Greg Berlanti on Why Movies Are Lagging Behind TV in LGBTQ Representation

Greg Berlanti is television’s most prolific producer.

With a record-breaking 18 series from his production company greenlit for the 2019-2020 season, the openly gay Berlanti is using his power to ensure the LGBTQ community is reflected on the small screen — both in front of and behind the camera.

From casting the first transgender superhero on TV with Nicole Maines on “Supergirl” to bringing on the first superhero series lead by lesbian character with the CW’s “Batwoman,” which debuts this fall, Berlanti is doing his part to increase representation in TV and movies, directing the 2018 film “Love, Simon,” which was the first major studio film to focus on a gay teen romance. However, Berlanti — who, early in his career, fought for the gay kiss in “Dawson’s Creek,” which made broadcast history as the first passionate kiss between two men — says the movie biz still has a lot of work to do.

“There is no reason why it feels so antiquated in this day and age when we’ve had the kind of progress that we’ve had in the TV space,” Berlanti says of the lack of lead LGBTQ characters in movies. (According to GLAAD, less than 20% of major studio releases in 2018 featured LGBTQ characters, but most had less than three minutes of screen time.)

Aside from reflecting the real world on screen, Berlanti is also using his power in the 2020 election, recently deciding to co-host a fundraising event for Pete Buttigieg, who would become the first openly gay U.S. president if elected.

The high-profile fundraising event, which was scheduled for June 19 at the Los Angeles home of Ryan Murphy and husband David Miller, was canceled after Buttigieg opted to stay in South Bend, Ind., where he serves as mayor, after an officer-involved shooting instead of visiting California for a week of planned fundraisers.

The fundraising event, now hosted by Berlanti and husband Robbie Rogers, along with gay Hollywood power players including Murphy, Matt Bomer, Simon Halls, Bryan Lourd, Bruce Bozzi, Kevin Huvane and Billy Eichner, will be re-scheduled for July, Variety has learned.

Here, Berlanti talks to Variety about the “tremendous” impact of Buttigieg running for president, LGBTQ progress in the entertainment industry and why film has a lot of catching up to do with television.

Your film “The Broken Hearts Club” was about a group of gay men. That was the first major project you wrote, kicking off your career. Was there pushback from studios when you were pitching the film?

I wrote it on spec when I had nothing, and it actually was the first piece of material that I wrote that ended up getting me a lot of work. And so, I kind of always took from that the lesson of writing something really personal and truthful — that would only help me. It got me my job on “Dawson’s Creek” and it got me a job writing a movie for Universal, both of which were for Kevin Williamson. Julie Plec, who was an old college friend of mine, read it and was the one who got me those jobs and passed it around, and there was a production company around at the time that wanted to make it. There were people when I was writing it, other individuals in the business, who said, “Maybe don’t bank your whole career on writing something that small, and write something more high concept.” But I had written those types of scripts and none of them had sold. I’m glad that something so personal was the thing that opened doors for me.

Representation on-screen has progressed immensely since 2000, when “The Broken Hearts Club” hit theaters. What changed have you witnessed in the industry over the 20 years since that film came out?

To me, at least in television, things have changed a dramatic amount. When we were first doing gay content on “Dawson’s Creek,” there was a lot of pushback and conversations about having characters who were gay have a romantic kiss. Obviously, take that versus today where we have 30-some-odd LGBTQIA characters across all of our shows that are either recurring or regulars. As the executive suites have changed and the people making the shows have changed, have broadened, I think the stories have broadened, too. 

Have you witnessed that type of change in film, or just television?

Personally, as an audience member, I have not witnessed the same sort of change in the mainstream studio place. It feels like they still have a lot of work to be done. I know they’re making a lot less every year, but it just feels like there’s a great deal of representation that could still happen in a lot of regards. 

A recent report from GLAAD found that television is at an all-time high in regards to LGBTQ representation, but film is actually down from the year prior. Why do you think TV is ahead of film?

My gut is because they make fewer movies. It’s the same thing you’re seeing just with the general creative of filmmaking versus TV — because they make less of them and they make less bets, the kinds of things they take are less original and, in their minds, they take less risks. But I think ultimately, what’s been proven time and time again, especially recently, is that it’s ultimately not a risk. Ultimately, if you’re telling a great story and you’re telling it in a fresh way that audiences haven’t seen before about people who really have not been represented on the screen and whose stories haven’t been represented, it’s exactly the type of injection that I think filmmaking needs. I just think because they’re making less and less movies, the mindset has not been as open, and I think the movies in general are probably suffering for it.

