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Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Harden Interviewed by Mark Suster | Upfront Summit 2020

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Upfront Summit 2020
January 30, 2020, Pasadena, CA, United States
Upfront Summit 2020
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Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Harden Interviewed by Mark Suster | Upfront Summit 2020
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About speakers

Reese Witherspoon
Actress
Sarah Harden
CEO at Hello Sunshine
Mark Suster
Partner at Upfront Ventures

2x entrepreneur. Sold both companies (last to salesforce.com). Turned VC looking to invest in passionate entrepreneurs.

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About the talk

Topic: Business

Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Harden discuss creating their media company Hello Sunshine and developing projects that put marginalized creative voices and storytelling at the forefront - how it was started, the untraditional power structure at the head of the company, and how they're architecting the business for the next 20 years.

They also discuss how much they love data and books, about the journey of Reese's Book Club, and what it takes to change and diversify the media landscape.

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I think you all know who we have with us. We have Reese, Witherspoon. We also have Sarah Harden who runs hello, sunshine. I'm going to jump into it. So we maximize our time. I know that most people know who you are. Of course in this room. You were in a cademy award winning actor. Congratulations for your role, June Carter Cash in Walk the Line you were nominated for an Academy Award for wild both films. I saw that were great. Mark I hope I'm a good critic. And you want two words for the Golden Globes and Emmys for big little lies that we see big little lies amazing.

How creepy was Meryl Streep? In real life on the on the Shelf really cute, but I did watch your acceptance speech and innate you said you wanted to bring women to the front of their own stories. So I want to start here talk a little bit about what you're trying to achieve with that. And also if you could just oppose it with what Saturday Night Live parodied as this Oscar season being about white male aggression the movie business for thirty years. Now, the only woman on the movie sets

and then as I got older it just that that narrative just kept perpetuating. I was always the only woman there. I didn't really get to meet any of my actress. There were so few parts for women. You were usually the only woman in a movie around the time. I was 33 our whole business kind of shifted in 2008 2009 around the writers strike the first that writers strike that really affected her business when the business came back. They weren't any movies in the 40 million dollar rate in 30 to 40 million dollars. That was really became clear.

They weren't making any movies for women in kind of lives. That's her, he's lived. That's where that says heartfelt dramas left a live-edge. Remember I getting this really crappy script and it was two women fighting over this male lead who was acting like an idiot and the parts were defensive and there were tons of boob joke. And they got an Oscar winner to play one of them and back and I thought well, that's it. I've had enough I've had enough of what the pipeline is.

Nobody's developing for women. Nobody's developing movies that put women at the center of the story and I'm just going to spend my own money. And so I sell fun to the company cuz I also didn't want to exist within us to do a system that wouldn't be making stones that that had women at the center of them. So that's what kind of be down for me fifty percent of population watching the films are women. So it stands to reason you have some customers to Target. I mean we were just talking and there was a recent study and asked the office and they said he know women are watching

76 hours of Television every week as compared to 60 hours a week for men. And so if you just think about that women aren't the largest captured consumer audience in the world their number skw higher on social media on on streaming platforms and it's definitely an interesting phenomenon that they're still making the primarily they can contact with men at the center when women are actually living on those popcorn. Do you have any commentary or thoughts of why this Oscar season in the area where we thought women protagonist? We're going to play a bigger

role. I think I'm living in an old system. You know Hollywood has to evolve we have to start thinking of new structures of voting systems. We have to have Suggested maybe a jury system might be a more fair way of knowing that people actually watch the zoms and are voting accordingly. You no more diverse balanced voting pools. I think these institutions are primarily white and male and that's not reflective of our society. And so you're not singing you're not seeing the results that that

reflects the world. We live in one of the things were trying to address in our industry and venture-capital is to really get more women at the heart of Entrepreneurship. You also have to have more women writing checks and funding things people wear talking about Kirsten green backstage people like that who believed in me from the beginning when I started Send the money to self unaccompanied. I have had a long very lucrative career. But there's many women who are not in a position to start their own Media Company you grew up in that both your parents were

doctors as I understand pretty educated. You got into Stanford dropped out which already earned you a lot of us theme in this room. But talk about the role that education and your parents influence has played in your business career and how you think about business. I have really it's been a real interesting Journey for me financially and as a businesswoman to navigate it by myself literally just asking people like this wonderful woman, who is my CEO actually does that mean that you're

saying I have no problems. Thanks. I started a retail company three years ago in pierce. Your room is Roi this what is are alive. What is Eva. And she took the time to actually explain everything to me. So I've had my own I literally knew nothing when I came to tell you what I did not understand how films made money I didn't understand the revenue structure and I say to young people all the time understand how your business Makes my how they lose money how you can

be an asset how you can how you can help create more revenue for yourself for the company and I have learned literally just by asking a lot of questions. So let's move on to hello sunshine you started in 2016 and your State admission is storytelling that changes the narrative for women. So I guess you were frustrated with the past and said I'm going to create a company to solve the problem that I believe I have which is what we tell people how all great entrepreneur started solving their own problems that they uniquely understand we have the

