In this week's cover story, Reese Witherspoon – Adweek's Media Visionary – talks about how she turned Hollywood upside down by becoming a producer to create the women-centered stories the industry had long ignored.
"If you want systems to change, you have to rethink how the system is supposed to work," she told Adweek.
The Oscar winner and founder of the media company Hello Sunshine had so much to tell about her trip that we couldn't fit all of the details into our cover story. Here are the highlights from the rest of my discussion with her, including the major changes she made to the Hollywood system.
Avoid the usual development process
One of Witherspoon's first production projects was her 2014 film Wild. The film is based on Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir about her 1,100 mile hike the Pacific Crest Trail as she ponders her life, including her battle against heroin addiction.
Strays wanted Witherspoon to play them in the film. When the author first reached out to the actress / producer about turning the book into a movie, Witherspoon offered some restrictions on the process.
"I said to her," I'm not going to sell it to a studio because I don't think they want me to be a drug user. I think they might want to water it down a bit to make it more palatable to more people – but I think it will lose its effectiveness if we don't tell the truth about your story, ”recalled Witherspoon.
Instead, Witherspoon decided to bypass the usual film development process to make sure she could get the film she wanted: “We independently funded development through a great company. Then we just put it on the market and I thought, "This is it, I'll play the lead, I'll be shooting it in September." Instead, I took it out as an auction to (Hollywood) a long-term development project like the studios did: They buy books and then develop them between two and ten years. Sometimes they were made and sometimes they weren't. "
Not only was Witherspoon's offbeat approach taken by Wild, but the film was also an indie hit (with $ 37.9 million in sales in the US). It also received two Academy Award nominations: Witherspoon for Best Actress and Laura Dern for Best Supporting Actress.
Play the field
While many creatives sign exclusive contracts with a point of sale, Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine have decided to play the field. The production company has worked with most of Hollywood's largest networks and streamers, including Amazon, Apple, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, and Starz. She didn't want to follow in the footsteps of colleagues who signed contracts and ended up “bringing their projects to a standstill and getting stuck in development. I really wanted to have films and TV shows made, ”she explained.
And because your team does all the development in advance, “we brought projects that were fully baked on the table. They didn't have to spend the development money. And we'd say we have a star and we have a writer and we are ready to go, we have the option. So made it easy. And then, after Big Little Lies, we had a seal of approval – it was like the seal of approval for our work. "
Adaptation to the changing media landscape
One of the reasons Witherspoon founded Hello Sunshine was to do projects not only for television and film, but also for podcasts, audio storytelling and digital series. The aim was to adapt to the diverse changes in consumer habits.