Actor Reese Witherspoon got so annoyed with the way women were being portrayed in Hollywood, that she set up her own media company.
In a talk at Lions Live (the online version of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity), Witherspoon stated how the media company has since looked to tackle not only issues about gender equality but also about racial discrimination, LGBTQ and differently-abled people.
Explaining how the journey began, Witherspoon said, “It was around 2011 when I realised that scripts were greatly deteriorating. I was reading 12 scripts a year that I would consider starring in. It then became six, then four and was down to two. I remember, in particular, that there was this one script that I read that was just so dismal. It had a terrible female lead that was completely in service of the male lead. There were a bunch of boob jokes; I thought it was misogynistic and not funny. I called my agent and told her I’m not going to be doing this. She said every actress in Hollywood wants this part. I thought that if this is what is coming out in Hollywood, I got to do something about it.”
Witherspoon worked towards, and launched, her own production company called Pacific Standard and started optioning books.
She added, “The first couple of books we optioned were ‘Wild’ and ‘Gone Girl’. Both of them hit number one on the New York Times bestsellers list while we were in development. This gave us immense pressure and we knew we had to nail this.”
Her two eponymous films were well-received, to say the least, bagging three Oscar nominations between them.
This success led to Witherspoon wanting to enter multimedia, leading to the birth of her company, Hello Sunshine.
“In 2017, I saw women flocking to social media. I wanted to start a company that meets people where they are. Whether it’s on the phone, podcasts, television sets. Instead of waiting for audiences to come to us, we started to go to them with the stories they wanted to see and that’s where Hello Sunshine was born.”
The talk was moderated by Michael Kassan, chairman, MediaLink, who then asked her about how the company achieved success. Witherspoon attributed it to her experience in the industry.
“I spent 30 years in the movie business learning what audiences wanted to see and what they didn’t want to see, and how they wanted to get information. People want to be entertained but they also want emotional material that resonates with them. So, the next projects we took on were ‘Big Little Lies’, which was a wonderful comedy with this incredible ensemble. However, at the heart of it, it had a message about domestic violence told from a perspective of a woman, through a woman writer,” she said.
She added that shows like ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ and ‘The Morning Show’ tackled issues like workplace harassment or race in America during the 1990s.
Fuel to the fire
The last few years have seen global voices being raised movements through movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. Keeping them in mind, Kassan asked Witherspoon if they had to change the content being generated at Hello Sunshine.
“When we began this company, we were here to raise marginalised voices. It was about every woman’s voice. All women have been pushed to the side in Hollywood. So when we set up, it was always about being inclusive in our messaging. We haven’t had to pivot since. Those movements gave us fuel in our tank. We had things in development that were about racial reckoning, sexual harassment, and other things that were deserving (to be released). I was having these conversations in rooms seven years ago and nobody wanted to make these projects. These movements were like fuel and because I already had them ready, it was go-time! We have to keep this message of inclusive storytelling going. It has resonated with people and they say that they love what we’re doing across books, TV, film and social media,” she said.
Witherspoon added that when her company enters a partnership, it ensures that they are pairing with the right brands.
She explained, “It is important for us that we have conscious partnerships. Whether we are talking about pairing with another woman’s production company to bring a television show to market or pairing with brands, the partnership is very intentional. We are very much quality over quantity and aren’t doing big volumes in the brand place. We are always trying to find the right partners. We have these relationships with brands that are deep and meaningful. As people are working with celebrities and different brands, you must align with what their ideas are and what their mission is. If you are truly aligned, you will have a much more successful partnership.”
The talk ended with Kassan asking Witherspoon about her favourite role among the many she plays.
“I love all of what I do, but when I resumed shooting after the laws allowed us (during the Covid pandemic), which was in October, I realised I love acting. It’s such a huge part of my heart and soul. I have to say acting is my first love. But, the company is also up there and occupies 50% of my brain time.”