Greg Berlanti (left) and Robbie Rogers last November. Kathy Hutchins/shutterstock
A big theme in our arts coverage finds funders, actors and industry insiders supporting efforts to make Hollywood better reflect an increasingly diverse American society. But forward movement has been uneven.
Writer, producer and director Greg Berlanti thinks we still have a long way to go when it comes to Hollywood’s failure to present viable lead LGBTQ characters in films. “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 told Variety’s Elizabeth Wagmeister earlier this year.
Perhaps more than anyone else walking the Earth, Berlanti is responsible for this progress. Born in 1972 in Rye, New York, Berlanti is known for his work on Dawson’s Creek, Brothers & Sisters, and Everwood, and his shows have included the first gay superhero to headline a TV series, the first romantic kiss between two gay characters, and the first legal gay marriage on network TV.
Berlanti has been a major force behind increasing inclusion and diversity on television, and his growing philanthropic work reflects this priority. He and his husband, Robbie Rogers, established the Berlanti Family Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ people.
The couple recently announced a $2 million commitment to Greg’s alma mater, the Northwestern University School of Communication. The gift is earmarked to endow the Barbara Berlanti Professorship in Writing for the Screen and Stage, named after Greg’s mother, who passed away in 2017. Funding will bolster a curriculum that prepares students to create work by and for diverse audiences, enabling Northwestern to “recruit and nurture students from underrepresented and under-supported groups and help transform the creative industries,” said Barbara O’Keefe, dean of the School of Communication.
Commenting on the gift, Berlanti, who previously endowed Northwestern’s playwriting program, said, “Our family is so proud to have a professorship in her name dedicated to helping Northwestern continue its great legacy of fostering the next generation of humane, diverse, courageous and bold storytellers.”
“Everybody Has to Do Their Part”
Berlanti’s name may not immediately ring a bell, and the size of his foundation’s commitment to Northwestern may not be particularly eye-popping in this era of higher ed mega-giving. Nonetheless, the gift is an important one, and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more from him and his foundation in the future.
A couple of years ago, the Trevor Project recognized Berlanti for his support of the project’s mission to provide crisis intervention services and end suicide among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning young people. He’s also been a donor to other LGTBQ groups, such as GLAAD and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
History suggests Bertlanti’s advocacy won’t wane anytime soon—if anything, it will likely accelerate. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter’s Evan Real in 2018, Berlanti argued that LGBTQ kids need support now more than ever. “It’s a pretty dark time,” he said. “During times like this, everybody has to do their part to rise to the occasion and be there in ways big and small for other individuals.”
Second, Berlanti now has the capital to back up his advocacy—tons of it, in fact. In June of 2018, he inked a $300 million development and production deal with Warner Bros. Television Group. The agreement, according to Variety’s Cynthia Littleton, could eventually rise to as much as $400 million. (Berlanti’s productions are ubiquitous. In the 2019–20 television season, he had a record 15 live-action scripted television series airing on various networks and digital platforms.)
Around the same time news of Berlanti’s blockbuster deal broke, he and Rogers made a $1 million gift to GLSEN, an organization working to create safe and inclusive K-12 schools for LGBTQ youth. They have also provided support to F*ck Cancer, which is dedicated to helping those affected by cancer, and the National Immigration Law Center, which advances the rights of low-income immigrants and their families.
In April 2019, the Hollywood Reporter named Berlanti one of the 50 “agents of change empowering diverse voices in Hollywood.” Berlanti told Real he’d know Hollywood had truly changed when “the majority of rooms I walk into—executive suites or writers rooms or production floors—look and feel like the rest of America.” A few months later, the SAG-AFTRA Foundation honored Berlanti for “creating significant professional opportunities for performing artists to work and thrive.”
Bertlanti, who previously endowed Northwestern’s playwriting program, has credited his friends and faculty at the school for their support as he struggled with examining and identifying his homosexuality. “Northwestern was the first period in my life I would repeat. I would do it all over again,” he said while delivering a convocation address last year. His gift to Northwestern was his largest to date.
Championing Diverse Storytelling
Donors have tackled Hollywood’s diversity problem from various angles. The Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation had provided support to Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Intensive and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Fusion Film Festival, which focuses on female directors, writers, cinematographers and producers. George Lucas and his partner Mellody Hobson have donated tens of millions to fund the student diversity program he established at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, while the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media at Johns Hopkins University aims to “empower and embolden new voices.”
Berlanti’s approach, both as a philanthropist and as a writer, producer and director, hinges on embracing inclusive storytelling. Speaking to Variety’s Wagmeister seven months before his foundation’s gift to Northwestern, he said, “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.”
Commenting on Bertlanti’s gift, Miriam Petty, associate professor and director of the doctoral program in screen cultures, explained that the funding will allow the school to provide an alternative narrative to “everyday assumptions of the dominant status quo around racial, gender, sexual and class privilege when marginalized and minority voices are not at the table in significant numbers.” The college, she said, has an opportunity “to be agents of change, especially in the era of online social activism, but only if we lean into the intentional transformation of our own hiring, mentorship, writing and teaching practices.”
Berlanti, meanwhile, is hopeful that Hollywood will catch up to its peers in the television industry. “I think there is a dramatic amount of change happening in Hollywood,” he told Variety’s Wagmeister. “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… I’m really excited for the continued change that is going to happen. And from an audience member’s perspective, I’m just excited for all the stories that I’m going to get to see.”
The Berlanti Family Foundation’s gift to Northwestern, which counts toward the university’s $4 billion-and-counting campaign, comes four months after trustee Jeff Ubben and his wife Laurie gave the school $50 million for student scholarships.