Prolific TV Producer Sarah Schechter Brings Unmatched Passion to Her Role as Berlanti Prods. President
Becoming a producer Sarah Schechter love baseball again. Today the powerhouse behind a record-breaking 17 current television series, Schechter found her way in the business making movies.
“When I first started working in film, what became so nice about watching sports was you didn’t know what was going to happen,” she says. “When you’re reading so many scripts, you start to feel like you know what’s going to happen in each one. Then you work on projects where you read the script over and over again, and you don’t have surprises. So I kind of fell back in love with baseball, particularly, because it was like, “Oh, I don’t know what’s gonna happen here. There’s no script to read. You’re going to have to wait till the end.’”
Schechter doesn’t work in film anymore. The president of Berlanti Prods., she’s now one of the most prolific producers of scripted series in television history. But she still reads a lot of scripts.
As such, she and producing partner Greg Berlanti’s most recent expansion of their already vast empire is a welcome change-up. The company’s first documentary project, “Helter Skelter: An American Myth,” premiered July 26 on Epix. Its second, “Equal,” for HBO Max, debuted Oct. 22.
“Working on so many scripted television series reignited my interest in unscripted and this idea that truth is stranger than fiction,” Schechter says.
“Equal” is narrated by Billy Porter and features Samira Wiley, Anthony Rapp, Cheyenne Jackson and other actors reenacting scenes from the lives of pre-Stonewall gay rights activists, their portrayals interspersed with archival footage. The project originated with Scout Prods., which produced with Berlanti. Once aboard, Schechter “quickly became the face of the project,” says Scout documentary head Joel Chiodi.
Key to the series’ success was Schechter’s efforts to bring greater inclusion to it, encouraging the hiring of women and people of color for important creative and craft roles.
“We needed representation across the board behind the scenes, whether that’s the director or the day-to-day producer; she’s a big advocate for that,” says Chiodi. Just as critical was Schechter’s knowledge of the craft of nonfiction. “She knows her ins and outs in the documentary space in a way that exceeded all expectations for me,” says Chiodi. Indeed, Schechter’s roots in the genre run deep.
“I spent most of my childhood on documentary shoots or interviews or just being very bored at various work locations,” Schechter says. “What’s funny is how long it took to get back to it, in a way.”
Her father, Danny Schechter, was a documentarian and producer who was involved in the anti-apartheid movement and made six films about Nelson Mandela. Some of his other work covered the 2000 Florida presidential election, the life of Barack Obama and the 2008 financial crisis.
“He was always ahead of his time,” she says of her father, who died in 2015. “I also watched him make no money and struggle to have anyone see anything that he made. So I think that was my initial draw to Hollywood — to make things that it was easy to get audiences for.”
Sarah Schechter started out in New York, working briefly for the doc director Barbara Kopple. She also worked on a handful of independent films that, she says, “you’ve never heard of. They’re terrible.” She moved to L.A. and got a job as an assistant with the producer Barry Mendel, whom she worked with for six years, during which time Mendel produced “Rushmore” and “The Sixth Sense.” Then she landed a job in development at Warner Bros. “I thought it would be just for a year and a half — just to learn so I could be a better producer.” She stayed for nine years, rising to senior VP.
In 2010, she worked on a feature that Berlanti directed, “Life as We Know It.” The two clicked. “Greg is genuinely the kindest, most talented person in this business,” Schechter says. And he saw in her a passion that did not necessarily serve her well as an executive.
“I noticed just the way that she gave notes and the way that she worked with me, and how protective she was of me, and how protective she was of the film, and her advocacy at all times,” Berlanti says. “I said to her, ‘You’re a great executive, but I really think you’re a producer.’ I associate being a producer more with having to really fight for everything, and she just had that in her bones.”
In 2014, Schechter joined forces with Berlanti, exiting Warner Bros. to become a part of his production company. At the time, the Warner Bros.-based Berlanti had a respectable slate of shows on TV, including The CW’s “Arrow,” “The Flash” and “The Tomorrow People.”
Six years later no producer has more series on TV than Schechter, who was named company chairwoman earlier this year, and Berlanti. In 2018, Berlanti Prods. signed a six-year deal with Warner Bros. TV valued at more than $300 million.
“Without her I’d be a guy with a couple of shows,” Berlanti says. “I would be where my company was 10 years ago, prior to her — which was fine and nice. But it wasn’t what she’s grown and manifested it into.”
During the recent, record-breaking years, Berlanti’s perspective has remained that of a writer and creator. Schechter, meanwhile, has focused on scaling up, pouring energy into getting shows sold and made, recruiting and nurturing producing talent, guiding decisions on directors and casts.
Julie Plec, who is exec producing the upcoming Netflix series “The Girls on the Bus” with Berlanti and Schechter, credits the latter’s work ethic and “fearlessness” for her success.
“She’s unapologetically passionate; she’s unapologetically intense,” Plec says. “She’s absolutely incredibly intelligent, borderline brilliant, I would say, in certain areas. She is unafraid of speaking her mind; she’s unafraid of telling it how it is, for better or for worse. I think that that’s the beauty of her: If you need her, if she’s in your corner, there’s just nothing she holds back. And I think that that — as a woman in this business — that’s an incredible asset.”
Producing at the volume that Berlanti Prods. does means that Schechter has been at the forefront of the logistical battle to get television back up and running amid the pandemic. At the moment she has 11 shows in production, including “Batwoman,” “Riverdale” and “Prodigal Son.” Schechter has been encouraging the line producers on her shows to talk with one another, creating a sort of intelligence exchange on what works and what doesn’t.
Some of the biggest challenges have been, as she puts it, “simple problems.” For instance, the carving up of crews into pods has meant that hair and makeup people aren’t available on set for touch-ups. Thus, an actor’s look can evolve over a series of takes, affecting continuity. Under normal circumstances, she says, “there are all kinds of checks and balances on a production. And we don’t have those as much.”
As she sets about getting her shows back up and running, Schechter is conscious of how many people are reliant on the work hours they provide.
“I felt a really heavy weight that I don’t think I’ve ever had the time to stop and think about before — feeling a real responsibility to all the writers, all the support staff, all the crews, all the actors,” she says. “We don’t have a great government right now, and they don’t take care of people properly. And a lot of people are left very high and dry. There’s a lot of people that work paycheck to paycheck, and just wanting to figure out how to help as many of them as possible, I think that’s what it very quickly became about for me.”
The pandemic altered the future for everyone, even television’s biggest producers. But Schechter remains focused on growing Berlanti Prods. as a whole. Documentary will continue to be an area in which the company is active. More immediately, Schechter wants to focus on the feature business. “The rise of streamers has meant that there’s a lot more room for movies that we grew up loving,” she says. Berlanti, who had his breakout as a director with 2018’s “Love, Simon,” will be behind the camera again sooner rather than later. And the company hired veteran TV exec David Madden as president in February, strengthening its scripted programming team.
“The market is ever changing,” Schechter says. “We want to just keep working with people that we love that we believe in and tell stories that haven’t been told.”