CEO Sarah Harden. I think great friend of many people in this room. She's Xbox and turn in group president of Otter Media Harvard Business School alarm power exact. How did you meet her? How did you select your why was she the right person for the role? And then she believed in this idea in my company for probably five years wasn't turning a very big profit. I have produced wild Gone Girl and big little lies and it still wasn't generating a lot of Revenue and so myself and my my husband and my business partner Seth rodsky

all decided. We wanted to try and digital denture where we were going to be on multiple platforms show me tickets to turn in and we had one other competitive offer at a different platform. And so we went in to turn them into spring meeting and I said, what is amazing butts. Are there any women who work here? Because I couldn't be talking about being content and I just don't want to be talking in Echo chamber and you guys telling me that you don't understand what I'm doing and when she's traveling right now and it's a two days later. I sat with Sarah and I had the greatest meeting

where we just we just really itchy is built Sony digital businesses. For the training group in Otter Media and this was the first to be focused on itsfunneh. I remember that we had some of the things you told you I hear is exactly what we talked about in the room. And I think I think it was the frustration and the white spice and I think we are reset a very fully phone division of what that was and it started with this lack of representation. And you know, I think was an interesting times three or four years ago and it was

Pride of the me to in times up movement. I think real ships in the media business and I think the way it's been a long time at otter looking at these great MIT next right media brand new looking to build Crunchyroll raised to take that. They were more mile Centric Brands until we spent female consume is the end. I think I'll let you know when I was raised to tie. You know, what we we could stop this really on the back of races 20 year 25 year Korea, but I could take this company for the The next music video and I think that that's what we talked about and very much hoped around the

problems that we wanted to solve. What is it? Is it in your mind? Is it a media production company you have any aspirations to have Pekka's your underpinning very much and we set an intention trees ago and we still early on in delivery against that which was I think we would you have to be to build a company that socket actor for the next 20 years. It was we have to build a direct consumer brand we have to have connection with our audience but we're going to put a premium storytelling Studio at the front of it. You know, if that's how I was Lauren leaving you start at 5th Senior High who

runs out scripted business and it's done an incredible job as we built this company, but if you look at the marketplace were in the most crowded media Marketplace and you know, what I even on streaming platforms with premium showers ice ice challenges and getting audiences to show up for the media. And so we said, you know, we're going to take responsibility for not only create great storytelling but we're going to create with what we have to take responsibility for helping audiences show up to those platforms and so you know under the company we manage resource was discovered incredibly

powerful social following him 21 million followers and we started out building what we want to do a brand of influence on the two sets of handles Reese's book club which is sort of a curatorial voice for a company and we can talk more about books and then onto hello sunshine but that takes a while to build and we said we going to build an audience that loves us and as we build this company over ten fifteen years we have been going to bring those audiences to a premium storytelling and that was kind of the power company and then the other part was very Central and I really remember it was

you know I think when we set with race you know the fifth time she said these companies not about me right it was about solving industry problems and providing a company that we could bring voices into storytelling that has been stress-related marginalised and An isolated from Hollywood and when you talk about a population people of color women lgbtq Fox it is like knots when you look at the composition of who has power in the media industry. And that was the conversation. We had the first time and how few women and people of color and

lgbtq people have their own media companies power. How do you guys share power? I mean, that's a real to Lemon a business. I think we have such an interesting revolving structure of your shift yet. There is no ego and any of it, so they talk about the singer members of our team everyone. So happy to let another person leaves and also steps. That's exactly when I need to so it's it's not a traditional structure that I've seen in any company I've ever been inside ever worked for it's

a really beautiful thing actually see that's the way of a group of really strong women lead and that's been really intentional. Oh, I think I mean it's I was thinking the other day actually and it depends a little on when we're in production. I mean racist she literally Works harder than anyone I know so whether it's in the morning or I mean, this is a constant conversation, but we really have been intentional. We talked a lot about the Strategic choices and I really from the start it was We Didn't Start the company with a lot of capital we were going to be defined by Kisses, and so

