HUMANITAS Trustee Greg Berlanti on Breaking the On-Air Series Record, Netflix’s Mega-Deals, and an ‘Everwood’ Reunion
The man who is the talk of upfronts is not even there.
Uberproducer Greg Berlanti, who has just set a new record with 14 series on air, makes it a point to stay in L.A. during the busiest week of the year for the TV business. “I never go to upfronts. They never notice when I’m there, so I stopped going years ago,” he confesses. “I’m also really superstitious. The last time I went, I got a bunch of shows canceled. So now I don’t come back.”
Whatever his secret, it’s working: Berlanti added to his already overfull plate with three new broadcast series (CBS’ “God Friended Me” and “The Red Line” and The CW’s “All-American”), the digital series “Doom Patrol” for DC Universe — and only faced one cancellation (ABC’s “Deception”).
Here, he talks to Variety about what it means to him to set the record, why he’s not interested in moving to Netflix — and whether we’ll see that “Everwood” reboot anytime soon.
You now have 14 series on the air across broadcast, cable and streaming — breaking a record held by Aaron Spelling and Jerry Bruckheimer. What does it mean to you to break that record?
I’m really proud of our team, of everybody here — Sarah Schechter and Ryan Lindenberg, who also does development with us. I’m proud of all the showrunners and creators that we work with. I feel really fortunate to work with a lot of great people who all know what they’re doing and all work hard and would all have plenty of success without me working with them. I just think that that, combined with our relationship with the studio, everybody works so hard all year to achieve this. My secret dream is that other people that work with me get more credit for all the hard work that they do because they work just as hard and so I’m really proud to be a part of all of it, but I don’t feel like an author for that. I feel like I’m just on a really great team. That’s the truth.
What is it that sparks for you when someone comes in to you with a pitch? What is it that makes you think this is something I need to get behind?
I think this year is a great example to be honest, because all of our dramas are original ideas, and we really made a specific conscious choice to go with people’s passion projects. What’s worked for us throughout is we just try and align the writer who’s really passionate with the idea that they’re very passionate about because to survive the gauntlet of network television, I think they have to start by really having that story in their heart and soul. Their wherewithal is kind of what at this point in my life I borrow. Because I don’t have any left for myself. So when they are really passionate about something, we respond to that more than anything.
“Red Line” was a spec script that Caitlin Parish and Erica Weiss wrote. We had brought that around for a while and had sent that around to a lot of shops in town, along with Ava [DuVernay]. And “God Friended Me” was a pitch that was brought into us as an original piece and then “All-American,” which April Blair wrote, was a story that my own husband had told me. He went out and got the life rights and worked with April Blair on it. So I’m really proud of this year in terms of the people that are involved and that they were all passionate projects. And I think that if we have any secret whatsoever it’s the quality of the people we work with at the studio, and then our team led by Sarah, whose name is on all these shows too and people love developing and making shows with.
We’re living in an era of vertical integration, while you’re working with an independent studio with Warner Bros. How have you managed to sell shows in this climate?
It’s really why I came back to Warner Bros. when I did. We get to make a show from the inside out. We get to make the show we would want to see and then we sell it both as a story and a pitch. Some of the shows that we have on the air were shows that were passed on by other networks that we had developed them with, and then brought them to other people. But we always put the story and the script first and if we have something that we’re passionate about, I think the advantage in this marketplace is that there’s so many different outlets that you really should find the people that want to make it the most, and if you have a good story, you’re going to ultimately align with the right people to tell it. Three of the things that we will have on the air in the fall were all started at some other network, and then ultimately the story or the script found its way to another place. And so I think it actually puts us in an advantageous position because then we get to make the thing that should count the most count the most — which is the material, I think.
Do you keep that in mind when you’re developing if it’s going to go to broadcast, cable or streaming? Or is it wherever it has the best chance of success?
I think we do somewhat. We definitely pick and choose when you bring something out to pitch, where’s it going to. But it’s definitely also changing really radically right now. “Red Line” I think is an example of something we had brought that out to cable places and SVOD places and were shocked as everyone when we got the call from CBS the last day of pickups. If you have the right story, I think it inevitably does find the right home. At the top of pitching season of the network shows I’ll make a list of the pitches we have and the places I think they’ll get sold, I’m always wrong. They always end up going to a place that I don’t think, so I’m never right about that. And it’s always surprising who wants what. A large part of it is just about the individuals that are at the helm at their networks, and what their appetite is.
Your lineup is now all dramas. Was that intentional? Do you want to do a comedy?
Definitely, yeah. I know we’re about to take out a comedy or two. We developed a comedy this year, which we were quite proud of and it didn’t move forward. I definitely think we have a lot of diversity within the drama category, which is nice. It’s weird to me — I don’t see them all the same like comedies, dramas. I see them all as, what’s the story? Who is the character it’s about? What’s the tone? Because we can do lighter comedies too. We have hours that have a lighter tone that almost play like a comedy. They’re just longer in terms of their narrative length. I always see them all the same.
I think the other thing that’s also exciting for me is that so many of the projects that we take on aren’t ones that I would dream up or even necessarily buy. But I’ve got Ryan Lindbergh and I’ve got Sarah Schechter heading it all and they have very different tastes than me. And so different people come in with them and sit with them, and they’ll come into my office and say, we heard this great pitch. Sometimes I don’t always see it, but I believe in them and I believe in the writers who come through. And so I get to be a part of shows that I wouldn’t necessarily purchase initially, but the ones that tend to make it through all of that are just the ones where there’s someone who comes in with a really clear vision for something. And then what we’re best at and what I feel like I can add or offer is just literally the logistics of how to make it through this maze and end up on the other side with a show that you’re really proud of. And with a cast you love and hopefully with an audience that connects with it.
Do you think there’s a limit on the number of shows you can do?
Certainly there is already but truthfully, there would be if I felt at all like I were the only person doing it. But the reality is, it’s more about how much can the team that I am lucky enough to work with every day, how much do they want to do and what’s their appetite. That’s a large part of it. But it’s hard. We say every year we’re going to do less. We said that this year. We developed less things this year than we did the year before, but we just got more things on the air because what I think we were more refined about is just working with people that had a really clear line of attack on things. So their success is our success, but it’s really their success.
Netflix is being aggressive about making deals with producers. Is that something you would consider, or are you happy at Warners?
I would say really clearly that we would not have the business we have without Peter Roth and Susan Rovner and their team that’s in place here. So many times either they’re sending us a writer or they’re helping us get a script or they’re helping us cast something great or they’re helping us find a great director or they’re watching our cuts and telling us how to make them better. I love making television, but I really love making television with them and I hope that that continues as long as I can see.
Reboots and revivals are the trend du jour, and you’ve got more than a few popular titles in your library. We’ve talked before about “Everwood.” Is that closer to becoming reality? Are there other other series that you would want to reboot or revive?
Definitely of all of them, “Everwood” is the one that has a special song in my heart. I think it’s about schedules and finances and budget and if we can get a budget to a place, I think that there’s a real shot that that could come back. I think we just have to figure out what would be the best way to do it, but there’s nothing firm in place yet.
Is there anything still on your bucket list that you want to do?
Spend more time with my family.
And how are you going to do that with 14 shows?
Robbie and I are making a show together this year. That was one way! (Laughs.)
Now you just need to cast your son.
No, no! He can be anything but an actor. He’s not allowed to be an actor. That would be the ultimate revenge on me.