Well, with the work you’re doing, TV certainly is not suffering. What type of impact do you believe your storytelling and casting choices have made on audiences?

The more that the stories are about and by and for the societies and communities we all live in that reflect us as people, then the more relevant the stories are and the better they are — especially when you’re working in the space of things like superheroes because for me, it’s all about who those people are saving, because if they’re not protecting a world that looks like ours, then I think it’s not in the spirit of what all these characters were when they were created. I think it’s our jobs as stewards for these characters of this generation to maintain the DNA that makes the character who they are, while finding ways to bring them into this era and into this moment. 

You recently said in an interview that early on in your career, gay executives would not let you cast gay actors in straight roles. 

What I elaborated on, at the time that I gave that quote — and I’m not sure that they used this part of it — is that there were certain executives, and it was always the most egregious to me if I knew that this executive was gay. There were certain executives who would say, “Doesn’t this actor seem a little soft?” That was their way of saying it was a man that they knew was gay. Or, “Doesn’t that woman seem a little tough?” Which they meant, “Okay, she seems like a lesbian.” They would use code words when they said it, but I knew what they meant because I was a gay person. 

Have you seen that happen in recent years?

I have not. It’s been nice to see that change, and to see people know that audiences are connecting with people who are authentic and are themselves, and that all kinds of people can play all kinds of roles.

You’re now in a major decision-making position, which is probably why you haven’t witnessed that first-hand in recent years, but do you think those type of conversations still happen where casting executives say don’t cast a gay person in straight roles?

I don’t know. I haven’t witnessed it. What I was also commenting on when I gave that quote was just the arc of change that’s happened and how the conversation used to be behind closed doors — “Well, we can’t cast that person because they’re gay” — versus what’s happening now, which is, “Should we cast a gay actor for this gay role? Or should we cast a straight actor?” The conversation has evolved. It’s opened up a whole other conversation, which is equally sort of a tight rope that I’d prefer not to walk [laughs].

That is a big conversation right now. In “Love, Simon,” you cast both straight and gay actors in all types of roles.

What was great is that we had straight actors playing gay roles and gay actors playing straight roles and we were all over the map, and that helped us assemble a great cast because it felt like a group of friends you would know today. It wasn’t prohibited by just trying to put someone in a box, which is very limiting when you’re trying to make something that is really good.

While things have progressed immensely, the reality is that certain people do make judgments on sexuality and homophobia still exists. With that said, do you think it was risky for Nick Robinson — a straight actor and a relative newcomer — to take on playing a gay teen in “Love, Simon” as his first major role?

You know, I’d like to believe that has changed. Putting aside executives and their decision-making power for a second, back in the day when I was trying to get Tim Olyphant in “Broken Hearts Club,” there weren’t a lot of straight guys that wanted to play gay back then — he was fine about it, by the way, and he was awesome in the part — and when we were casting roles on TV at that time, there were straight actors who were advised not to play gay roles. I definitely have seen that greatly diminished. 

So do you think actors are more open to playing gay or straight roles, regardless of their real-life sexuality? Or is there still a concern about being type-cast or alienating certain audience members?

I think people are interested in playing roles that they connect with and that they think the audience will connect with. In my gut, I think particularly people 35 years old and down, the younger generations, seize gender and sexuality in a much more open way, and I think that’s reflected in our actors that are of that generation, and I think it’s reflective in the audience of that generation. I was really able to witness that when we started to take “Love, Simon” around the country. People straight, gay, across the board, queer in general, were able to connect and identify with the movie, just as a high school movie. It’s refreshing. I feel like some of that is, in some small part, because of the work that everyone has been doing on TV in the last 20 years to reflect our world the way it is and not just the way that certain people hope it would be.

Why is “Love, Simon” such a significant film, especially for younger audiences?

