How Reese Witherspoon Turned Female Empowerment into a Media Empire
By Stacy Lambe
When Reese Witherspoon founded the production company Type A Films in 2000, she was still very much seen as an actress first: a rising performer from Pleasantville, Cruel Intentions and Election who, at 24, wasn’t yet known as the eventual A-list star of 2001’s Legally Blonde. While the company produced the first installment and its sequel (Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde) and lighter films like Four Christmases, it wasn’t until Witherspoon merged her production company with Bruna Papandrea's Make Movies to create Pacific Standard in 2012 that there was a noticeable shift in Witherspoon’s career -- which was years beyond her 2006 Oscar win for Walk the Line and iconic rom-coms -- and the types of stories she wanted to tell.
“I was really seeing a deficit in the marketplace of strong female roles and women as the lead in films," Witherspoon, 38 at the time, told ET in 2014, emphasizing the personal “responsibility” she felt to tackle that deficit head-on. “I realized if I wasn't going to start creating these opportunities for myself and other women, nobody was going to do it.”
With the back-to-back releases of Gone Girl, Wild and Hot Pursuit -- the latter two of which starred the actress -- Reese Witherspoon the power producer emerged. Two years later, Pacific Standard followed the films up with the HBO juggernaut Big Little Lies,starring Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, with both actresses serving as executive producers. In the intervening time, Witherspoon parted ways with Papandrea and founded Hello Sunshine, of which Pacific Standard is now a subsidiary, with a focus on telling female-driven stories across all platforms. Its singular mission: “to change the narrative for women.”
“I think about the little girls out there who watch women be the architect for their own stories and write their own stories and produce them and act in them and take the power back,” Witherspoon told ET in 2017. “[I’m] motivated by motivating them.”
In the months following the 2017 Emmy Awards, news broke that the actress would be producing and starring in TV projects for Apple (an untitled series starring Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston) and Hulu (Little Fires Everywhere), and Big Little Lies would be returning to HBO for a second season (with Meryl Streep joining the cast for added star power) under the Hello Sunshine banner. Since then, a number of upcoming film and TV projects for the producer -- a new comedy from 30 Rock producer Colleen McGuinness and Are You Sleeping on Apple, A White Lie starring Zendaya, Legally Blonde 3 -- have been announced.
By 2018, Hello Sunshine -- which, it should be mentioned, features Sarah Harden (CEO), Rachel Spiegelman (head of brand studio), Charlotte Koh (head of digital media & programming) and Lauren Levy Neustadter (head of film & television) in key leadership roles -- had expanded even further by bringing Reese’s Book Club to Audible, launching an original podcast series and partnering with AT&T (owner of Otter Media, an investor in Witherspoon’s company) to create a female filmmakers lab and the Hello Sunshine Video On Demand Channel. The channel will launch with two new shows, including an unscripted interview series hosted by Witherspoon. The latest move not only puts Witherspoon in Oprah Winfrey territory, but has turned Hello Sunshine into a full-fledged female-centric media empire with unyielding potential and cultural buzz.
(If any more proof was needed, the fifth season of Younger, which premiered in June, features a subplot involving the show’s central fictional book publisher brokering a deal with Hello Sunshine to not only option the film rights to one of their books, but partner on a “content incubator” because their female-centric companies align. The storyline, while fictional, is astutely on brand.)
While Big Little Lies proved to be an unsurmounted success, how each subsequent project will land largely remains to be seen. But for Witherspoon, “it shouldn’t just be about financial success,” she told Marie Claire in February. “We should have as many opportunities to fail as we do succeed. Because artistry is not about succeeding always. It’s about having the courage to try and put out into the world new ideas.”
And with seemingly limitless ideas and no signs of slowing down, there’s no shortage of women in Hollywood ready to work with her. Aniston, Kidman, Streep, McGuinness, Are You Sleeping creator Nicole Tramble and star Octavia Spencer and Little Fires Everywhere showrunner Liz Tigelaar and co-star Kerry Washington are all now part of Witherspoon’s growing legion of female partners, with seemingly more to come. “I’m excited to be on the receiving end of her brilliance,” Spencer said.
After recently befriending Witherspoon, Girls Trip breakout Tiffany Haddish spoke to ET about the potential of that relationship. “Reese has a production company and I have a production company now, so we might be production-ing,” she teased. “We probably gonna create some magic.”
With so much magic in the mix, here’s what Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine have in the works and how they’re empowering women across all platforms:
Big Little Lies Season Two
Currently filming, the show about the intertwined lives of California-based mothers reunites the main cast -- Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz -- with writer and executive producer David E. Kelley, who expands the story adapted from Liane Moriarty’s best-selling book. “It gives us the opportunity to delve deeper into the lives of these intriguing and intricate Monterey families,” Witherspoon said in a statement. Streep joins the cast as Kidman’s mother-in-law with Andrea Arnold taking over for Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed the first season, as well as HBO’s Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams. “Andrea’s unique storytelling style will be a welcome addition to the filmmaking team,” Witherspoon added.
Little Fires Everywhere
Based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 bestseller about two families living in 1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio, Little Fires Everywhere is an upcoming eight-episode Hulu miniseries co-starring Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, both of whom will executive produce. “At Hello Sunshine, we strive to shine a light on female-driven stories that are rooted in inspiration, emotion and truth -- all of which form the bedrock of Celeste Ng's ingenious work,” Witherspoon said in a statement. “She is just amazing,” Washington told ET of Witherspoon, adding that despite both of their busy schedules -- the Scandal star is set to return to Broadway in November -- ”you find time for the things that matter.”
