As the star and an executive producer of The Flight Attendant, Kaley Cuoco had shot nearly two full seasons of the HBO Max comedic thriller in three countries without contracting Covid, even though, she says, "We had cast and crew dropping like flies." But four days before the show wrapped production on season two, the virus finally caught up to her, and the first person that popped into her mind was Sarah Schechter.
Cuoco describes Schechter — the Emmy-nominated executive producer, chairwoman and partner in Greg Berlanti's Berlanti Productions and Berlanti/ Schechter Films — as "the queen." Cuoco was terrified that she had let her down.
"The minute I got it, I knew it was over. We're shutting down," Cuoco says. "I was so afraid, and I was like, 'Shit, Sarah's going to find out I have Covid.' I was so embarrassed and disappointed in myself. I hadn't heard from her in a few hours. I texted her, 'I'm so sorry this happened. I'm so horrified. Hopefully, it'll be short. We'll get back. We'll finish strong.'"
Schechter texted back four terse words: "I'm already fixing it."
"And I was like, 'What does that mean?'" Cuoco says. "She's like, 'I'm fixing it.'"
The response took Cuoco aback, and she called Schechter in tears. "I feel like you're trying to fix something that I broke," Cuoco said. "I'm horrified. This is my show. I'm the example. And I feel like you're upset at me."
Schechter immediately softened. "I think she cried," Cuoco says. "Sarah is fierce, but she is so sensitive. She was like, 'Kaley, I love you. I'm sorry. I go into work mode. I am just a fix-it person. This is what I do.' She was just kind of in business mode."
As one of the most prolific producers in television amid a deadly pandemic, Schechter can be forgiven for not mincing her words. When she left Warner Bros. Pictures in 2014 to join Berlanti's company, he had less than a handful of TV shows on the air. By late 2020, that number had grown to seventeen, and a first-look film deal with Netflix now complements the company's $400 million overall deal with Warner Bros. TV.
"She changed my life, and she changed the life of the company," says Berlanti, who met Schechter in 2010 while shooting the Warner Bros. film Life As We Know It and recruited her to be a producer if she ever decided to cross over. "She has a tirelessness. She doesn't really fatigue. If I touch three or four shows a day, she can touch twenty or twenty-five."
Not only was Schechter responsible for getting shows such as Riverdale (The CW), The Flight Attendant and You (Netflix) on the air, she helps make decisions at every level of production, ranging from hiring writers and directors to casting, crafting budgets and selecting locations. Those who have worked closely with Schechter use words like "fierce" and "warrior" to describe her.
"She's one of the toughest women that I've ever met. I'm not just blowing smoke," says Sera Gamble, showrunner of the psychological thriller You, which got a second chance on Netflix after Lifetime canceled it after season one. "She's a fighter. She is strategic about it, but she is not afraid to fight for what she believes in. There's nothing automatic about the success of the show You. I attribute a lot of it to Sarah's willingness to put in the hours and push back when people assumed the answer might be no."
As the daughter of left-wing activist, news producer and documentarian Danny Schechter, and as someone whose first home was a Massachusetts commune, Schechter feels slightly uncomfortable with the war analogies. Viewing the world through a feminist lens, she sees a gender double standard at work.
"I feel like we've done a lot of incredible things when looking at certain marginalized groups and how we have to be a lot more careful about language, but I still think that there is an impossible set of characteristics for women who have any kind of power," Schechter says. "Yeah, I'm not going to get walked all over. I've been doing this for decades. I feel pretty good about my ability to do my job." However, she adds, "I work with a lot of male producers. I don't know that any of them would be called 'warriors' or 'fierce.'"
Even so, Gamble, who spends a lot of time "in the trenches" with Schechter, believes the description is apt. "I always call her 'boots on the ground.' I do very much consider her like a general or an admiral. The war metaphor, it's a little brutal, but it's not untrue when it's hour seventeen of a problem, and we're on a set, and it's seven degrees below zero, and somebody has to figure something out fast. It really does feel like a military operation, and she never backs away from the challenge."
That determination — like her focus on social justice — is apparent in the projects Schechter champions, often despite long odds. One that she's most proud of is the 2020 HBO Max film Unpregnant, a female buddy road-trip comedy, adapted from a young adult novel about a teen who has to cross state lines to get an abortion.
"When I first fell in love with that book, no one would buy it for me to produce," Schechter says. "I remember female execs would be like, 'I love this. It's so great. My bosses would never make it.'"
Nevertheless, Schechter persisted. And by the time she had a script in hand, more than one bidder was interested.
The project proved prescient. "Unfortunately, legislating over women's bodies has continued," says Schechter, whose mother worked to legalize abortion after watching friends die from botched procedures. "It's very much a matter of life and death."
Another "labor of love" is the upcoming HBO Max series The Girls on the Bus, based on a chapter of Chasing Hillary, Amy Chozick's book about women journalists on the campaign trail. Two other networks dropped the show during development, but it is scheduled to start shooting in September. "It's a celebration of female journalists," Schechter says, "which is really important."