that's what we spend. A lot of time. We couldn't reach which directly with our exact payment. You know, we've started we said let's go to company that we would have rolled up to avoid in the last 20 years. We have an amazing day came that building big businesses and the reef way to directly with each of them. It's all women. Right right. Now, I'm in control when we talked a lot about this, you know, you know, the opposite of patriarchy is none of my truck and it's a quality and we're really trying to build a company that reflects that

internally but Universe works on every part of our content is in ass with with Lauren and ask her if their business with Sensory neurons go to do this without kids in animation business. So with arthritis produces and and so we will try to set up a structure that really empowers out at teaming, you know, we talked a lot about what we want to do with the company, but we spend a lot of time also about the how and how we want to do it and What's the best part is like I think sometimes being a CEO. It's like really can be lonely. And I I mean Reese's judgment everything from the smallest things the

biggest things we that's having someone alongside to distill the company way if that's pain like a real gift. Miss you talked about when you started a business and we're dealing with Kirsten and using ebitda and Roi and stuff. That was all new to you. What about it? Throw it around? what about what about in terms of data or technology? Like if I think about the dude, you use it in interesting ways that does it inform like which stories you're going to tell it which audience

I'm sorry. I just watched that documentary The Great the know I loved it. And so what does that on that did not perform well because we can really cater content to be much more specific but we're not throwing a spaghetti at the wall isn't going to work no ideas 7 years ago what was working or why and I think the ability to micro targets or groups or geo-target groups is really invaluable. And I I wish I had more day like it's really we talked about it all the time. The amount of data that shared is

is it's not really helpful sometimes because you know company is obviously have their own strategies, but I could I think create more and be more effective if I knew exactly what audiences were looking for talkin about audience. What do you see is your audience is it cuz I know you have a female protagonist as one of your themes. Are you looking for powerful female protagonist for a female audience or do you aspire to serve everybody and make women? Like how do you think about audience in his age and

an end? The first two books I options were wild and Gone Girl and they before we ever got to screen with either one of them. They both hit the New York Times bestseller list and number one. Infection in mouth like a good movie, but then it just became this great relationship that we had with authors weather was Liane Moriarty in big little lies. And then most recently we options the last things book little fires everywhere and that started as just a book club chosen for the book club. I did a

live Facebook streaming with Celeste in our startup office or remember that cuz the sound wasn't working. I really grew with us and then we decided to develop it and attached Kerry Washington as our partner in Simpson Street her company and now it's coming out on Hulu next month. It's been really amazing two-and-a-half-year journey that our audience is gone on watching us to take it as a book decide to develop. It build the sets cast the characters and it's V 360 degree.

Fans that you can go on as a as an audience number that you invested in that process as well as behind the scenes to and shows you how how we make these things what legendary want to do get involved with book clubs in book selection with that until probably 2008 and 2009 when all the scripture really bad and was complaining about it's my husband and I was like, I went on the studio tour around every single Studio had all still only seven at the time and I can what are you developing for women and they only one studio is developing something for a woman and

we already have a movie with a woman starting this year. We can't make two. And so I went home and was complaining to my husband and he's like Bayview read more books than anyone. I know why don't you just watching some of these pups and I said I do so that was sort of a lightbulb moment for me. And then I just started reading things in Galaxy's instead of reading at the bookstore. I think that interest him when we started the company was, you know, I think we observed the wall to get your creative especially the premium stories

that we are focused on, you know, if it can take a year or two to get those fed. We race was already posting photos of Instagram and I want the best thing we did was just 10 portable Club pick a poke in the first week of every mom said so because I think you need if you're building a community have a curatorial voice to your brain and it was so within a clade from race and that is what we have built the company around 2, and I think Now You See Me Reese's book club. I mean, we are reliably putting every book on the New York Times bestseller list. Gentry book such a fun Eyes by Kylie rate is

so beautiful. Adobe wall safe. And so this isn't about just picking alter to a well-known and and I think that's just two or three years was really just about building that influence and race really takes the book the time. I read a lot of the books we talked about them a lot and everything we do and there's no better example than little flies everywhere. We first met. What's my wife's? Yeah best book club cuz we had a rule that notebook could be over a hundred Pages. It was the anybody cuz when they had a rule that Mark wasn't allowed to be in the house is is it like

working for Community Action is so important unique boy says thoughtful intelligent selection is really important. Also knowing when people want to see a romantic comedy or or just reading light book at Christmas and really listen to the feedback from our own. And I'm try to sort a pivot around that their taste as well because they have their own set of taste be a real wedge for you in the sense that first of all your presents and your audience and now Tech and marketing dollars enable you to help books blow up in the first place and probably plays

