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| Nov 30, 2022

Reese Witherspoon Puts Women First to Change the Cross-Media Landscape

The actor-turned-entrepreneur has become a hit-maker with her virtuous circle of leveraging women-centered fiction for TV and film.

Less than a decade after winning her first Oscar for her role in “Walk the Line,” Reese Witherspoon found herself at a career crossroads. Stuck doing a series of love-triangle romantic comedy films that weren’t creatively fulfilling, Witherspoon made a vow that the next 10 years of her career would look nothing like her past. “And I’m ready for a change,” she said. “I’m definitely ready.” 

Alongside industry veteran Bruna Papandrea, Witherspoon created the production company Pacific Standard to greenlight projects that would highlight “interesting, complicated women in leading roles.” Their freshman project was the wildly successful adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s thriller novel, “Gone Girl,” which had its theatrical release in October 2014 and netted them a cool $360 million.

With Witherspoon at the helm of Pacific Standard and “Gone Girl in the rearview, audiences began to recognize Witherspoon as a serious tastemaker, and by 2017 she had launched what would become the biggest book club short of Oprah’s. The hugely influential Reese’s Book Club recognized that people are returning to reading in droves and women are largely responsible. These readerships offered Witherspoon concrete data that she then leveraged for an explosion of cross-media content in what has been called the “virtuous circle” of content creation.

Witherspoon’s Virtuous Circle 

The virtuous circle, or “flywheel” as coined by Amazon, is simply a positive string of features that work in a cycle to create benefits. Amazon has long been known for its “empty chair” philosophy, with the absent representative at meetings standing proxy for the customer’s opinion. In Amazon’s case, improved customer service trends like two-day shipping and free returns for Prime members led to a bigger and more loyal customer base, which ultimately led to the retail giant scaling to its size today. 

As creator Codie Sanchez explains, the cycle isn’t only virtuous, but also made Witherspoon almost $1 billion. Reese’s circle begins with the 2.5 million readers she commands through her curated book club. The club describes itself as “only the best book club ever” and “chooses a book with a woman at the center of the story.” It also features its own app, which offers exclusive content and seeks to connect the community of readers. 

With this impressively large audience, Witherspoon has the power to bring big publishers to the negotiating table. Publishers get their books into the club, and in return Witherspoon receives the rights to option these books into television and film adaptations. She takes these rights to the big streaming services, like HBO, Netflix, and Amazon, and works out production deals — all before putting in a cent of her own money.

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Proof of Audience 

So how did this all work so well? If there’s one thing studio executives love, it’s proof of audience. Execs also continue to bet on multi-medium content more than ever before. In the past, decisions in Hollywood relied more often on gut instinct and arbitrary constraints, which has since been replaced by the broad analysis of big data

Witherspoon’s book club guarantees the safe bet of a built-in audience, which explains the successes of film adaptations like “Wild” (2014) and “Gone Girl.” Her hit HBO series, “Big Little Lies,” was nominated for a whopping 16 Emmys in 2017, winning eight.

Witherspoon’s virtuous circle is a surefire process: Attention goes up, risk goes down, and everybody wins. Her adaptations have been so successful that Pacific Standard, which eventually blossomed into Hello Sunshine, was recently sold in part to a Blackstone subsidiary for just under $1 billion. Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine CEO Sarah Harden will remain in charge of day-to-day operations. 

Forging a Women-Centered Legacy

As if the book club and Hello Sunshine weren’t enough to occupy Witherspoon, she is also the executive producer of six upcoming television programs, all on different streamers and all with their own flavor. One is a country music competition on Apple TV+, and another is a Netflix thriller belongside Marvel superstar Zoe Saldana. If the 20th-century triple threat was acting, singing, and dancing, the 21st-century version is acting, producing, and being the boss. 

Harden says that while promoting and developing storytelling by women addresses a social need, the results are stories with broad appeal. “I think we’re about premium storytelling that puts women at the center. And the best premium storytelling invites audiences of all types,” she says. “I certainly think in a lot of the direct-to-consumer parts of our company we think about a female audience first, but not exclusively.”

A Born Entrepreneur

Witherspoon’s use of the virtuous circle to grow her entrepreneurial ecosystem is a case study in innovative new models. While she’s not the only producer adapting popular novels, Witherspoon is certainly the best at it — with over 30 of the book club’s 54 selections making the New York Times bestseller list. While her standout acting performances continue to be compelling, Witherspoon’s legacy will be enshrined by her knack for raising the bar for the entire industry. 

This is the same woman who was suspended at school when she was caught decorating store-bought barrettes and selling them at a profit to classmates in third grade. For some, entrepreneurship is part of their DNA. As Witherspoon says: “If you’re one of those people who has that little voice in the back of her mind saying, ‘Maybe I could do …,’ don’t tell it to be quiet. Give it a little room to grow, and try to find an environment it can grow in.”

Danny Avershal
Danny Avershal
Contributor

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Danny Avershal is a freelance writer and video producer based in Los Angeles. He often writes about e-commerce, entertainment, and entrepreneurship. view profile

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