The Black List

As it says on its website, The Black List — the annual guide to the most well-liked unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood — is responsible for over 200 scripts getting made into films. The unique project was created by Franklin Leonard, a production executive working up until recently for Overbrook Entertainment, who drops the listing every year on the second Friday in December. In the past, it’s been a useful tool for both writers who want to get their work noticed and executives who want to find something worth making. If there’s been any true critique of The Black List, it’s that it’s too insular. As Slate’s David Haglund noted in 2011, it’s a project that celebrates work that’s already made its way inside the impossibly closed circle of the Hollywood studio system.

Perhaps in response to that criticism (but probably born more from a broader, higher ideal), Leonard didn’t wait until Christmas to unveil a new mission: to open the Black List to everyone.

If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, The Black List is now a machine for getting your work read by the right people. For $25 a month, per script, they’ll host your work in a database where 1200+ professionals (studio and non) will be able to read it, propelled by an algorithm of ratings. Obviously, nothing like this has been tried before, but because it’s such an exciting initiative, it also demands a high level of scrutiny. To that end, Leonard has penned a lengthy piece explaining his vision and its mechanics, and he spoke with me recently about the potential problems and paradigm shifts that might come with the new Black List.

Check out the interview below:

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In a way, it’s a bit like Kickstarter For Screenwriters; the major differences being that you theoretically have to impress a small pool of powerful people instead of a wide range of potential fan-investors, and that the work has to speak for itself in place of a sales pitch. To that end, Leonard is above board to be so direct regarding the level of quality that each script will have to hit before writers even consider paying The Black List to play match-maker. If you’re still polishing, don’t submit just yet.

And that’s the key difference here between a Get Rich Quick Scheme and what Leonard is doing. In the former, everything sounds too good to be true because it can’t be; in the case of the Black List, everything sounds too good to be true, but you also have to work insanely hard to create a remarkably good product before you can reap the rewards. This isn’t a something-for-nothing situation.

Screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe (who has no affiliation with Leonard or this project (although Going the Distance was on the Black List in 2008)) writes intelligently and cautiously about the new project, and my evaluation echoes his. Ultimately, there should be some tip-toeing around what seems quite revolutionary specifically because it’s new territory. Leonard has planned thoroughly, but latent negative consequences might still come up.

However, it seems clear that it won’t take much time at all (let’s say 3 months…starting after the dormant holiday season) before The Black List announces its first sale from connecting an aspiring, talented screenwriter to a production partner or manager. While it does seem a bit too good to be true, there’s a blunt logic and realism to the method at work here that makes sense. At the very least, the mechanics appear fully functional.

Erasing the Catch-22

Paramount Studios Gate

Outside the gates.

The modern history of the studio system has been plagued by a brutal Catch-22: in order to get your work into the hands of someone important, someone important has to have already had it in their hands. The new Black List erases that impossible hurdle by acting as a broker between the ambitious and the established. It has the power to become a central hub for directly connecting those populations in the same way that crowdfunding sites introduce creators to consumers.

Could it fail? Sure. It could be flooded by screenwriters who are in no way ready to play at that level, bogging down the time and workload of the readers and polluting the algorithm with a large population of scripts that producers have zero interest in reading. However, there’s reason to believe that it will rise above that because of 1) the prohibitive cost of keeping a script in the system that’s not doing well and 2) the pedigree that the Black List brand brings to the proceedings. I have no doubt that the reason serious studio executives are on board with this project is the history of success that Leonard and his December gift have built.

If hyperbole is allowed to run wild, the new Black List might completely revolutionize the way that screenwriters are discovered, the way producers choose projects and the way that the industry itself embraces a life-saving sense of calculated risk and innovation. Without the grandstanding, Leonard and his crew have given the world an excellent new high tide for writers that has every opportunity to lift all boats.

So what are you waiting for?


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