Are You Sleeping
Executive produced by and starring Octavia Spencer, the new Apple series created and written by Nichelle Tramble Spellman is based on the true-crime novel by Kathleen Barber. The ensemble series, which began production in June, also stars Aaron Paul, Ron Cephas Jones, Lizzy Caplan, Elizabeth Perkins, Mekhi Phifer and Tracie Thoms. The premiere will be directed by Anna Foerster. “I’m excited to be on the receiving end of [Witherspoon’s] brilliance of finding this project because it fits me on so many levels,” Spencer told ET.
Untitled Morning Show Project
The first of Hello Sunshine’s three Apple projects to be announced, the new untitled show based on Brian Stelter’s book about the morning talk show wars marks Jennifer Aniston’s first series-regular return to TV since Friends. The show, which was given a two-season, 20-episode order, will also star Witherspoon and be run by Bates Motel producer Kerry Ehrin. “I’ve lived in a world where I’ve been interviewed for 25 years. That’s really interesting to flip it around and see what the other side looks like and how journalists live their lives,” Witherspoon told ET about her interest in the project.
You Think It, I'll Say It
One of multiple projects Hello Sunshine has brokered with Apple’s new streaming service, the 10-episode comedy series created by McGuinness is inspired by Curtis Sittenfeld's short-story collection. Kristen Wiig was slated to star but has since dropped out due to a scheduling conflict with filming Wonder Woman 1984.
Hello Sunshine Video On Demand Channel
In partnership with AT&T, Hello Sunshine is launching a VOD channel -- accessible on DirecTV, DirecTV Now and U-Verse -- spotlighting female-driven content, with two new series premiering in July and September. “AT&T was one of our first partners in the quest to bring female-centric storytelling to the forefront and we are especially proud of how these original series push that mission ahead,” Hello Sunshine CEO Sarah Harden said in a statement, with Witherspoon adding: “I am so excited for the world to experience the stories from our partnership with AT&T, which are set to be equal parts entertaining, inspiring, thought-provoking and unabashedly real."
Shine On With Reese
Debuting July 17 on Hello Sunshine VOD, Shine On is Witherspoon’s first unscripted series and will celebrate extraordinary women who have cultivated their own paths to success. Week to week, she’ll sit down with the likes of Dolly Parton, Ava DuVernay, Pink, America Ferrera, Kacey Musgraves and more to discuss work, family and hopes for the future.
Master the Mess
Debuting Sept. 4 on Hello Sunshine VOD, Master marks Hello Sunshine’s foray in home and lifestyle content with decluttering gurus Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin tackling the everyday (and overused) rooms of families in need of a transformation. Shearer and Teplin are co-founders of the Nashville-based design and organizing company The Home Edit.
Meet My Mom
The five-episode, short-form Facebook Watch series features honest and entertaining chats between high-profile celebrities and their moms, including Witherspoon, Westworld’s Leonardo Nam, YouTube star Lilly Singh, Olympian Adam Rippon and model Ashley Graham.
As of 2017, TV writers Kristin Newman and Rob Wright are developing a new medical drama about a hospital’s perinatology unit at NBC.
Legally Blonde 3
Slated for Valentine’s Day 2020, Witherspoon will reprise her role as Elle Woods in the ongoing franchise about an idealistic sorority girl-turned-lawyer, with much of the original creative team expected to return.
Based on Karin Tanabe’s 2016 novel The Gilded Years, the upcoming film starring Zendaya is inspired by the true story of Anita Hemmings, a light-skinned black woman who passed as white and became the first black person to attend the exclusive all-female institution Vassar College. Fargo and The Leftovers producer Monica Beletsky will write the script.
Martina Navratilova Documentary
For its first feature-length documentary, Hello Sunshine has teamed up with producers Glenn Greenwald and Suzanne Gilbert to tell the story of tennis legend Martina Navratilova.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine andSomething in the Water
In 2017, Hello Sunshine optioned the films rights for the Gail Honeyman novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, about a lonely heroine who learns to open her heart to other people, and the Catherine Steadman novel Something in the Water, about a successful documentary filmmaker who’s about to get married. The latter was a recent Reese’s Book Club pick and will be adapted by Julia Cox (Parenthood).
Books and Podcasts
Reese’s Book Club and Reese’s Book Club x Hello Sunshineon Audible
Ahem, Oprah: Reese’s Book Club is touted by Hello Sunshine as “fast-growing in reach and influence,” with female-centric and female-written books selected each month by Witherspoon. The club recently went digital with a partnership with Audible, which will showcase standout audio performances for book club members too busy to read each selection. “When I started Reese’s Book Club, I wanted to highlight stories with women at the center and I’m so excited to deliver on that mission,” Witherspoon said in a statement.
Audible Originals by Hello Sunshine
Additionally, Audible and Hello Sunshine will partner on the development of original audio productions, with the first project expected to be announced later this year.
How It Is
Hello Sunshine launched its first original podcast series featuring original female voices in April. Hosted by Orange Is the New Black’s Diane Guerrero, the weekly series features women from the world of Hollywood, activism and tech discussing their stories and reclaiming their power.
AT&T Hello Sunshine Filmmaker Lab
This summer, AT&T and Hello Sunshine are collaborating with Dreaming Tree Foundation’s Fresh Films to cultivate a new generation of female storytellers with an eight-day immersive program for teen girls in Los Angeles, California, during which they will create content for the Hello Sunshine VOD Channel.