Closing The Gap

At Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine, women play the leads—onscreen and off

How Reese Witherspoon's production company puts women in the spotlight
How Reese Witherspoon's production company puts women in the spotlight

Key ingredients to closing the gender gap in the entertainment industry: more female leaders, mentorship and opportunities for female directors and writers.

That's the upshot of CNBC and LinkedIn's survey of women in entertainment. An online survey conducted last month of 1,010 men and women in entertainment, the CNBC-LinkedIn study found that reports of sexual misconduct in the workplace have raised awareness of gender discrimination and the differences in how women and men are paid, promoted and given opportunities to succeed. The poll's margin of error is 3 percentage points.

One company that epitomizes the drive for change is Hello Sunshine. Reese Witherspoon founded the company two years ago to provide something that she saw as missing — content for women across platforms, starring strong female characters, written and produced by women. She tapped Sarah Harden, then president of Otter Media, as CEO.

"We are not fighting for a seat at the table, we are creating our own table," says Harden. "It's not just in the stories we tell, it's who's in our writers' room."

Spotlighting gender gaps in the entertainment business
Spotlighting gender gaps in the entertainment business

Hello Sunshine, which has an all-women C-suite and a staff that's almost entirely female stands in stark contrast to the rest of Hollywood. Only 4 percent of top film directors are female and women hold less than 18 percent of C-suite roles at major production houses, according to USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Onscreen, women accounted for less than a quarter of protagonists in the 100 top-grossing films in the U.S. last year, 5 percentage points fewer than the prior year, according to a study from San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

"Women have been silenced from a lot of the traditional storytelling process," says Harden. "We saw this connection between authentic, beautiful stories that show up on a screen where someone is going to take the time and say, 'Wow that story, it feels like they understand me, that this was made for me, it reflects my experience.'"

After Witherspoon's success producing the films "Wild" and "Gone Girl" and the HBO series "Big Little Lies," Harden says the mission of Hello Sunshine has shifted to creating content for all platforms. The company has its own VOD channel for AT&T and DirecTV. In addition to producing the next season of "Big Little Lies" for HBO, the company already has projects in the works with Amazon, Hulu, ABC and Apple.

In fact, the show Hello Sunshine is producing for Apple, centered on a fictional morning news show, is reportedly one of the most expensive deals in TV history, with Apple said to be spending $240 million for 20 episodes. Hello Sunshine also has a podcast, a book club, an audio books partnership with Audible and a live events business

Based on the number of deals Hello Sunshine has struck with such a wide assortment of companies, it seems safe to say that demand for its female-driven content is significant. Harden says it's a combination of the premium content creators they're working with and an understanding that this kind of content is more valuable than ever.

"We're in the middle of a set of cultural conversations around #MeToo and Time's Up where there is an awareness of the power of the female consumer," says Harden. "It's stunning to me that you've had these gaps." Female consumers, she says "make 85 percent of purchase decisions. They drive 75 percent of financial decisions. They're 50 percent of the box office." And yet, she says, when you look at what kind of content is being produced for women, there are "just huge gaps."

We are not fighting for a seat at the table, we are creating our own table.
Sarah Harden
CEO, Hello Sunshine

Harden says beyond Hello Sunshine, she's optimistic about other, larger, entertainment companies bridging those gaps as they chase consumers and profits. Harden says she sees the rise of the Time's Up movement and the growing conversation around the gender gap as a tipping point for the entertainment industry.

"There is a set of conversations happening now that were not happening," she says. "You're seeing women use their buying power, their economic power, their power as consumers, their power as executives to say, 'We are not going back.'"

She also says it's important that Hello Sunshine's leadership and staff and the creators the company works work with not be entirely female, and that the industry as a whole look at the value of bringing men into the conversation. "We can't sit and talk about the importance of diverse perspectives in driving better outcomes and better stories and not have men involved in that conversation."

When asked about the perceptions of pay and promotion gaps that CNBC and LinkedIn's study uncovered, Harden says she's not surprised. "I think you've had immense structural bias in our companies. I don't think it's always intentional. I think there's deep, unconscious bias," she says. "#MeToo and Time's Up have opened up a conversation ... 'Look around, we have to do better.'"

Harden says that Hello Sunshine is leading the charge has partnered with a number of production companies focused on pushing forward female narratives.

"I think it'll be a good day when we all sit around saying, 'There are too many female-driven stories out in the marketplace,'" she says. "It's certainly not the case today."

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Don't miss:

3 strategies for success from the NFL's first female coach Jen Welter
3 strategies for success from the NFL's first female coach Jen Welter