Christina Mack/E! Illustration
Christina Mack/E! Illustration
Reese Witherspoonis no stranger to success. She came roaring onto the scene with cult favorite roles in Cruel Intentions and Election. She won an Oscar way back in 2005. And she's basically the only person in Hollywood who could make a character like Elle Woods likable.
But today, in the second stage of her career, she's carved out a brand new niche that is arguably her shrewdest and most lucrative yet. And it all started with a few beach reads and Instagram posts.
Witherspoon has created her own Oprah's Book Club for the social media generation, and it's well on its way to making just as big of a cultural dent—but unlike the great Winfrey, she's also managed to parlay those on-page accomplishments into huge movie milestones. No disrespect to her Legally Blonde era, of course—the bend-and-snap isn't without its own epic place in cinema history—but this new empire she's building has been a long time coming.
By all accounts, it all started with a picture of J. Courtney Sullivan's The Engagements and the simple caption "I love this book! Has anyone else read?" It was only Reese's second Instagram post ever, and was originally accompanied by its fair share of inspirational quotes (in perfect cursive, of course) and Pinterest-worthy Southern still lifes. Gingham prints, anyone? How about some lemon bars on a pristine china platter?
Witherspoon then decided that she quite liked (or shall we say fancied, y'all?) sharing her literature adventures with her online audience and quickly shared snaps of her current tomes The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Me Before You, both accompanied by similar caption sentiment. She wanted to know who else was going down this beach read path with her, and she actually cared what her fans and followers had to say about these books.
It caught on big-time.
Shortly after she shared her first novel thoughts—Southerners love a good pun, right?—she also broke into the production world. She stuck her toe in with Legally Blonde 2; the movie gave her a producer credit as a result of her outsized contribution to the franchise's success. But Witherspoon really took matters into her own hands once she realized that outside of the Elle Woods' of the world—and really, how many of those movies can one make?—there were very few strong female roles for her, or any of her colleagues, to take on.
Witherspoon's agent set her up with the already-seasoned producer Bruna Papandrea, and they started the company Pacific Standard with one goal in mind: To feature dynamic women. So how does one go about finding those roles? Well, they come to you...if you're Reese Witherspoon. "I let it be known I wanted to see material," she told Variety in 2014. "And because we're specifically looking for female-driven properties, I don't think a lot of companies were out there doing that."
The first all too serendipitous finding was Wild. After Reese manifested her If-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality, she was sent a soon-to-be-published manuscript by a then little-known Cheryl Strayed. As we all know now, it was a memoir about a young woman who finds herself motherless, divorced, addicted to heroin, and about to make a 1,000 mile-plus trek across the Pacific Coast Trail. Legend (a.k.a. dozens of interviews) has it that as soon as Reese turned over the last page she showed the copy to Papandrea and the rest was history.
In the film version of Wild Reese herself played the titular character, but that was never meant to be a formula for her production company. Just like their mission to find stories of amazing women no matter the drama, they were also open to any actors. As such, enter Gone Girl.
Witherspoon came across the original book version of the story the same way she did Wild; she got her hands on it before it was published, and since she was a fan of author Gillian Flynn's other novels, she knew it would be a hit.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
For a young production company only on its second project, Reese found all sorts of success. In fact, someone out there could argue that she has been more successful making movies that she wasn't necessarily the star of than she did starring in other people's movies. We won't, but someone could.
Gone Girl grossed over $370 million and received a Best Actress Oscar nom for Rosamund Pike's performance, in addition to tons of critical and public acclaim. Wild had incredibly impressive box office success given its status as an independent movie with a limited run in theaters and was nominated for two Academy Awards, for both Reese and Laura Dern.
The movies also provided huge bumps for their paper counterparts. Wild has sold over a million copies and been translated into 30 languages and its author, Cheryl Strayed, has gone on to write several more tomes. Gone Girl (the book version) debuted at number two on the New York Times bestseller list, but then years later it had huge surges thanks to the film adaptation. Book sales tripled when the first trailer dropped, and then doubled during the movie's opening weekend. And to think, all that when the novel didn't even have any Ben Afflecknudity.
Meanwhile, while her first forays into producing was kicking a--, Reese Witherspoon's little book club that could became the little book club that did. She has now shared and recommended dozens of tomes—sometimes with a comment as simple as, here's my summer reading list. Sometimes she ventures into book report territory, offering up plot points or reasons why her followers just need to pick up a copy. And sometimes still she acts as a book club leader truly would, posing discussion questions (Like Shonda Rhimes, what will you say yes to this year?) to which her readers voraciously debate their responses in the comment section.
But most importantly, she uses the #RWBookClub to introduce, among others, the books that she'll be optioning into movies or TV shows. In a shrewd move, Reese is creating the audience for her own movies before she even starts filming, and often years before the onscreen version is set to be released. This writer, surely one of many, can admit to purchasing more than one title that she never would have read otherwise, simply in anticipation of the Reese Witherspoon-backed project. (Cough...Big Little Lies...cough.) It's hard to tell which came first, the realization that she could promote her movies with a book club or the realization that her book club is so popular that it could be a business model, but like the chicken-versus-the-egg debate, it doesn't really matter.
Perhaps the true beauty of the system, if one fancies oneself a bit of a snob at times, is that the onscreen versions of these stories are often of much higher quality than their book counterparts. Anyone who has seen the movie version of their favorite book knows that is not the norm. No amount of talent or gusto from the late great Alan Rickman could replace the magic in the pages of Harry Potter.
But these books are different. No matter how different the genre, Witherspoon will always (or always seems to) choose novels with gripping plot twists and intense characters. They make for fascinating drama on the page, but can occasionally veer into fluff territory. The actress-producer pairs these tales with the most artistic directors and actors she can find, who manage to elevate the content to something worthy of even the highest cultural snob. The guy who made The Social Network directing Gone Girl? The mind behind Dallas Buyers Club taking on Wild? It's genius...and the perfect Oscars recipe.
Reese has now built a few book-to-screen partnerships, with the likes of Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman as well as the aforementioned Jean-Marc Vallée joining her for several different projects, including the upcoming Big Little Lies, Luckiest Girl Alive and Truly Madly Guilty, adaptations from the same author. She's also set to turn All Is Not Forgotten, about an assault in an affluent Connecticut town, into an onscreen masterpiece.
These movies take the guilty out of guilty pleasure books. And when beach reads become water-cooler movies, everybody wins.