The Black List: What, How and Why, the Long Answer

Franklin Leonard
The WrapOctober 18, 2012

This is the introduction to a piece by Franklin Leonard on changes at The Black List.

Recently, the Black List announced what we hope will be the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way screenplays are discovered by people who make movies.

As with any shift of this nature, there were a number of questions and concerns from people likely affected by it, via email, via Twitter, via Facebook, via our official screenwriting blog Go Into The Story, via the forums on DoneDealPro, and a few other places I'm sure that I'm forgetting at this late hour of the early morning.

Frankly, I'm glad there were. I'm glad because it means that the community of people likely affected by this are aggressively policing those who may do them harm, and I'm glad because it demands that I explain why I believe that this is a tide that can raise all boats, especially those of writers writing good screenplays.

Also read: Black List Will Allow Screenwriters to Upload Scripts For a Fee

After spending the evening trying to answer each question individually, I decided that the best approach might be to try to answer them all. What follows is my (possibly foolhardy) attempt to do just that:

During the almost ten years that I've worked in the film industry, there have been long periods wherein I haven't read a great screenplay. We've all had those periods. It's the nature of the beast. There are more scripts generated and circulating in Hollywood every year than it's possible for one person to read. Consequently, you do everything you can to get your hands on the good ones. It's your job after all, and life's just better when you're reading better scripts. Trust me.

The Black List began during one of those periods. I took a survey of my peers and asked them to send me a list of their favorite screenplays from the previous year that wouldn't be in theaters by the end of it. I aggregated the information and sent the list back to those who submitted.

I've repeated that process every year since and though some of the finer details have changed, the essence of the thing is identical. Today, I don't include every script that gets a single vote. I change up the voting period and add other internal protections to limit the potential for gaming the system. I disclose misleading information to prevent anyone from knowing exactly what's on the list before it's released each year. But the essence of it is the same. People who make movies, who read scripts as a vital part of their job, anonymously share the names of the scripts they love, and the Black List shares the names of the scripts that are most beloved.

As I say on every list, the annual Black List is not a "best of" list. It is, at best, a "most liked" list. That is all that it is.What's remarkable is that what is "most liked" is often an eccentric mix of wildly ambitious screenplays from writers who are just starting out and screenplays that are set up at studios with writers who are already household names, at least in Hollywood.  This has always been the case. Aaron Sorkin's script for "Charlie Wilson's War" was the No. 5 script on the first list, and David Benioff's script for "The Kite Runner" followed just behind it.

There's something special, I think, about a list where Aaron Sorkin's script for "The Social Network,"  which would go on to win an Oscar, is behind a speculative Jim Henson biopic written entirely outside the Hollywood system. The absolute net effect of it I can't and won't speak to for fear of overstating it, but I am certain that it is positive.

What has also been remarkable about the list is the success of the films that have been on it. The extent to which the Black List has catalyzed these films getting made is fundamentally unknowable, and I prefer to err on the side of conservatism in speculating, but my experience suggests that in sum it's not insignificant. But even if you believed it was utterly irrelevant, its ability to predict future success seems noteworthy. The Oscars are obviously an imperfect evaluation of quality, but over 140 Academy Award nominations, 25 wins, two of the last four Best Pictures, and five of the last 10 Screenwriting Oscars says something.

I'm not claiming genius in assessing scripts though anyone who knows me knows that I have a healthy opinion of my own ability to do so. I am claiming, however, that what we've created and are continuing to improve on is an infrastructure where the genius that matters – the writing – can be recognized more efficiently and promoted within an industry that is highly subjective and desperately in need of good screenplays.

It's far from perfect, but it's better than anything that currently exists, and we're going to do everything we can to make it better.

You can read the full text of Franklin's piece on his blog The Black List.

 

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