Greg Berlanti on Showrunner Legacy and Uplifting Diverse Storytellers

It’s nearly impossible to turn on the TV and not see at least one of Greg Berlanti’s shows airing. In fact, over the past few years, Berlanti Productions has had as many as 20 shows on the air at one time — a record-breaking number for a producer and creator. So, it’s no wonder he’s receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on May 23. Still, he never imagined this type of success.

After growing up in rural New York, he attended Northwestern University and thought about a career in theater, but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. “I knew I liked storytelling. In college, I quickly realized that I wasn’t a tenth of the actor as some of my compatriots. I’ve always had a great deal of admiration for actors because I knew I couldn’t do it,” he tells Variety. “I always loved television, but it’s more of a retroactive thing where you kind of look back and go, ‘Well, that makes sense.'”

He graduated college in 1994 and four years later, landed his first Hollywood job, at age 26, working in Kevin Williamson’s “Dawson’s Creek” writers’ room.

“It wasn’t until my very first day I walked into a writers’ room — and I called everybody I could at the end of that day. It was on ‘Dawson’s Creek.’ The first year on ‘Dawson’s,’ I barely said anything in the room and if I was gonna say anything, I called Julie Plec the night before, like, ‘This is what I think I’m going to say tomorrow,’” Berlanti recalls. “I remember going into that writers’ room and then afterwards, go into my office and thinking, this is really the combination of all the things that I love about this business. You get to be a part of the writing, the production of the things, the editing and the story. There was just a thrill to it that I thought, ‘Wow. This really feels like it totally aligns with all the things I love.’”

Berlanti got his start in the industry in the “Dawson’s Creek” writers’ room.
©Columbia Tristar/courtesy Everett

That day was nearly half of his life ago. Berlanti, who turns 50 one day after his Walk of Fame ceremony, went on to become one of the most successful in the business — and he kept doing what he loved. He was named showrunner — the youngest ever at 27 — when Williamson exited “Dawson’s Creek.” While in charge on the WB series, Berlanti broke boundaries with his storytelling, airing the first passionate same-sex kiss on network TV on the 2003 finale. When pitching the storyline, he received pushback and threatened to quit. Ultimately, he stayed and was given the green light to air the landscape-changing moment that sparked conversations around the country.

More than two decades later, he continues doing just that.

As a writer, director and producer, Berlanti’s biggest goal is to tell stories he’s passionate about and working with others who want to tell their stories. In 2000, he founded the production company, Berlanti Productions, and began churning out projects including (but definitely not limited to) “Everwood,” “Jack & Bobby,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Arrow,” “Supergirl,” “ Black Lightning” and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” Some of his hottest shows — “The Flash,” “Legends of Tomorrow,” “Riverdale,” “All American,” “You,” “Batwoman,” “Doom Patrol” and “The Flight Attendant,” to name a few — are still on the air.

“So much of my early career was tied to being able to speak my truth and talk about who I was and my personal experience, and because that led to me doing better work, it’s always been a thing for me — giving an opportunity to people that may not look like me or may not have my background, or may not be my gender or whatever, but have stories to tell,” says Berlanti, who came out as gay to his family in 1996.

It hasn’t always been easy. In fact, he’s had to fight for stories about sexuality, race, class and gender to get the spotlight they deserve.

“I know that if you push through, that’s where the audience is always so grateful. It ended up looking and feeling more like their world, which isn’t just a bubble, but it’s very diverse filled with all sorts of different kinds of stories,” he says. “You have to stay committed to fighting for them. Usually, you find one advocate at the studio or the network that really believes in it and helps you carry it across the endzone.”

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Berlanti created his first series, “Everwood,” in 2002.
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett

One of those instances was with The CW’s “All American.” Most of the networks passed on the show, which told the story of a Black star football player from Crenshaw who’s recruited to Beverly Hills High for a bigger opportunity. The feedback that Berlanti received was that it looked to be similar to “90210,” but with a Black lead. Finally, the CW met with him. It was the only network to buy the series.

“The first year it came out on The CW in 2018, it didn’t do as well as we all wanted it to do. It took going to Netflix for it to explode and grow and now I think it’s their No. 1 show now,” he says. “For me, it was about telling a point of view that I felt like hadn’t been on TV, but when I watch, it still feels like those early ‘Dawson’s’ or ‘Everwood’ episodes.”

The relationship that Berlanti formed with The CW is a great reason for his success, he says, noting that CEO Mark Pedowitz has been a huge mentor to him and supportive of the many genres he’s worked in — from family dramas to his massive amount of superhero hits

“Greg is the true embodiment of integrity,” says Pedowitz, who met Berlanti for the first time during his days at ABC Studios. “When it comes to my own working relationship with Greg, I am proud to say that we have always had an incredibly transparent and straightforward, back and forth dialogue. Even if there were times where we might not agree, we always found ways to move forward together.”

Pedowitz also summed up their relationship in anecdote, telling a story of the first year of “Arrow,” during which he asked Berlanti if he’d like to do a spinoff around the Flash.

