Reese Witherspoon: the dork who became a media mogul

A decade ago, Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon was in the “romcom doldrums”. Now she’s a one-woman conglomerate with a production company and a book club at its core.

Reece Witherspoon
(Image credit: © John Shearer/Getty Images)

Growing up in Nashville in the 1980s, Reece Witherspoon considered herself “a big dork who read loads of books”. That love of stories – and a willingness to bet on herself when the roles dried up – is paying off richly, says Forbes. Last week, Witherspoon scooped a personal $400m after selling a majority stake in her production company, Hello Sunshine, to a Blackstone-backed media entity run by two former Disney executives.

The buyout valued the business at $900m. After a 30-year-long career as an actress and producer, the deal seals her reputation as “one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars” and one of the most powerful players in the entertainment industry.

It marks “an astonishing turnaround” for the performer who, a decade ago, “was trapped in the romcom doldrums” and facing middle-aged career decline, says The Sunday Times. Witherspoon enjoyed a brilliant start. The daughter of medical professionals, who nicknamed her “Little Type A”, she cut her teeth as a child actor.

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She eventually dropped out of an English literature degree at Stanford to pursue the profession full-time. She shot to fame in 2001 as the star of Legally Blonde and went on to win an Oscar in 2006 for her role in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. But even after those triumphs, her career faded.

Her first company

The turning point for Witherspoon, now 45, came in 2012 when she turned down an “awful, terrible script” and was told several other actresses were chasing it. “I thought: ‘Oh that’s where we’re at? You’re fighting to be the girlfriend in a dumb comedy? For what?’” That year she founded her first production company, Pacific Standard, with the mission of focusing on “women-led” content. Two big movie hits – Gone Girl and Wild – followed, and the first season of the television series Big Little Lies. In a quest to scale up the venture, she got backing from AT&T and investment firm The Chernin Group, launching Hello Sunshine in 2016. She added a clothing brand and a book club.

Two big developments have sped Witherspoon’s recent fortunes in Hollywood: the #MeToo movement and the arrival of the streaming economy. She has a nose for picking out great stories, “with hot-button social themes”, and turning them into series hits for streaming companies competing for subscribers.

Reece Witherspoon: the new Oprah

Books are “the foundation of Witherspoon’s business”, says Time. Her book club, now running to 2.1 million members, is far from just “a vanity shingle”. Of her 54 selections to date – typically titles “that hit a sweet spot between commercial and literary” – 30 have gone on to make The New York Times best-seller list, “making a tap from Witherspoon one of the most coveted accolades in publishing”. Move over, Oprah.

Some have questioned whether the business, which doesn’t yet have a deep catalogue, is really worth $900m. But what sets Hello Sunshine apart is “the power created by combining” the book club with the production business – and the breadth of the company’s ambition to become a full-scale media empire, says Time.

“I started this company to change the way all women are seen in the media,” says Witherspoon, who will retain an 18% stake in Hello Sunshine. Yet-to-be-realised ventures include podcasting, e-commerce and children’s broadcasting.

Witherspoon is tapping in to the huge “hunger for marquee entertainment brands that can stand out in an increasingly cluttered streaming landscape”, says Forbes. But her goal is much broader. She likens tackling Hollywood to steering a giant cruise ship, by painstaking degree, in a better direction. As she told Time: “I want to make a lot of women a lot of money”.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.