some role in people wanting to feed into your book club that allows you to option their work in the first place or am I overthinking that is really when you look up what race Adan makes it. It's not to be able to start the work with with wild and Gone Girl and big little lies the kid to lawn Stars. It means so much the author's no stories. So you build a reputation around that and then I'll goal is to do a few things really well and continue to build a reputation around in the year that you've been on. Now it's from this. I was just I

was just quietly. Yeah, I was so so now. We won't tell Peter you were. At this for two and a half years, you know, we're kind of hitting now a big moment for your company. Like what what is the next year to look like? Where are you taking things? You want to talk about the TV side of the business is really occur Hulu second season of Morning Show. Excited it wonderful projects and Zoe Saldana to sitting right here right now comes from scratch that Jackson's about that if the best Partners in the world, Daisy Jones and the

six Amazon, but we going to production in today's time and I think you know, we're really building around scripted and kids in a business with you as well. You know, I never really thought about bringing I mean it's a male protagonist in our animation but really encouraging cuz you and him on families with that and you know, I mean that is at the heart of the visits were trying to build a media company in the most Capital light way to get to kind of build franchise. I pee pee around using her influence fluids to do it and then you know, I think Reese's book club is issued strategic initiative this

year. I mean, I think Building influence. We haven't tried it a minute one and a half million followers all organic. We haven't tried it a dollar of that influence and Fillmore police Lodge membership community events, which we started prototyping that last year, but we're excited about that. And when you talk about whether we're a technology company, that's the piece that takes us into building is a DTC Stockton, so to control a relationship with a set of consumers

Stepping back from business just a bit if it's okay. We had JJ Abrams and Katie McGrath talking earlier about time's up about. Initiative in my research trying to read as much as I could about the topic so many female actresses in leaders in the industry credit you with pushing them to become involved what time's up? Yes reading about it. Well, what what time what were you see the movement? How did it get started? And is it having any impact? Oh my gosh. It's incredible. And I would say there isn't one person to it's the most

inclusive group of thought leaders and people who are really deeply invested and leaving our business a better place than the way they found it. Create a safer work environment more inclusive more diverse work environment and really opening the door to new Talent. So there's been an incredible amount of growth in end times Aqua Teen has 10 is now running times up which has been amazing and not only have they raised 22 million dollars for the legal defense fund to help people defend cases throughout the country

harassment cases within their own work environment, but they are doing so much even with the presidential debates. They've partnered with Fortune Magazine to really diversify the questions like where we going to talk about family. When are we going to talk about gender pay Gap in a wheelie being so thoughtful about who are the critics that are getting to weigh in on movies and television shows did a lot of research on my colleague. Brie. Larson was really To make sure that there were women and

people of color who were reviewing movies and television shows because not every primarily it's it's 80% red earlier today and not every television show was made for that demo. So we need diversify the critics group you get a more fair and balanced idea of what movies you want in this world where I'll wear them shoes for you to which is a whole other conversation that I have. Maybe Ted will talk about algorithm next. I think it's really important that we be thoughtful about text and having gender balance in that and diversity because

we're building entire systems that are excluding groups of people and that's a scary place to be my friend Mauricio Motors in the room. He produced the show with his wife for Hulu called East Los High telling stories. What should I was producing shine on with Reese? And he was telling me that to advocate for issues to get people aware of change. You need to get the showrunners. You need to get ideas written in the show so that we can project you know issues in a way that's balanced than received by an audience. If you think about what you talked

about earlier of people of color women in lgbtq, what do we have to do to push the industry to the next level? I know Zoe and Eva will be talking about that later. What do we have to do to really make an impact financial support is really important funds media companies owned by other groups of people. I think the kind of You know broad support that we can give the amount of people in this room are too and there's so much and having conversations within your company. And that's what I think

timesup is going to be really helpful in providing school kids and the availability to have more we trying to say devising advisory, you know, it's all of these things are about also shape and I'll send it off the ship and it is great business. It's the white stripes. We started a company around which is like you've got an audience that reflects if you look at the economic power and you cannot exclude these voices in this Marketplace from from the other ship into that

means Rida's room board rooms, if you do your mortgage in your future as a company in and I think that's how I got so what it's like to text people with power to bring other people into that power Dynamic at every level and one of those things are also want to tell story about women is financing company a company and women to create more stories about women. So you got the money behind it. But please give a huge. Thank you to Reese Witherspoon Sarah Hardy for joining us today. Thank you.

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