Lauri Donahue

Back to the Black List

Back to the Black List
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An Interview with founder Franklin Leonard


by Lauri Donahue

Launched in 2005, The Black List quickly became a Hollywood institution. In 2008, Entertainment Weekly reported:

In just four years, the Black List has become Hollywood’s equivalent of the Rookie of the Year award—a neon arrow pointing to the work of undiscovered or unappreciated writers. It has launched careers, been an increasingly important weapon in the battle to get great original screenplays made into great original films, and even become a crystal ball for the Oscars.

Franklin Leonard, then a development executive at Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, launched the list by asking nearly 100 movie execs about their favorite unproduced scripts from the past year. He then compiled the results and initially distributed the list anonymously. The voter pool has now grown to approximately 500, with more than 200 Black List screenplays becoming features.  Collectively, they’ve earned $16 billion at box offices worldwide, earned over 150 Oscar nominations and won 25 statues, including three of the last five Best Pictures and seven of the last 12 screenwriting Oscars.

However, as it turns out, few of the original Black List writers were truly “undiscovered,” since most of the scripts had already been sold and some were even in production.  Furthermore, most of the writers were represented by agents or managers, including heavy-hitters like Quentin Tarantino and then-rookies like Diablo Cody.

The Black List Website

The Black List Website

In October 2012, in an effort to level the playing field, Leonard and Dino Sijamic launched a version of The Black List open to anyone able to pay the $25-per-month hosting fee.  So far, over 6,295 scripts have been uploaded to the site—most of them from unrepresented writers who have yet to sell a property.

Writers can also pay $50 to have their scripts reviewed by The Black List’s professional paid readers, who will rate their work on a scale of 1-10.  As of early August, 370 scripts have received at least one overall rating of eight or above. Of the two that earned a 10 rating, one has a production company now attached via an introduction made on the site, while the other has 32 professional downloads to date.

More than 2000 professional members can search the site based on various criteria, including genre and numerical score, plus they can peruse loglines, and download the scripts.  There have been 10,000 pro downloads to date.

Top-rated scripts are singled out on the site and in twice-weekly newsletters, they’re hyped to the pro members, who can rate scripts and receive Netflix-type recommendations for other scripts they might like.

According to Leonard:

…somewhere between 40 and 50 writers have signed with major agencies or management companies. There have been another 20 or so sales, and one film that has already completed production starring David Oyelowo. Writing assignments is a bit vague, but we do know that Richard Cordiner got a two-step blind deal with Warner Brothers via his Black List experience, and I believe there’s at least one more.

The Black List also recently announced its first screenwriters’ lab, and has also partnered with Warner Bros. to identify promising “diverse” screenwriters. With the prospect of a two-step blind script deal worth $93,000, over 1,000 writers have so far applied to the program.

Here’s how it all happened.

Franklin Leonard

Franklin Leonard

LAURI DONAHUE: Please talk about how you first got involved in the film industry, your path from Harvard to Hollywood.

FRANKLIN LEONARD:  It was a circuitous one. The day after I graduated from college, I drove to Cincinnati Ohio, stopping off in Kalamazoo, Michigan to drop off my brother, who was playing semi-professional soccer there for the summer, to help run media for John Cranley’s congressional campaign.  At the time, Cranley was the youngest congressional challenger in the country, and that campaign actually has the odd distinction of being the subject of the first episode of MTV’s True Life series [It has changed dramatically since then.]

We lost a close race, and I was a bit burned out from four years of school and six months of an intense campaign, so I moved to Port-Au-Spain, Trinidad to write for the Guardian newspaper for a few months. From there, I went to New York and worked as a business analyst at McKinsey & Company. About 18 months in, my entire analyst class was laid off with five months’ severance. I quickly realized that I was spending all of that free time either watching movies or reading about the film industry.

Growing up in West Central Georgia, it had never occurred to me to actually work in Hollywood, though I loved movies from a very early age.  In March 2003, if only to postpone going to law school for another year, I came out to Los Angeles for a month-long trip. I got quite lucky almost immediately upon arrival.  A friend of a friend and I had drinks on my second night here and she introduced me to a friend of hers who sent my resume to CAA. I had an interview two days later and was offered a job as an assistant in their motion picture literature department three days after that.

DONAHUE: What was your reason for starting the original Black List?  Why did you think it was needed and what did you hope to accomplish?  How do you feel about the way it’s turned out?

