When you think of Reese Witherspoon, chances are you think of her performance as the lovable Elle Woods, the Harvard Law student from the 2001 classic Legally Blonde. In many respects, Witherspoon is nothing like Woods; she never went to Harvard University (she dropped out of Stanford instead), attended law school, or chased a boyfriend across the country to get back together. But Witherspoon shares Woods’ ambition and drive to succeed and make change. For Witherspoon, this change has been found in the entertainment industry with her production company, Hello Sunshine, which sold for about $900 million in August 2021.
Before creating Hello Sunshine, Witherspoon’s early career was full of critical and box–office successes, including her roles as Tracy Flick in Election, Evelyn Williams in American Psycho, and her Oscar–winning portrayal of June Carter in Walk the Line. However, after winning Best Actress in 2006, her career took a disappointing nosedive.
“I was so used to being underestimated that when I was somehow accepted, I didn’t know how to look at material,” Witherspoon says in a 2019 interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “I didn’t know how to make decisions and I didn’t know what I wanted to say.”
After being name–checked in a 2012 New Yorker article grouping her among actors like Keanu Reeves, John Travolta, and Russell Crowe as “people who were big stars ten years ago,” starring in forgettable films like How Do You Know and This Means War, and performing poorly at the box–office, Witherspoon hit a very low point as an actress. Yet from this disappointment came the birth of her producing career.
Still seen as “America’s Sweetheart” with many connections in Hollywood, Witherspoon asked to meet with seven film studios and asked what they were developing for a female lead. All studios had no answer, except one.
“One even said to me, ‘We have a movie with a woman at the center of it, but we’re not going to make two this year,’” Witherspoon says to the Hollywood Reporter, “without any embarrassment.”
This meeting was Witherspoon’s final straw, and she decided to self–fund her own production company, Hello Sunshine (initially known as Pacific Standard), which prides itself in showcasing female–led narratives told by female storytellers.
First, Hello Sunshine acquired the rights to two books that centered on unconventional female protagonists: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild; Gone Girl was a big hit, grossing over $370 million, and Wild landed Witherspoon an Oscar nomination.
It was Witherspoon’s third hit, the HBO show Big Little Lies, based on Liane Moriarty’s book, that cemented her producing capabilities. Big Little Lies, all about the relationships of five women in Monterey, California, was overwhelmingly well–received, with high ratings and success with awards, winning "Best Limited Series" at the Emmys and the Golden Globes.
Besides producing films and TV shows, hosting podcasts, and creating live events, Hello Sunshine also introduced “Reese’s Book Club,” a wildly popular book club that is hosted by Witherspoon and highlights female writers. 38 of Reese’s Book Club picks have been on the New York Times bestseller list, which makes the club highly reminiscent of Oprah Winfrey's own influential book club.
Hello Sunshine’s book–to–TV producing strategy is at the forefront of Hollywood—its most recent hit, Little Fires Everywhere, was based on Celeste Ng’s book. Hello Sunshine is also producing the long–anticipated Legally Blonde 3, which will be written by Never Have I Ever co–creator Mindy Kaling and Brooklyn Nine–Nine co–creator Dan Goor. Hello Sunshine has recently partnered with World of Women, an NFT company that sells artwork from female creators, with the goal of building out the company’s ventures into entertainment properties. Hello Sunshine has also expanded outside of entertainment entirely, acquiring The Home Edit, a lifestyle and home brand.
Witherspoon’s ability to channel her frustration with Hollywood into building platforms that showcase underrated female talent has inspired many other women in Hollywood. This includes Margot Robbie, who co–founded LuckyChap Entertainment, and The Flight Attendant producer and actress Kaley Cuoco, who cites Witherspoon as the “obvious one” when asked whose career she’s modeled hers after. Hello Sunshine and Witherspoon have revolutionized the roles of women in Hollywood by making sure that women are properly represented both on and off–screen and like Elle Woods, Witherspoon is not to be underestimated.