Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman's big leap into producing

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman make bold strides as executive producers, as streaming platforms court stars to create new works

Award-winning series Big Little Lies’ stars Reese Witherspoon (far left) will adapt best-selling novel Little Fires Everywhere for streaming service Hulu and Nicole Kidman will work with HBO on The Undoing.
Award-winning series Big Little Lies’ stars Reese Witherspoon (far left) will adapt best-selling novel Little Fires Everywhere for streaming service Hulu and Nicole Kidman will work with HBO on The Undoing. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES • Call it the Big Little Lies effect.

Within the space of 45 minutes early last week, there were separate announcements that Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, stars of the Emmy Award-winning HBO series, will serve as executive producers and stars of two new projects.

Witherspoon struck a deal to adapt best-selling novel Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, as a limited series for streaming service Hulu. The actress' production company, Hello Sunshine, had initiated the project.

Kidman reached an agreement with HBO with her project, a limited series called The Undoing, based on the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz.

Veteran hitmaker David E. Kelley, who has written every episode of Big Little Lies, will help produce the show with Kidman.

In the year since Big Little Lies premiered, Witherspoon and Kidman have moved a number of projects towards production, including a second season of Big Little Lies, for which they persuaded Meryl Streep to join the cast.

The two Oscar winners' move into the ranks of powerful producers has been helped along by an entertainment industry that has changed dramatically with the entry of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Apple into the realm of big-budget series.

The streaming platforms, eager to upend the old television order, are hungry for stars and spending freely to get them. HBO must join the competition if it hopes to maintain its position as a premium cable outlet for A-list programming.

The limited-series genre has been a hit with movie stars who prefer not to be tied into programmes that can last for years. It is also popular with demanding audiences that may lose patience with a show at the first sign of narrative drift.

Witherspoon and Kidman are also taking advantage of an industry motivated by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements to do a better job of telling stories of strong, complex women, in a space that has long been dominated by scowling male detectives, goofy sitcom dads and tortured anti-heroes.

In an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, Witherspoon said it was not until last September's Emmys ceremony - during which Big Little Lies won multiple awards - that her phone started ringing in earnest. "I think it just clicked in people's minds that this works economically and critically and that it was very well received," she added.

Amazon, Hulu and Apple all showed serious interest in Little Fires Everywhere, but Hulu came through with the best offer.

The platform - which is owned jointly by Walt Disney, 21st Century Fox, Comcast and Time Warner - has some wind at its back after the success of The Handmaid's Tale, which became the first streaming show to win an Emmy for Best Series.

Hulu's guerilla marketing efforts for The Handmaid's Tale, which included sending women in red cloaks to walk around New York, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, particularly impressed Witherspoon's team.

It probably did not hurt that ABC Signature Studios, a co-producer of the series, is owned by Disney, which will be the majority owner of Hulu if its planned acquisition of 21st Century Fox wins government approval.

"Hulu has a rich history of transforming ground-breaking literature into ground-breaking television, and we are confident that its talented team will use this story to spur a long-overdue dialogue around race, class and what it means to be a mother," Witherspoon said.

Besides her deals with HBO and Hulu, she is producing three shows for Apple - a series about a morning show, with Jennifer Aniston; a drama starring Octavia Spencer; and a comedy starring Kristen Wiig.

The loser in the recent pair of deals is ad-supported television.

None of the broadcast networks or cable channels with critically acclaimed fare, such as FX or AMC, was seriously involved in the bidding for Little Fires Everywhere or The Undoing.

In the new Hollywood - where Apple is handing out fat cheques and Netflix has given huge deals to Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy - creative producers are in very high demand. All they have to do now is make binge-worthy shows.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2018, with the headline 'Actresses' big leap into producing'. Subscribe