Reese Witherspoon and Lauren Neustadter Are Doing Just Fine Without the Boys Club
Hello Sunshine’s top creative duo — and THR’s TV Producers of the Year — on that $900 million sale, a rom-com renaissance and the potential return of ‘Big Little Lies’: “I talk to Nicole Kidman about it all the time.”
Reading isn’t only fundamental. Sometimes, it’s incredibly lucrative. Reese Witherspoon proved that in 2021 when she sold Hello Sunshine, the media company she built on the back of her own voracious reading and savvy book rights acquisitions, to Blackstone-backed Candle Media for a reported $900 million. Not too shabby for a production outfit that many might have been quick to write off as another actor’s vanity shingle. But Witherspoon’s tastes — and those of Lauren Neustadter, Hello Sunshine’s president of film and TV — have populated one of the most thriving content suppliers in Hollywood. Blending marquee ensemble vehicles for its founder (Big Little Lies, Little Fires Everywhere and The Morning Show) with an aggressive slate of dramas starring the likes of Octavia Spencer (Truth Be Told), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Surface) and Zoe Saldaña (From Scratch, out Oct. 21 on Netflix), Hello Sunshine’s focus on female stories (from female storytellers) has made it a standout.
Further distinguishing the brand is its ever-diversifying portfolio. In February, the company acquired media and merchandising startup The Home Edit. And in July, it saw its first theatrical release since Hello Sunshine’s 2016 founding, Where the Crawdads Sing. The picture, an adaptation of an early Reese’s Book Club selection, grossed $130 million on a $24 million budget. Speaking in mid-September over Zoom, Witherspoon and Neustadter, THR‘s TV Producers of the Year, discussed new areas that they’ve identified for expansion, the biggest obstacle in populating sets with women and why Hollywood should be preparing for the impending rom-com renaissance.
You just hit the one-year anniversary of the sale. How would you describe this era of the company?
REESE WITHERSPOON It’s a big year for romance for us. We have a movie in December with Zoey Deutch called Something From Tiffany’s, a real return of the rom-com. And Ashton Kutcher and I have a movie coming out at Valentine’s Day, Your Place or Mine.
LAUREN NEUSTADTER From Scratch is a romance though definitely not a comedy. It’s been great to have the support of Candle and Blackstone — just to be encouraged to keep thinking bigger and bigger. We’re so proud of how we innovated in the first five years of the company. Now, it just feels like we have more opportunities. We had all these planes on the runway, and now they’re about to start taking off.
With any sale, especially one with your valuation, I’d expect there’s also the pressure to deliver profits.
WITHERSPOON We were all very vision-aligned from the very beginning about what we wanted to create as a brand — creating a narrative for women, where they could tell their story in their own words. So, whether that’s through a book, a podcast, a social media post, it’s really about self-expression and showing the entire spectrum of the female experience. That’s not only in the scripted world but in unscripted. We’re really breaking new ground with [Amazon’s] Making the Cut and the direct-to-consumer component of [SKR Productions, which produces Making the Cut and was acquired by Hello Sunshine in 2020]. You can buy the outfits in real time. We’re working on a lot of concepts like that through acquisitions like The Home Edit. They have an incredibly successful show [on Netflix] but also this amazing commerce business. So, looking at it holistically, how can we bring a lot of value through storytelling on every platform where women are? If we look like we’re busy, I think we’re just making up for lost time — years and years of lost storytelling.
Speaking of lost time, Reese, you’ve said that you felt you weren’t always taken seriously in Hollywood. And there’s that story about a studio executive telling you they already had their one movie starring a woman for the year. When you walk into a room now, are the men scared?
WITHERSPOON No. (Laughs.) And, by the way, that was a woman who said that to me. I think we just operated under a different standard. With the emergence of streaming, you had this empirical data that there was an audience sitting and waiting to be delivered to. There was no more guessing game of, “Women don’t like those kinds of movies,” or, “That kind of movie doesn’t travel overseas.” It was always based on metrics that felt very loosey-goosey. Now there are so many services to provide the critical data that we can then provide to our partners to show them that there’s real audiences for these kinds of romantic movies. There’s been a dearth of romantic material for so long, but it doesn’t mean there’s not a desire for people to see it. We identified that three years ago. We thought the world really needed some more joy and happiness and love. Most of what we learn about romance and interpersonal relationships, we learn from movies and TV shows. It’s just true.
People in Hollywood have been saying for years that romantic comedies in particular don’t get people to the box office. How do you shift that narrative?
WITHERSPOON When anybody says that stuff, I say, “Call Ted Sarandos or Scott Stuber or Bob Chapek … anyone who runs these studios with a streaming service.” Show me the numbers! I imagine people have watched more Nancy Meyers movies over and over and over again than have seen an auteur’s movie. You see an auteur movie once. I think you’re going to see a new measurement of engagement, which is, “How many times are people watching it?” What’s the repeated viewership? I’ve seen some of my favorite romantic comedies and Nora Ephron movies over and over. Repeatability is a big factor in terms of library value.
NEUSTADTER There was a really interesting moment that started with that Zoey Deutch movie on Netflix, Set It Up. Reese watched it, loved it and tweeted something like, “Where are all the rom-coms?” The response on Twitter was so intense. Now we have Zoey doing Something From Tiffany’s. Rom-coms are feel-good movies, and this is a moment in the world when people are turning to these streaming platforms to find content that makes them feel good.
WITHERSPOON I just came home from work. The first thing I wanted to watch was [the Hulu comedy] Reboot because I was like, “I only have 30 minutes, but I just want to laugh and enjoy myself.” I think we’re in a new era as well — there’s something to be said for making people feel good.
