year-old daughter, Ava. “She’s like, ‘Mom, my attention span is not two hours long.’ It’s hard for her to sit through a movie. Even if you look at the way books are published now, the [character development is] much shorter than it was 10 years ago. Chapters are now two or three pages; they used to be 10 or 11. Everything is shifting, and you can either lament the change or get on the bus.”
‘You can’t sit on old ideas’
After selling The Morning Show to Apple TV+, Witherspoon scrapped the original Season 1 plan following the #MeToo movement in 2017, redeveloping the show to incorporate a storyline in which the fictional show’s anchor (Steve Carell) is fired for sexual misconduct, similar to Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose.
This year, the show had been filming Season 2 when production was shut down in March due to the pandemic.Now, Witherspoon confirmed that the new season will also be reconceived to incorporate Covid-19 and this year’s other major events.
“I can’t say too much, but yes, we definitely redirected,” she said. “[Showrunner] Kerry Ehrin is so energized about new storylines, and when you’re doing a show that’s about contemporary news and modern media, you can’t sit on old ideas. You’ve got to really dive in. I’ve only read half the scripts, but they are so good. I think people who are fans of The Morning Show are gonna be really happy with Season 2.”
Know when to say no—and yes
Witherspoon has maintained a full acting schedule even as she’s become one of Hollywood’s most prolific producers. She works with her Hello Sunshine execs to juggle her acting and producing duties.
“I have an incredible producing team. They know when to ask me questions, and they know when I’m in character, and we’re just very honest with each other,” said Witherspoon. “I’ll say to them, ‘Guys, today I have heavy scenes. I can’t get on the phone, and I can’t do the board meeting today.’ And then there’s the days that I can, when things are lighter on set.”
Even so, she isn’t always able to keep all the plates spinning. “I’ll just be honest with you: sometimes it’s hard. We don’t always get it right. They’ll be a day where they ask me a bunch of questions [and] I just feel like my brain is mashed potatoes; but the next day is usually better,” she said. “It helps that when you have a company where you’re so personally invested in the mission—it doesn’t feel like work. None of it feels like work when they say to me, ‘Oh, we’re going to go for Season 2 of Octavia Spencer’s new show, [Apple TV+’s Truth Be Told].’ You’re like, that’s exciting to get on the phone, and call actresses and say, ‘Do you want to co-star with Octavia, who’s awesome and amazing?’”
Embrace Instagram—and use your voice
When Witherspoon first joined Instagram eight years ago, “I was a little shy of it,” she said. “Because we were always told as we came up in the movie business, don’t tell anybody anything. And that’s just the complete opposite. Now, it’s like, tell everybody everything! But I found some balance between those two worlds. I do think it’s an opportunity for me to have a deeper relationship with people.”
Witherspoon has grown her audience to 24.5 million followers, sharing personal details with fans while also helping promote her various projects, including her Draper James clothing line.
Before social media, “I never had that immediacy with an audience, [though] I’m very much a people person. Connecting felt very natural to me. Now, I always think, ‘How does this make people feel?’ before I post anything. This isn’t just me needing to throw anything out there. I’m very thoughtful about what I say,” she said.
But that also means speaking out: “I stand up for causes and issues that are close to me, [where] 15 years ago, people would say, ‘Please don’t do these things.’ But I think the world is changing. I really am so moved by my daughter and her friends, my son, their passion for the world they live in, and standing up for what they believe in. It has really inspired me.”
Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Is on a Hot Streak
With TV shows, podcasts, even brand partnerships, the media company spotlights women’s stories
Hello Sunshine might be best known for producing Reese Witherspoon’s latest projects like Big Little Lies, The Morning Show and Little Fires Everywhere, but it’s much more than just a film and TV production company. It also makes podcasts, audio storytelling and digital series—all of which feature women at the center of their stories. When Witherspoon—Adweek’s Media Visionary—founded Hello Sunshine in 2016, “one of the ambitions was we’ve got to be good at storytelling that’s meeting women where they’re spending their time. And women are spending their time on all of these platforms,” says CEO Sarah Harden.
Witherspoon may have founded the media company, but Hello Sunshine’s team of around 60 keeps it running while she’s acting on set. “There’s a level of intense preparation for, OK, if she is working four days out of the week, and we’re going to have her for one day, how can we be most effective and respectful of that time?” says Lauren Neustadter, head of film and TV. “She obviously sits at the center of everything, but she’s the kind of boss who empowers the people that are working with her to be a team and to drive results if she has to be focusing on something else.”
At a time when many creatives are signing exclusive deals with a single outlet, the company has set itself apart instead, working with many of the biggest networks and streamers in Hollywood, including Amazon, Apple, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix and Starz. That way, “when we fall in love with a piece of material, what we have the ability to do is go to each of those places and see who loves it like we love it,” says Neustadter. (The company has a robust film slate, too, including a third Legally Blonde movie.)
The company has continued to grow, adding a kids and animation division last year—because “changing the narrative for women … starts with changing the narrative for girls,” says Harden—and expanding its unscripted slate (including a country music competition series for Apple), especially as those shows are easier to shoot during the pandemic. There’s even a brand partnerships arm, given that “brands are looking for new ways to tell stories, more than ever before,” says CFO Liz Jenkins. Last year, Hello Sunshine partnered with Procter & Gamble on Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play for a companion video series and podcast featuring P&G brands like Bounty, Charmin, Downy and Tide.
But really, the biggest brand the company cultivates is Hello Sunshine itself. The company and Witherspoon keep its female fan base engaged on social media and via its monthly Reese’s Book Club (every title selected in the last year has made The New York Times Best Sellers list; a YA offshoot will feature monthly young adult book picks). And that gives Hello Sunshine an additional edge in Hollywood: “For a lot of studios, it’s just about delivering content to your partners,” says Jenkins. “And what we’re uniquely able to do is both deliver content and audience.”