No. 11: Reese Wither­spoon’s big lit­tle em­pire

Reese Wither­spoon Founder, Hello Sun­shine BY MARY KAYE SCHILLING

Fast Company - - Contents - BY MARY KAYE SCHILLING

Through her fast-grow­ing me­dia com­pany, Hello Sun­shine, Wither­spoon is be­com­ing a for­mi­da­ble pro­ducer on nu­mer­ous out­lets.

When Reese Wither­spoon was 17, she had al­ready ap­peared in four films. Still, she took an un­likely part-time job, as an in­tern in Dis­ney’s post-pro­duc­tion depart­ment. “I wanted to learn about edit­ing, vis­ual correction, and sound mix­ing,” she tells me 25 years later. Not long after, she worked as a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant on the 1995 Den­zel Wash­ing­ton film Devil in a Blue Dress, help­ing with cast­ing, among other things. Also: “I parked Den­zel’s Porsche!” That in­quis­i­tive­ness, as well as nearly three decades in front of the cam­era, has

made Wither­spoon one of Hollywood’s most as­tute producers. She turned Gil­lian Flynn’s Gone Girl into a $369 mil­lion world­wide hit in 2014 (that earned Rosamund Pike an Os­car nom­i­na­tion) and did it again, that same year, trans­form­ing Ch­eryl Strayed’s best-sell­ing memoir, Wild, into a break­out suc­cess ($52 mil­lion plus Os­car nods for Wither­spoon and costar Laura Dern). Then came HBO’S Big Lit­tle Lies, ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced with costar Ni­cole Kid­man; the cultural bell­wether about fe­male re­la­tion­ships and do­mes­tic abuse, based on a novel by Liane Mo­ri­arty, swept nearly ev­ery cat­e­gory it was nom­i­nated in at 2017’s Emmy Awards. After years of hear­ing from stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives that there was no mar­ket for fe­maledriven films, Wither­spoon had suc­ceeded to a de­gree that proved a hunger was there.

Her in­stinct for what women want is now be­ing tested on mul­ti­ple plat­forms through her 18-month-old sto­ry­telling com­pany, Hello Sun­shine. She and her team cur­rently have shows in de­vel­op­ment at Hulu, NBC, and Ap­ple TV (which has part­nered on three projects, one ru­mored to be the big­gest deal in his­tory for a straight-to-series show), as well as a film at Tris­tar/sony Pic­tures. But Wither­spoon is also lay­ing the foun­da­tion for a di­rect-to-con­sumer brand, one that is al­ready be­gin­ning to speak to women through a web­site, so­cial me­dia, Youtube and Face­book videos, au­dio­books, pod­casts, and news­let­ters—whichever plat­form she and Hello Sun­shine ex­ecs think best hon­ors the story be­ing told.

For all the com­pany’s dig­i­tal am­bi­tion, Hello Sun­shine’s Santa Mon­ica, Cal­i­for­nia, head­quar­ters have an old-fash­ioned feel. The loft­like in­te­rior, with ex­posed wooden beams and pipes, is cheer­fully dec­o­rated by Crate & Bar­rel (Wither­spoon col­lab­o­rates with the re­tailer). Vin­tage type­writ­ers and hun­dreds of books make plain the com­pany’s abid­ing pas­sions: sto­ries and the peo­ple who tell them. Sheets of paper with type­writ­ten words to live by, tacked to a wall, gen­tly rus­tle ev­ery time the front door opens. “I hope that you will find some way to break the rules and make a lit­tle trou­ble out there,” reads one, a line from Nora Ephron’s 1996 com­mence­ment ad­dress at Welles­ley Col­lege. “And I also hope you will choose to make some of that trou­ble on be­half of women.” Flu­o­res­cent signs at the back of the room il­lu­mi­nate a five-word ethos: OP­TI­MISM, HU­MOR, CU­RIOS­ITY, HON­ESTY, GEN­EROS­ITY.

The space—which dou­bles as a set for in­ter­views—is rec­og­niz­able from videos on the Hello Sun­shine web­site. Wither­spoon’s glassed-in of­fice is within shout­ing dis­tance of her co­work­ers, who on a late March day sit or stand at a hand­ful of desks or read books in arm­chairs. Wither­spoon is wear­ing a navy blazer and a blue shirt with white hearts, both from Draper James, the ap­parel and house­wares brand she launched on­line in 2015 as a “hey y’all!” cel­e­bra­tion of her down-home roots. Her look is fem­i­nine, but not pre­cious. Or, as her friend Kerry Wash­ing­ton de­scribes it, “gen­teel South­ern badass.”

Wither­spoon, in per­son, bears a dis­tract­ing simil­i­tude to Elle Woods, the char­ac­ter she made fa­mous with 2001’s Legally Blonde. Ce­leste Ng, whose novel Lit­tle Fires Ev­ery­where is be­ing adapted by Hello Sun­shine for Hulu, had a sim­i­lar first re­ac­tion: “She’s bub­bly and perky and scar­ily smart. I thought, Oh my god, it’s Elle Woods! But there’s a kin­ship with [Elec­tion’s] Tracy Flick, too, in that peo­ple who un­der­es­ti­mate her learn their mis­take re­ally fast.”

Wher­ever Wither­spoon goes—asia, Europe, Africa, South Amer­ica—she is stopped by Legally Blonde fans: “I went to law school be­cause of you,” they’ll say, or, “You helped me be­lieve in my­self.” She gets teary talk­ing about the film’s im­pact. “I didn’t even un­der­stand when I was mak­ing it that it was a bit of a mod­ern fem­i­nist man­i­festo,” she says. “See­ing a woman who is in­ter­ested in fem­i­nine at­ti­tudes—get­ting her nails done—but who is also in­ter­ested in pro­mot­ing her­self and ac­com­plish­ing things was a new idea of fem­i­nine. A lot of women re­lated to that, and the feel­ing of be­ing un­der­es­ti­mated.”

Cyn­ics might won­der if Wither­spoon’s pro­duc­tion com­pany was merely de­signed to cap­i­tal­ize on #Me­too’s mo­men­tum. But Hello Sun­shine was founded in Novem­ber 2016, nearly a year be­fore the flood of 60-plus al­le­ga­tions against vet­eran Hollywood pro­ducer Har­vey We­in­stein ex­posed just how en­demic and toxic the in­dus­try’s gen­der imbalance has been. The out­pour­ing of first­hand ac­counts of sex­ual abuse from fel­low ac­tors en­cour­aged Wither­spoon to re­veal her own mul­ti­ple ex­pe­ri­ences of ha­rass­ment and as­sault, in­clud­ing by a di­rec­tor when she was just 16. She was among the Hollywood women who or­ga­nized the all-black dress code for the Golden Globes this past Jan­uary as part of the Time’s Up move­ment.

“Part of me is in­cred­u­lous,” says Wither­spoon of Hollywood’s quick

“A lot of us are hav­ing to step up into lead­er­ship po­si­tions that we didn’t know we were ca­pa­ble of,” Wither­spoon says. “I def­i­nitely feel that in my life.”

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