LEONARD: It was entirely driven by self-interest. I was a development executive at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way. I was seeing a ton of material, but very, very little that I thought well enough of to walk into my boss’s office and say “read this now!”

The first Black List was driven, exclusively by the desire to find some good scripts to read over the holidays so that I could go back into the office in January and say “look at all these great writers I found who we should be in business with.” To that extent, it accomplished exactly what I was hoping.

The viral nature of the thing was something that I wasn’t anticipating, honestly, and only after the second year, did I realize that it had the ability to draw real and substantial attention to scripts and writers that might be being overlooked for whatever reason. That has been the primary goal since, and I think we continue to accomplish it quite well.

DONAHUE: Why did you decide to open up the Black List to private submissions? Clearly this is a way to monetize the project, but you actually discourage people from keeping low-rated scripts on the site, even though you make more money the longer people keep their scripts up.

LEONARD: In the years following my unmasking as “the Black List guy” I’ve done a lot of panels about screenwriting and breaking in as an unknown. Regardless of the venue, the first audience question was almost always some version of “The Black List is amazing, and thank you for it, but most of those writers are already repped. I wrote a great script, but I don’t have any way to get it to the people who could help get it on the Black List. What’s the best way for me to do that?”

The worst part of that question for me was the fact that I didn’t have a good answer. The best I could ever come with was “Enter the Nicholl or Austin and if you finish in the top 30 or so, someone will probably call you,” but I hated that answer, if for no other reason than that it left writers in a situation where their best play, if they were lucky enough to get that call, was to take the first offer of representation that came their way.

Add to that the fact that the longer I worked in the industry, the more aware I became of the reality of how access worked within it. It really is who you know, or at least who you know knows.  I was lucky: I went to Harvard.  The social network I was a part of there led to introductions that led to my first job in the industry. Literally, the friend of a friend was the high school friend of a college roommate. But not everyone has those relationships, and having those relationships has very little correlation to actual talent, particularly in the screenwriting trade.

As Dino and I started building the real-time version of the Black List, it became clear we could extend its capabilities to answer that question and address those issues in a way that it had never been done before. We could, in mere weeks and days on some occasions, evaluate material, give feedback to the writers, make the industry aware of the best material we find, and facilitate introductions between those who wrote it and those who could do something with it. And we could do it all at a very reasonable price.

As for discouraging people from keeping low-scoring scripts up on the site, we do so, frankly, because it just feels wrong to take people’s money when we can’t do much for them in return, or at least not without the warning that there’s not much we can do for them.

I’m well aware of the long history of dishonest charlatans operating in this space, and it was very important to me that we distinguish ourselves from them in substantive ways. Those comments are just one of those ways.

It’s why we set our pricing the way we do. Our average member spends about $165 per script, far less than any coverage service I’m aware of, which is particularly remarkable considering our pedigree and the access we provide.

It’s why we don’t make screenplays available to anyone without the explicit permission of the author. It’s why writers are the ultimate decision makers about what information about their script is available, if any, on our site. It’s why we’re such sticklers about the previous industry experience of our readers, why we make sure that every writer gets real-time information about the traffic to their script, and why we’ve published regular data about the goings on, on the site. We want to make sure people are able to make an informed decision about what they’re getting when they give us money, and we want to keep them informed so that they can make good decisions about whether the Black List is something that can provide them value.

DONAHUE: Can you describe the typical writer who puts a script up on the Black List?  How many scripts do they post, how many reviews do they pay for, how many months do they host for, etc.?

LEONARD: I don’t think there’s a “typical” writer who puts a script up on the site, and every time I start to think that I’ve got a handle on the sub-types that represent the vast majority of our membership, I get an email from a member or two who throws that taxonomy into complete disarray.

Statistically I can say that most writers submit between 1-2 scripts.  The average script is hosted on the site for 96.51 days and the writers pay for 1.71 reads. So a writer spends an average of about $165 per script.

DONAHUE: What kind of writer can get the most out of the Black List?  For what kind of writer is the Black List a waste of time?

LEONARD: I actually believe that the Black List can have extraordinary value for any screenwriter who has ever completed a screenplay and hopes to either sell it or get more screenwriting work, from anyone who has just typed FADE OUT for the first time, to a studio closer with a back catalog of screenplays in a dusty desk or hard drive somewhere.