Even Schechter's name was shaped by the politics of her parents, who divorced when she was two. "My initials are SDS, "which is for [the 1960s campus group] Students for a Democratic Society. My middle name is Debs for Eugene V. Debs, the socialist labor leader," she says. "My dad, from 1967 on, was a member of the ANC [African National Congress]. One of his best friends was [yippie leader] Abbie Hoffman. I've been going to protest marches most of my life. My dad worked tirelessly against apartheid for many years, so we usually had someone who was in exile from South Africa living on our couch."
Schechter also has a pragmatic side, formed by watching her father struggle to find audiences and financing for important films after she moved from Boston to New York to live with him at age nine. That experience forged her determination to meld business success with art that makes a difference. She sees importance in DC Comics shows like Supergirl, which featured the first female superhero TV lead since the original Wonder Woman."
"You can do things that are commercial and that can reach audiences, but hopefully can change hearts and minds," she says.
Schechter's father eventually attained mainstream success as a producer of ABC's 20/20, which earned him two Emmy Awards (she's kept one in her office since his death in 2015) and helped send her to an elite boarding school in Massachusetts. Elected valedictorian of her senior class, she considered attending UCLA to study film, but opted instead to major in film theory at UC Santa Cruz.
"I visited L.A. and I hated it. There was a Taco Bell in the bookstore, and I was like, 'This is crazy,'" she says. "I visited Santa Cruz and fell in love. Maybe it was growing up watching Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but it was those redwood trees. I was like, 'I've never lived anywhere this beautiful, and I don't know that I ever will again.' There was a real liberal spirit to the place."
During college, she taught a student seminar on women in coming-of-age films, titled Girls on the Verge of a Hollywood Adulthood. "One of the movies that I studied was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I maintain is a brilliant movie, and [director] Amy Heckerling deserves her crown. That's a movie that talks about abortion. That's a movie that has a sex scene from a female point of view. This is the same year that they're making The Last American Virgin and Porky's. This movie was so ahead of its time."
Her interest in young adult material continues to this day. "Young people change the world," she says. "It's Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club who says, 'When you grow up, your heart dies.' If you keep your mind open, your heart doesn't die. I think maybe that's what Breakfast Club got wrong."
Schechter is now working on an HBO Max film inspired by those '80s movies called We Were There, Too. The camera starts on Molly Ringwald, "and then pans over and you're looking at all the Brown and Black kids who were left out of those movies, and it's centering them and their experiences."
So how did Schechter go from hating L.A. to living in Silver Lake with her fiancé and her rescue dog (who has his own Instagram account)? She began her career in New York as a production assistant for Barbara Kopple, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. But ultimately, she craved larger audiences.
When she first landed in L.A., she struggled for months to find a job, crashed her car in Topanga Canyon and almost ran out of money. She finally landed a temp gig at RKO, where she met junior executive Kira Goldberg, who became her roommate and close friend and now heads Netflix Films. Soon, Schechter went to work for producer Barry Mendel, assisting on films such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
In 2005 she joined Warner Bros., where she expected to stay for a year or two but wound up rising to senior vice-president of production over the course of nine years, mentored by film chief Jeff Robinov, who appreciated her direct style. "I think because I didn't know any better and I didn't understand the politics, I was just really honest," she says. "We would have the weekend read, and I was like, 'I don't think this is very good.'"
While Schechter worked on some impressive films, such as Spike Jonze's Her and Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, she says, "Being in a studio is very soul-crushing for me. I had this gold necklace. It was handcuffs. 'This is my job,' was my joke, but it was true. It's a wonderful job and there are some incredible, talented, wonderful people who do it. But for me, it was hard."
Eventually, she realized Berlanti was right when he told her, "You're a producer. You know you're a producer, right?" At his company, Schechter's unwavering advocacy for projects and commitment to certain ideals are valued — even if they ruffle a few feathers.
"You have to not be afraid of cracking some eggs to make an omelet," Berlanti says. "She never was, and on days that you were at your lowest, she could still see the end zone. On days that you can see the end zone, she can clear and tackle people out of the way."
"To a certain extent, I have refused to behave inside the lines that make everyone comfortable," Schechter acknowledges. "I definitely have an overdeveloped sense of fairness. This business is not a meritocracy. But if I could wave a wand, I would make it a meritocracy. The best shows would get watched and get renewed, and people would be paid the right amount of money and be given the freedom they want."
If anyone has the power to realize that vision, Cuoco says, it's Schechter. "She's a badass queen with a sensitive heart. She is probably going to run our entire business at some point."
But Schechter, who was once mistaken for Succession actress Sarah Snook by a famous producer at Comic-Con, has another goal in mind: "I just want to someday work on a TV show that has no budgetary limitations. That would be a real dream come true."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #9, 2022, under the title, "Values Added."