“My husband said, ‘Honey, you read more books than anybody I know. Why don’t you just option some and turn them into movies?’ ” Ms. Witherspoon recalled in a recent interview in Santa Monica, Calif.
In short order, she teamed up with producer Bruna Papandrea, launched an independent production company called Pacific Standard, and went on the hunt for challenging female characters. The pair quickly demonstrated that they could sniff out best sellers. They scooped up their first two books- Cheryl Strayed's memoir, "Wild" and Gillian Flynn's Thriller, "Gone Girl!"—before they were published. In July 2012, just five months after the company was launched, the books hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list at the same time—in the nonfiction and fiction categories, respectively. Together, the films earned three Oscar nominations and grossed more than half a billion dollars.
Since then, Ms. Witherspoon has emerged as one of the most influential literary tastemakers in Hollywood. Her regular book recommendations on Instagram send Amazon rankings soaring. At a time when book adaptations remain a crucial segment of the film industry, Pacific Standard is an increasingly important player in the book-to-screen business. She and her partner have also invited some authors to adapt their own books, in the hopes of bringing new writing voices to film and television.
“She’s tapped into a big piece of the gestalt of the country,” said Ivan Held, president of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, the publisher of “Big Little Lies,” which Pacific Standard optioned with HBO.
Pacific Standard now has 26 projects in the works, 16 of them based on books. They range from middle-grade and young-adult novels to thrillers, women’s fiction and biography. Their protagonists are judges, criminals, warrior princesses and Wall Street traders.
Next year, the company has a high-profile series set for release on HBO based on Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies,” about a murder committed among the parents of an elementary school. (It stars Ms. Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley.) A film adaptation of Jessica Knoll’s “Luckiest Girl Alive,” starring Ms. Witherspoon, could also come as early as next year from Lionsgate. Three more books that Pacific Standard optioned pre-publication are set to be published this year: “The Outliers,” a young-adult thriller by Kimberly McCreight; “All Is Not Forgotten,” a thriller by Wendy Walker; and “The Dry,” a thriller by Australian author Jane Harper.
Ms. Witherspoon and Ms. Papandrea look for books about women who, like the protagonists of "Wild" and “Gone Girl,” are strong and complex. They may engage in self-destructive behavior, or act in ways that are difficult to understand.
“I’m on the crusade to find a dynamic, female character, whether she’s likable or not,” said Ms. Witherspoon. “Likable puts women in a very small box.”
Producer Scott Rudin remains probably the biggest player in the book-to-screen game, favoring literary novelists such as Jonathan Franzen and Rachel Kushner. While Ms. Witherspoon isn’t generally competing in the same space, she does go up against big Hollywood power brokers. In 2013, Pacific Standard lost out on Ms. McCreight’s first novel, “Reconstructing Amelia,” to Nicole Kidman, who is set to star and produce. And last year, Ms. Witherspoon’s firm lost to a team involving Steven Spielberg for war photographer Lynsey Addario’s memoir, “It’s What I Do.” (Mr. Spielberg is set to direct.) Shortly after that, however, they won a heated auction for “Ashley’s War,” a nonfiction book about the first all-female team working with Special Operations forces in Afghanistan.
Ms. Witherspoon, who is 40, traces her love of books to her childhood in Nashville, Tenn. Her grandmother Dorothea Witherspoon, who had graduated from George Peabody College for Teachers, taught her to read by the time she was 4. Each day after school, Reese would head to her grandmother’s house, where Dorothea would read to her—not from picture books, but from novels.
They included “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “Miss Minerva and William Green Hill” by another Southern author, Frances Boyd Calhoun.
“I remember countless hours of sitting on her lap and her just reading to me,” Ms. Witherspoon said. “She would do all the voices.”
Today, her favorite authors include Amy Bloom, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore. “Authors are my rock stars,” Ms. Witherspoon said.
When she was first introduced to Nick Hornby at a Hollywood party in 2010, she jumped out of her seat and gave him a hug. Then she launched into a discussion of a short story he had written called “NippleJesus”—one of his more obscure works.
“I was very taken aback,” said Mr. Hornby, who would go on to write the screenplay for “Wild.”
Pacific Standard has a small staff. Besides Ms. Witherspoon and Ms. Papandrea, there is a director of development for film, another for television, and an assistant. They have deliberately decided to stay independent of a studio, preferring the freedom to find the right studio for each project—one that shares their vision and is prepared to move quickly. Both women have invested their own money in the company. (As an A-list star, Ms. Witherspoon has reportedly commanded upward of $15 million for films in the past.)
The opportunity to option a book usually occurs before the book is published. Ms. Witherspoon and Ms. Papandrea receive dozens of unpublished manuscripts a month by email from agents. They aim to respond within 24 hours for projects submitted by a trusted agent or an author whose work they have been following. Michelle Weiner at Creative Artists Agency and Shari Smiley from the Gotham Group both have sold multiple books to Pacific Standard. Ms. Witherspoon and her partner read late into the night on their iPads, emailing or texting each other their impressions.