For the former, we provide quick, inexpensive feedback on how the industry is likely to respond to your script, feedback that a writer can use to inform future rewrites as they continue to improve toward a standard that is likely to attract industry attention. For the latter, our top lists and recommendation algorithm can, and do, drive incoming calls to their agents with scripts that they have neither the time nor the incentive to make thousands of daily calls about to industry professionals, in the hopes of trying to sell it.

DONAHUE: Has anyone who scored lower than eight had any positive results?

LEONARD: As a matter of policy, we don’t share a script’s rating without the writers’ explicit permission, so I can only answer this in the vaguest possible terms. But yes, there have been a few. Typically they’ve received sixes and sevens consistently from our paid readers with eights in at least one category. The category scores led them to be included in customized emails based on the individual industry pro’s interest. Our recommendation algorithm has been helpful on that front as well.

DONAHUE: You recently announced the first Black List writer’s lab in Las Vegas.  How did that come about and who’s footing the bill?  What do you hope to see come out of that process?

LEONARD: I’ve long been admirer of the Sundance Labs and wanted to do something similar: invite several promising aspiring professional screenwriters to an intensive workshop with established working professionals.

Earlier this year, I spent a weekend in downtown Las Vegas and was awed by what Tony Hsieh and the rest of the team there are doing to revitalize the city.  They had an interest in working with us. I had an interest in working with them, and when Tony generously offered us accommodations for the week, the rest just fell into place. The Black List is footing the rest of the bill.

This being the first one, it’s hard to say what will come out of that process. My biggest priority is that the six writers who we select and the four mentors—Billy Ray, Kiwi Smith, Brian Koppelman, and Jenny Lumet—have an educational, inspiring, fun time. My second hope is that the work shopping that takes place at the Lab improves the scripts in question to a point that attracts further, substantive attention to the writers who wrote them and better prepares them for long careers as working screenwriters.

DONAHUE: How did the Warner deal come about?

LEONARD: Greg Silverman at Warner’s has been a long-time friend, fan, and supporter of the Black List—both the annual list and the new site. Throughout that relationship, we’ve had numerous conversations about both the market inefficiencies that exist for screenwriting talent the way Hollywood is currently organized and the particularly dangerous consequences of those inefficiencies for diversity.

Shortly after we launched the new site, he reached out about ways in which Warner and the Black List could work together to address some of these mutual concerns and this is what we came up with. We both hope that it’s the beginning of an ongoing relationship.

DONAHUE: What does “diverse” mean in this context?

LEONARD: We have a very expansive definition of “diverse” in this context, and it extends to communities that have been historically underrepresented in Hollywood. The WGA’s Writers Report Executive Summary provides an excellent guide to this. It certainly includes both race and sex, but it also does include age.

DONAHUE: Why is Warner doing this?

LEONARD: Simply put, they’re doing this because they believe that there’s talent out there that’s being overlooked, that we do a better job of identifying that talent than anyone else out there, and that identifying that talent early and getting them employed at Warner Brothers writing screenplays will mean better and more commercially successful movies for them.

DONAHUE: What about writers who have inactive scripts on the Black List?  Do they need to pay another monthly fee to be eligible?

LEONARD: They do. Basically, any script that has been actively hosted on the site for one week during each six-month consideration period and has opted into consideration will be considered. If you have a script that was inactive as of mid-July, when we announced the partnership, to be considered, you have to make the script available on the site for at least one week and opt into consideration. The script DOES NOT need to be hosted for the duration of the six month consideration period.

DONAHUE: Do you have anything similar in the works with other studios/networks?

LEONARD: The Warner Bros. deal is non-exclusive for a reason.

DONAHUE: What’s next for the Black List?

LEONARD: We’re long overdue to roll out for episodic [TV] work, and we will in the very near future. I had hoped to do it in the spring, but it became clear that there was a lot more we could do on the film front—the site redesign, the Labs, the Warner Bros. partnership, and a few more things that we haven’t yet announced. Moreover, we’d be able to roll out the episodic side of the site a lot more effectively, once the film side was in tip-top shape.

DONAHUE: What else do you want people to know about the Black List?

LEONARD: Easily the biggest thing is that the Black List is not just the site or the annual list. We’ve also got a ton of resources available entirely free of charge that people should take advantage of, whether or not they have any intention of uploading a script to the site. Scott Myers’ work at Go Into The Story, the official screenwriting blog of the Black List, is frankly unequaled anywhere else on the Web, and I’d put the Black Board—our screenwriting community led by Shaula Evans and a team of extraordinary moderators, up against any other online without a second thought.

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