Does the sale of Reese Witherspoon’s company spell the end of female-led movies and television?
From 'Big Little Lies' to 'Wild', some of the best stories on our screen over the last decade have come from Reese Witherspoon's production company Hello Sunshine. Does its sale mark the end?
Already an established actress herself, Reese set up Hello Sunshine in an effort to give other women in Hollywood a chance and fund movies and shows centred on the female experience. Proving that she’s a force to be reckoned with both on and off the screen, she very quickly managed to do just that, acquiring the rights to several exciting projects since the company’s foundations back in 2016.
One look at their impressive catalogue of titles – which includes the likes of Gone Girl, Big Little Lies, The Morning Show, Little Fires Everywhere and the upcoming adaptation of Where The Crawdads Sing – will tell you that Reese more than achieved her goal… but you can’t help but wonder why she decided to sell.
Especially after learning that she handed her company over to a media firm backed by private equity group Blackstone – itself led by two male executives. Giving the majority stake to former Disney execs Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer, the two men confirmed that they have big plans for the company’s future and are thoroughly excited to continue producing “dynamic, engaging content for years to come”. According to The New York Times, Staggs and Mayer have their sights set on building “an independent media company meant to take advantage of the ravenous appetite for content”. Not only that, but they’re clearly willing to pay big money for it too.
And while Hello Sunshine’s statement says that the sale will enable it to create more female-led television and film and hire more female crew, aside from the injection of cash, it’s unclear how this will be achieved. There’s also little mention of exactly how women will play into this vision.
… or feminist move?
Maybe we’re underestimating Witherspoon though. Like her Legally Blonde character Elle Woods, she’s far savvier than people probably give her credit for.
Negotiating an almost $1 billion sale for her hard work (as per an insider with knowledge of the deal terms), it turns out that the actress will still be much more involved than reports initially seemed to suggest. In fact, both Reese and Hello Sunshine’s chief executive, Sarah Harden, will continue to oversee the day-to-day operations of the company, also joining Staggs and Meyers on the board. Which suggests that Reese is very much having her cake and eating it too.
Commenting on the acquisition, she said that she’s “deeply proud” of the team that got the company to this “tremendous moment”. “I started this company to change the way all women are seen in media. Over the past few years, we have watched our mission thrive through books, TV, film and social platforms. Today, we’re taking a huge step forward by partnering with Blackstone, which will enable us to tell even more entertaining, impactful and illuminating stories about women’s lives globally,” she continued. “I couldn’t be more excited about what this means for our future.
“I’m thrilled to be working with Blackstone, Kevin and Tom to grow a next-generation media company,” she added, later noting that, “They are committed to helping our mission to empower women and the people who celebrate them”. Also promising to “double down” and ensure that more female creators from all walks of life are hired, Witherspoon remained confident in her decision, telling The Wall Street Journal, “This is a meaningful move in the world because it really means that women’s stories matter”.
Reiterating Witherspoon’s enthusiasm for the new venture, Harden promised that there are lots of things to look forward to. “I think you’re going to see more from us coming in sort of engagement, events, experiences and commerce that are targeted to a female consumer – and a lot centred around the lifestyle of books and reading,” she stated.
Named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential companies of this year, Reese Witherspoon’s pull on the public is undeniable so while her decision to sell may seem a little dubious at first, we just have to trust that the media mogul knows what she’s doing. We questioned the relevance of perm maintenance to murder but Elle Woods proved her point. No doubt Reese will do the same here. $900 million would be pretty hard to turn down too, in fairness.
Future is female
Only time will tell whether the deal ends up expanding the female-led Hello Sunshine empire as Witherspoon hopes, or whether the production company ends up becoming more mainstream in search of profits that you would expect of a private equity group. The one thing you can say though is that Hello Sunshine walked so so many other TV shows could run. It put the prestige back in television, getting a number of A-list stars to return to the small screen, a step previously considered career-ending and desperate.
Without 2017’s Big Little Lies, in particular, it’s hard to imagine a world in which we’d see Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown, Cate Blanchett on Mrs America or Oscar-winner Olivia Coleman as the Queen on a Netflix series. Even trying to get those types of shows greenlit, with their female-focus, big-budget and equally big expectations would have been a massive feat. If Hello Sunshine hadn’t taken to bat and proved that there was an appetite for that kind of filmmaking out there, where would the scripts for Fleabag‘s second season or of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You be right now? Would they have had the same kind of production and PR support to ensure they were the successes that they were?
The sale could be a genius move or a fumble, but either way, Hello Sunshine has certainly already carved the way.