Did you know that Reese Witherspoon is the richest female Hollywood star alive?
Her career took off in 2001 when Legally Blonde earned $142 million at the box office. And its sequel did equally well. She was suddenly an actress earning 8 figures and winning Oscars. But then she sort of disappeared. Her movies flopped. Her personal life was a mess. And it seemed like everyone had forgotten her.
So much so that in 2012, New Yorker featured her in a “where are they now” article that spoke about people who were big stars 10 years back. That was the kick in the butt Witherspoon needed.
She pushed her agent to start hunting for more women oriented roles for her. But nothing good came across. The only things she was offered were girlfriend roles. Or blond girl roles. Using her clout, she got meetings setup with the heads of the biggest 7 studios of Hollywood. And asked them if they had any leading women roles in the pipeline. Amongst all of them, only one studio had one movie where the main protagonist was female. And they were not planning to make a second one that year.
It was either take sidekick roles. Or become a producer herself and create something on her own.
She chose the harder part and started her own production company. And started reading scripts and books. Two to three books a week that had strong female leads.
Soon she found two stories and bought the rights to them. “Gone Girl” and “Wild”, both had unconventional female leads. And both did very well at the box office!
The accidental book club
Two things happened that changed how Witherspoon worked. That allowed her to create a hit machine.
- Sales of “Gone Girl” the book tripled as the movie trailer came out. Once the movie was released, the sales rose even more! And this was for a book that was already a bestseller.
- Instagram is new. Witherspoon doesn’t know how to use it well. Her second ever post on instagram was a comment on a book she had just read and liked.
Shannon Theumer, a young girl living in rural Germany started reading all the books that Witherspoon would post about. And in 2015, Theumer created “rwbookclub” on facebook and instagram. Groups where others could read and discuss women oriented books that Witherspoon recommends!
Suddenly, that small group has 100,000 followers! Reese Witherspoon and her team get in touch with Theumer to take it over. And with Witherspoon behind it, the numbers ramped up! Soon the book club had 2.5 million followers!
That’s when Reese Witherspoon shifted to a higher gear! She leveraged her book club to get insider access to galley books. Publishers would let her read a book before it was published! Because when Witherspoon recommended a book, it outsold even Oprah’s book club recommendations!
Witherspoon hired librarians herself to read more women centric books. And then, before she recommended the books, she tied up with the publisher so she could get first rights to make a movie or a TV show on the story!
But unlike Hollywood, there are hundreds of books written every year that have strong female leads! How could Witherspoon find the best 12 of the bunch?
When Kasia Manolas dug in and gathered data for all the books Witherspoon has recommended to her book club, she found:
- 70% of books were selected before they were officially published
- But 22% of the books had already sold their world rights. Agents all over the world had bought translation rights to the work after reading them.
- And 24% of the books were pre-empted by the publisher. Which means, the advance offered was so high, that the author and their agent had sold the rights to the book without going through an auction process.
In essence, Witherspoon let the book publishers give her a signal that they thought the books were awesome – before she or her team began reading them!
Once Witherspoon would recommend the book to her book club, she would then follow the data too. She would gauge the discussion people had about that book. And she tracked the sales numbers. And only then would she exercise her option to convert the book into a movie or a TV show!
The queen of book-to-screen!
In no time, Witherspoon figured out a better way of testing stories before they were made for screen. She had high confidence that her movies would work even before starting to work on it!
As a result, everyone wanted to work with her production house. At one time, she had contracts for creating 6 series together: for everyone from Amazon to Netflix to Apple+ to Starz!
Her recipe reduces risk every step of the way!
- Focus on a big but under-served niche: strong leading women roles!
- Find books that have a potential to become hits.
- Get rights to bring the story to screen.
- Gauge the reaction of her book club readers.
- Sell the production to other networks who would pay top dollar.
In 2021, when hedge funds came calling, she sold part of her production company “Hello Sunshine” to Blackstone for $900 million!
- Make a list of all the wants and preferences of your audience. And then track them against what is being made in your industry. That’s the way to find under-served niches.
- Derisk your enterprise by testing your ideas with a smaller audience.