“He just laughed and said, ‘I was just about to come pitch that to you.’ He tells me that the Flash was a character he always embraced as a kid, and I told him that I felt the same way,” recalls Pedowitz. “We set out to bring this mutual childhood hero to life, and now, here we are, heading into Season 9 of ‘The Flash.’”

Plec, who met Berlanti while they were both in the theater department at Northwestern, has always known about his impressive work ethic.

“When we were growing up in this business, before he had kids, Greg would rise by 6 am so he could spend his mornings reading or writing for pleasure — biographies, history books, memoirs,” she says. “He would journal or write new, original material. Then he would go work a full day as a budding mogul. Meanwhile, I would sleep until 9:30 am because I had stayed up too late tweeting.”

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Greg Berlanti and Julie Plec
Courtesy of Julie Plec

From his start in this industry, Berlanti felt a thrill of being part of every step of a project. “You follow something from the inception of story all the way through when the audience absorbs it and the next week, you do it all over again,” he says. Now, while he’s in more of an executive role, he finds that thrill in helping others.

“I work with so many people who haven’t done it before, I think because I kind of experience it viscerally through them. You get better at identifying who maybe has the same passion that you had,” he says. “I think it feels to them like an unfair trade, like, ‘Oh, my God, your company’s doing so much for us.’ But really, it’s the other way. We get so much from people who are so excited to do this. We remind ourselves every day, we really can change someone’s life every day — an actor or writer or producer. You can afford someone a possibility or an opportunity that will alter their life and I wasn’t in that position early on. My life was being altered. And so now it’s rewarding on a whole other level.”

Those around him can feel their lives being changed, too.

“Greg loves this industry. He loves storytelling and he loves entertaining the audience. If you love what you do, it’s actually quite possible to juggle more than you ever thought you could handle, because the passion drives you along through the moments when you think you might not get it done,” says Plec, who has stayed close with Berlanti both personally and professionally for the past 20 years. “Plus, he has smartly partnered with the likes of Sarah Schechter, who might be the only person on earth who works harder than he does.”

Schechter, who first worked with Berlanti on 2010’s “Life as We Know It,” became president of Berlanti Productions in 2014. Six years later, she was promoted to partner and chairperson. “He was always so kind and encouraging,” she tells Variety. “When I was ready to make the leap and follow my dreams, there was no one better to work with. Greg is so deeply talented. Hey is unstoppable. He truly cares about people and wants everyone to have a great experience. He also cares deeply about the work and wants to put good things into the world that will touch people emotionally and inspire them.”

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Sarah Schecter and Greg Berlanti
Courtesy of Sarah Schecter

So, what’s the secret to keeping such a busy, nonstop schedule? It’s simple: Loving what you do.

“It’s really just about solving the problem right in front of you and advocating for the things you are passionate about and believe in,” she says. “The trick is not to look at how much there is to do, but rather to start doing it. It’s also working with talented, good people and linking arms to try to tell worthy stories that can have emotional impact. He is driven by creative passion and as he has gone along, he continues to find pleasure in helping other writers achieve their dreams. It speaks to his generosity that he keeps working as hard as he does. He is deeply invested in other writers as well as the stories he still wants to tell personally. Nothing makes him happier than a white board and a story to break or an editing room to hide in.”

Berlanti can’t help but agree with one part of that: It’s all about the people involved. “I don’t think of all the shows and all of the elements involved there. I just think of the people that are excited to tell stories that day,” he says of the balancing act. “When I think about just the people that I’m getting to deal with, that’s when that’s kind of what keeps me excited and going.”

Together, the duo has supported each other on numerous TV shows and films.

“We are both fighters in our own ways so I think we have bonded most over the projects we shared belief in that took longer to get made and find the right homes for like ‘Riverdale,’ ‘You’ and ‘My Policeman,’” Schecter says. “Often times the best projects face moments where they don’t have any momentum behind them. There are days when I feel like Greg and I are the only people who see what something can be. But honestly, that’s all I need to know: We are on the right track.”

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Lili Reinhart, KJ Apa and Camila Mendes in ‘Riverdale.’
Kailey Schwerman/The CW

She notes that “there is true magic” when the pair are able to launch something they really believe in together. “There is no one in this whole world I’d rather be pushing that proverbial boulder up the hill with. I am also smart enough to get into action when Greg sees value in an idea or project. I’m no dummy. There is enormous satisfaction when a project finally finds its audience and fans, but for me Greg is the only audience I need.” He’s also both seen and been part of enormous change in the industry over the past two decades, including on the leadership side.

In 2021, Channing Dungey took over from Peter Roth as chairman at Warner Bros. Television Group — and immediately witnessed Berlanti’s staying power.

“I am beyond thrilled for Greg. He is not only a highly esteemed writer, producer, and director, but also an incredibly thoughtful and compassionate human being,” says Dungey. “He has blazed trails and opened doors for so many through his innovative and exceptional work — it’s almost impossible to fully grasp the impact he has had on this industry. I am extremely excited that he is receiving this well-deserved recognition.”

After so much success, he’s only just getting started — and keeps doing the thing he tells anyone when they ask for advice: “Focus on the kinds of stories you want to tell, what you’re passionate about, where your heart is, and then align with the right people. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

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