On the heels of The Home Edit news, what are the kinds of things you’re considering when identifying future acquisition targets?
WITHERSPOON [Founders Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin] have a really dynamic onscreen appeal. It’s people like that, people who really connect with audiences, people who potentially started on Instagram or TikTok. We’re always looking at social media people, but it’s about finding those who have components that can be built into unscripted shows and potentially commerce opportunities. It’s just a different world. It’s thrilling that these creators out of Nashville, Tennessee, went all the way to having a Netflix show, a huge deal at Walmart, a huge deal at The Container Store, and now a podcast. There’s so many creators on TikTok that I’m like, “I want to work with that person!”
NEUSTADTER If you want to know what new show to watch or who’s funny on TikTok, there’s no one better than Reese Witherspoon — the ultimate consumer and lover of content. So many nights, I’m just falling asleep, reading a script or watching a cut, and I’ll ask Reese, “What do I really want to watch?”
WITHERSPOON I’ll also tell you, “Don’t watch that. It’s boring.”
Where do you think you have the most potential for growth?
NEUSTADTER Our little boys are the same age, so we have an ongoing exchange about family content. That’s a direction we’re excited to head into. There’s not enough content that features young girls as the heroes of their own stories.
All those videos of little girls watching Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid trailer certainly suggest you’re right.
WITHERSPOON It’s really emotional and moving. We certainly hope to be broadening our film and television capacity to tell more family-oriented stories and more YA stories. Bring the message to even younger audiences and collaborate with younger people, because it’s so fun. There’s also a co-production piece of this too, with Zoey Deutch or Zoe Saldaña. It’s really validating. These women have had a lot of experience in their own right, and they have so much to bring producorially to the story and to how they run the sets. They show up, and they are leaders.
What were the lessons from Where the Crawdads Sing, considering it was the first feature to go through the traditional Hello Sunshine pipeline of book club to acquiring the rights to theatrical release?
WITHERSPOON I was listening to an industry podcast the other day, and they were going over box office hits of the summer. They went through Top Gun, Doctor Strange, all these big tentpole movies. Then they were like, “And here’s this other movie that we didn’t talk about or even know. It came out of nowhere.” Underdog stories are my favorite. This movie wasn’t on a lot of people’s radar — and it’s counterprogramming, I know — but it’s a return to real filmmaking. It’s a heart-and-soul human experience on film with beautiful sets and beautiful costumes and wonderful actors. It’s almost nostalgic for what you wanted to see in the summer.
What was your most recent reminder of why you like your work?
WITHERSPOON We get to tell stories for a living, at the highest level, with some of the greatest filmmakers and storytellers. I came from Nashville. Lauren came from New Orleans. We just wanted to tell stories and be filmmakers. And here we are, running this company in a way that is also, for me, change-making. I wasn’t able to tell the February book club author that she was picked. So, yesterday, I got to watch a recording of her agents telling her over Zoom. She brought her husband in and they wept together because of what it means for them economically and the fact that her work is being acknowledged.
Do you think the industry is fully aware of your brand at this point or do you still get bad pitches?
WITHERSPOON We came out of the gate very, very focused. We have a whole list of things that we are not, and things we are. That being our filter made it really clear for everyone. But, every once in a while, I’ll have somebody hand me a book that has a male lead. I’m like, “I don’t think you’re following our Instagram …”
The history of Hello Sunshine really overlapped with the #MeToo movement. As we hit the five-year anniversary, how do you think your work was influenced by everything that’s happened?
WITHERSPOON When #MeToo came along, we were already an established company. Big Little Lies had already come out. Wild had already come out, and we were already starting on The Morning Show. But it absolutely has shifted perceptions in our business consciousness. The lights are definitely on. It gave us a lot of tailwinds to just create more. We got a lot more support. More women are being hired as directors and behind the scenes. That’s a good thing, but it’s also a problem. You can’t find a lot of female directors and women of color because they’re all booked. It’s a good problem, but we need to fill the pipelines more. The thing I love about women and women in our business — whether it’s Shonda Rhimes, Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington or Ava DuVernay — is that they are not busy worrying about the problems. They’re out there doing and creating change and making things and pushing forward. There isn’t a lot of time to go backward. It’s a lot of progress and momentum forward.
NEUSTADTER I was having this conversation recently with a department head of ours. She was saying that she feels the way that women treat each other is so different now. And that it’s so wonderful to be on a set that is led by women who are really supporting each other. From when we started five years ago, it feels really different in Hollywood in a great way, just in terms of the stories that are being told but also the ways that we’re collaborating.
At the risk of a dramatic pivot, what can you tell me about Jon Hamm’s role in the new season of The Morning Show?
WITHERSPOON He gets to be funny! He gets to be his dashing, charming, irreverent self. He’s just great. I’ve known him for so long, and it’s such a blast to get to work with him. He and Billy Crudup talk all day. They’re like best friends.
When was the last time you two had a serious conversation about revisiting Big Little Lies?
WITHERSPOON Yesterday. (Laughs.)
NEUSTADTER Are you reading our text messages?
WITHERSPOON I talk to Nicole Kidman about it all the time, too. And Laura Dern. And Zoë Kravitz. And Shailene Woodley. Somebody asked me the other day, “What co-stars do you talk to more than any other?” It’s absolutely the Big Little Lies cast. We’re always talking and texting. But [director] Jean-Marc Vallée’s passing was really hard on us. He was our collaborator. He was our friend. He was our brother. So much of that series was born of his imagination and his creativity, so it is hard to imagine a future without him. But there is certainly a deep desire for all of us to connect and create those characters again.
So what was this latest text about?
NEUSTADTER Just say, “They winked at each other on camera.”
WITHERSPOON I winked!
Interview edited for length and clarity.