“I’m fast. She’s faster than me. She’s like a speed reader,” Ms. Papandrea said, sitting on a couch in a corner office with tall, arched windows that the partners share in Beverly Hills. Along one wall, a credenza is decked with some of their favorite books, including Shonda Rhimes’s “Year of Yes, ”Malcolm Gladwell's "David and Goliath"and Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona Quimby, Age 8.” Inside a glass case is a pair of red-laced hiking boots from the filming of “Wild.”
Ms. Witherspoon said she and her partner agree about 70% of the time. If a manuscript doesn’t come from a trusted source, one of their directors of development will give it a look and pass it on to them if it’s promising.
About once a week, Ms. Witherspoon stops into her favorite independent bookstore, Diesel, in Santa Monica. These aren’t scouting trips, as bookstore stock has likely been optioned already, but they help her stay up-to-date on books that may not have crossed her desk. She and her partner keep a list of authors and screenwriters with whom they’d like to collaborate in the future. Ms. Witherspoon also values the recommendations of her high-school friends, whom she follows on Goodreads. She reads as much for fun as for work, averaging one to two books a week.
Occasionally, a book will come to their attention through an unusual route. Ms. Witherspoon ordered a copy of Ruth Ware’s bachelorette-party thriller, “In a Dark, Dark Wood,” when she read about it in O, the Oprah Magazine—and jumped on it when she heard it hadn’t yet been optioned. A 2008 satirical novel by Christopher Buckley called “Supreme Courtship” was brought to them by Judith Sheindlin, star of the syndicated show, “Judge Judy.” It’s about a television judge nominated to the Supreme Court when the president can’t get any other nominees past the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ms. Sheindlin signed on to co-produce the film.
Ms. Smiley, the film agent, forwarded “Wild” to Ms. Witherspoon’s agent at CAA before Ms. Witherspoon had even launched the production company. When Ms. Witherspoon met Ms. Papandrea, “Wild” was the first thing she sent her to read. Ms. Papandrea loved it just as much. In an unusual move, Ms. Witherspoon invested her own money to option the book. She intended to star in it and wanted the story to retain its grittiness.
“Part of the frustrating process of getting films made, particularly as a woman, is having a lot of notes from a lot of people, particularly at studios, who are primarily men, about what they want to see my character do,” she said. “I also didn’t want to hear, ‘We don’t want to see Reese Witherspoon do drugs, we don’t want to see her sleep with a bunch of men, we don’t want to see her naked.’ I’d certainly grown up. My audience had grown up.”
Pacific Standard didn’t option this independently, as it had for “Wild.” Instead, working with Ms. Smiley and producer-screenwriter Leslie Dixon, they went out to studios, pitching the project.
‘I’m on the crusade to find a dynamic, female character, whether she’s likable or not.’—Reese Witherspoon
“A lot of studios passed,” Ms. Witherspoon said. “A lot.”
The book didn’t get traction with anyone except Universal Pictures. Negotiations were under way when the book came out—an instant best seller. Twentieth Century Fox, which hadn’t pursued it earlier, swooped in and purchased the film rights for $2.5 million, including $1 million for Ms. Flynn to write the screenplay. A deal that big is the exception rather than the rule, Ms. Papandrea said. Lionsgate paid an option fee in the low six figures for “The Outliers,” Ms. Smiley said. A teen thriller with a speculative twist, it involves a group claiming they can harness intuition and use it as a weapon.
When Ms. Witherspoon loves a book,she posts a photograph of it on Instagram, where she has 5.7 million followers. She takes the photos herself, arranging books next to freshly cut flowers on her gray-and-white marble kitchen counter or on her blue-and-white bedroom rug. Some of them are books she has optioned; many of them are not. She tags the posts with the hashtag#RWBookClub.
“Has anyone read this beautiful book?” she wrote in a recent post about Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale.” “I’m halfway through and I can’t put it down.”
Ms. Witherspoon posted three times about “Luckiest Girl Alive,” a thriller with a protagonist who at first seems spoiled and unhappy with her aspirational life. Gradually, the reader learns about the trauma that has caused her to act the way she does. (The author, Ms. Knoll, last week published an essay about the real-life rape that inspired a scene in the book.) Ms. Witherspoon’s Instagram posts helped send the novel to the New York Times best-seller list, where it spent 17 weeks. After one of the posts, Ms. Knoll watched as the book’s Amazon ranking shot up to No. 7. It had been hovering around 70.
“The difference between what [“Luckiest Girl Alive”] might have done without Reese is just like the lightbulb to the sun,” said Marysue Rucci, editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster. “The way she champions each project is a little Oprah-esque.”
Pacific Standard hopes to branch out even further. Ms. Papandrea said she’s dying to do a period drama. Ms. Witherspoon wants to do a sci-fi project. The company hasn’t yet found a studio for “Barbie and Ruth,” a biography of Ruth Handler, the co-founder of Mattel who invented the Barbie doll and later became an AIDS activist.
Ms. Witherspoon said one executive told her his company didn’t do biographical films; they were looking for fresh material, he explained.
“Well, here’s the thing about female biopics: Almost none of them have been made, so they’re pretty fresh,’” she replied. “I can bring you a whole bunch of stories that you’ve probably never heard.”