When I read the film, I obviously loved the writing and the story and I wanted to participate in it, but I didn’t realize what a void there was, to be honest, until we were actually making the film — and that’s coming from me, who is someone in the business who does this type of stuff. It was being on set and realizing, “Oh my gosh, so often it’s just a man and a woman kissing, and it’s not two guys kissing,” so just seeing that difference, and then seeing that difference in the audience. The experience of going to a theater and seeing the audience cheer on that kiss at the end, what that meant to me as a gay person, I’m not sure I had any awareness even before the film, as much as I did after, and in some ways, it made me realize, wow, there really needs to be more movies across the board that are doing this and that are giving audiences in theaters these experiences, too, and not just at home on their TV sets.

Inclusive storytelling has always been important, but why in this particular time with so much political divide is it crucial for media to represent the LGBTQ community on screen?

I think you can look at it two ways. You can look at it as storytellers, which is that this is the next evolution and there’s finally an opportunity for people because there are so many stories being told across so many platforms and there are so many shows and so much TV and so much of a chance as storytellers to evolve. It’s like there’s this whole room of boxes and boxes of stories that just haven’t been told, and now there’s finally an opportunity to tell these stories, and how incredible is that? And then, you can look at it as a business person, and say this is what the audience has been deprived of for so long. I think with every generation, there’s just a natural evolution and progression that happens with these things. It’s nice that it’s evolved to a point where people realize how valuable representation is, whether it’s as a storyteller, or as a business person.

You are co-hosting a fundraising event for Pete Buttigieg. Whether or not he gets the nomination, what does it mean to have a viable prospect that America could have its first openly gay president?

It means a tremendous amount. Part of why we’re having the event is just to get to know him and his positions better, but what I’ve enjoyed so much about watching how he talks about issues is just that as a candidate, he has been such a breath of fresh air — and that’s removing his sexuality from the conversation. And then, for me, just as a gay person, to see that in my lifetime, it feels like it felt when gay marriage happened. These are things that I, when I was 17 and 18 — I wasn’t taught to think that one day maybe I could get married and have a family. We barely had characters on TV. So now, there’s more and more of a place at the table for people. And obviously, there’s an epic battle being fought right now of people who want to take us into the future and people who want to take us back into the past, and my personal opinion on American history is not on the side of people that want to take us into the past. The evolution and change that comes in democracies are amazing things to behold. As an out gay person, I’m so glad that I’m at the age that I am old enough to remember how it was, but that I’m young enough that I can appreciate that these things are happening in my lifetime. I never thought they would.

You’re on social media, and many of your shows are on the CW, which is a younger generation. What is it like to be able to interact with the audience you’re creating content for?

I’ll be honest, I’m a bit of a technophobe! I Instagram pictures of my family and things like that, but I’m not as well-versed and I’m not as great with some of the other social media. I’m confessing that, in some ways, I am very middle aged, and that is one of them. I very often call out millennials in the office to help me out, and now I’m calling out for Gen Z. I try to limit my intake of social media, positive or negative, just because I have limited resources, especially now since we’ve started our family, because I feel that any five minutes I’m on that, I could be spending five more minutes with my kids. So I have set periods of the day where I’m allowed to be on social media in my house, but it’s not always the nicest place, but there are times that it’s nice to be reminded that what you do has impacted people emotionally.

You have young viewers who constantly comment on social media about seeing characters on screen that look like them. I’d imagine that’s rewarding. How does that make you feel?

That happens with our shows, for sure. But in particular, around the time of the release for “Love, Simon,” there were so many people writing on social media that they were leaving the movie theater and sitting in the movie theater and coming out to their friends or family. The immediacy of that, I think for them, was probably just because of the gratification of being in the theater where people were seeing characters that reminded them of themselves. The feedback in that regard was rewarding and it’s still rewarding. 

What do you think is the biggest problem in Hollywood when it comes to representation?

I’m probably being redundant, but I really think, having just made a mainstream studio film, I think that they are way behind. What characters did we have in film last year in the last 12 months that were leads that were gay? That’s just on this particular issue — there are many different minorities that have a similar feeling of division — but I think that more attention should be paid to that and more expectations should be set.

Are you hopeful for the future of Hollywood?

I am very hopeful. I think there is a dramatic amount of change happening in Hollywood. We’re seeing it happen in all sorts of regards, both in how stories are being told, the technology of how they’re being told and how they’re being consumed. Because we do so many shows for young people, and because we’re often in direct communication with them and seeing the results of watching the types of stories they like and their openness, I’m really enthusiastic. I’m really excited for the continued change that is going to happen. And from and audience member’s perspective, I’m just excited for all the stories that I’m going to get to see.

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