March 15, 2017
Franklin Leonard’s anonymous survey has launched careers, recognized four of the past eight Best Picture winners, and pushed movie studios to think beyond sequels and action flicks.
In the age of the gargantuan blockbuster, it wasn’t immediately clear that the story of a suicidal mathematician in wartime England would make for a successful movie. In fact, it wasn’t clear that it would make for a movie at all.
In 2010, Graham Moore was a precocious 28-year-old author who had just written a novel about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At a cocktail party in Los Angeles, a producer named Nora Grossman mentioned to him that she and her producing partner were interested in making a film based on a biography of Alan Turing—the English scientist who is credited with developing the first computer but was punished for his homosexuality. Moore was immediately intrigued; he’d been interested in Turing’s story since he was a teenager. “I have to be the one to write this!” he told Grossman.
She and her partner, Ido Ostrowsky, agreed, and Moore set to work. After he finished the screenplay, he called his agent. “ ‘Hey, I have this script about a gay English mathematician who killed himself,’ ” Moore deadpanned to me, recalling that—because of the subject matter—he didn’t expect it to be an instant success. But his agent loved the script, recognizing that Moore had managed to turn what could have been a morbid biopic into a riveting thriller. A few months later, Warner Brothers bought a one-year option to make the film.
But selling a screenplay is not the same as making a movie, as Moore would soon learn. Warner Brothers, like many of the major studios today, is largely in the business of making big movies, and the script, despite being very good, did not fit the mold of the tentpole franchises that might do well in, say, China. Moore wondered whether it would ever get made. “It would have been their lowest-budget movie in 30 years,” he told me recently.
Nine months into Warner Brothers’ year-long option, Moore got a call from Greg Silverman, then an executive vice president at the company, who gave him his script back on good terms and told him to “go make this as the small indie film that you always should have.” Technically, Warner Brothers could have sat on the script for another three months, so getting it back when Moore did was a boon. Yet he knew the project faced an uncertain future. Many scripts bounce from studio to studio, cast and crew come and go according to availability, and even a great story can languish for years—or never get told.
But Moore had an important advantage. In 2011, shortly after Warner Brothers optioned his screenplay, it landed in the No. 1 spot on something called the Black List: an anonymous survey in which industry professionals name the scripts they liked the most that year. The Black List was started in 2005 by a 27-year-old film executive from west Georgia named Franklin Leonard, and has become an influential index of the most original and well-written—if not the most bankable—screenplays in Hollywood. Its power to launch careers and expedite projects is astounding.
Moore saw this power firsthand when he tried again to sell his script. “Because of the Black List, everybody had already read it,” he said—including the Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, who would end up making the movie, and the English actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who would star in it.
At an event in 2014, Cumberbatch recalled first hearing about the script. “What could have been a sort of English-scented rose garden of a script kind of landed with huge heat on it, because it was top of the Black List,” he said. “I was intrigued by people of taste who said ‘You’ve got to read it’—including everyone who votes on the Black List.”
Having gotten the attention of Tyldum, Cumberbatch, and other key players, the project sailed along. “We skipped six steps,” Moore told me. “We were shooting less than 12 months later.”
The movie, like the script, was called The Imitation Game. It went on to garner eight Academy Award nominations—and to win the 2015 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The movies that have come out of Black List scripts comprise a Murderers’ Row of critics’ picks: Spotlight, The Revenant, Whiplash, Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, Juno, There Will Be Blood. Four of the past eight Best Picture winners at the Oscars and nine of the past 18 winners for Best Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay appeared on the Black List.
Franklin Leonard was a junior executive at Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions when he started the Black List. “Throughout the year in Hollywood,” he told me, “there are all these conversations happening at all levels about ‘What have you read that’s good lately?’ ” In 2005, he decided to anonymously survey his Rolodex, soliciting from his contacts their picks for the top 10 scripts of the year that were not yet being made into movies. Ninety-three executives and studio assistants responded. Leonard compiled the results, ranked them by the number of mentions each got, and sent his contacts a PDF of the list from an anonymous email address. A couple of years later, the Los Angeles Times outed him as the Black List’s creator, and eventually he started announcing the list more publicly—on Twitter and YouTube, and on a website he created.
Though Leonard created the survey essentially because he was looking for some good reading material, he quickly realized that it had a certain subversive potential. Leonard is outspoken about the lack of diversity in Hollywood—not just when it comes to who appears onscreen, but also in terms of what kinds of stories get told. The number of films produced by the major studios has fallen in recent years, and the industry has become highly dependent on foreign sales. As a result, studios have begun to stick to a narrower range of films that they think will be profitable—and they appear ever less likely to take a chance on unusual but compelling screenplays. Leonard sees the Black List as a tool that can highlight promising scripts outside that range, helping to promote exceptional storytelling at a time when market forces are pushing Hollywood toward cookie-cutter action extravaganzas.
Leonard isn’t surprised that the selections on the list tend to depart from standard blockbuster fare. “The Black List is asking a different question than the market does,” he told me. “We’re asking what scripts people love. The market requires that they answer ‘Which scripts do you think will result in a profitable movie?’ ” The list offers proof that the industry still recognizes great stories, even if it doesn’t always make them into movies with great haste—or at all. Leonard named it the Black List in part as a tribute to the screenwriters and other professionals whose careers were ruined by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s and ’50s, and in part as “a conscious inversion of the assumption that black somehow signifies something negative.”
The survey has since grown to include up to 300 executives in any given year, and the Black List now recognizes about 75 scripts. In 12 years, about a third of the scripts named to the list have been made into films—by Hollywood standards, an impressive record. To be sure, some of these movies would have been made without the help of the Black List. Many scripts have already caught the interest of studios or producers and are spoken for by the time they make the list. But that doesn’t necessarily ensure a film will be made quickly. It’s not uncommon for scripts that have been optioned or purchased to fall into a state of limbo, whether because of a lack of funding, a lack of a big-name director and actors committed to the project, or a lack of enthusiasm among studio executives.
As The Imitation Game demonstrates, the Black List can act as an accelerant—focusing Hollywood’s attention on a project and giving it crucial momentum. “The survey forces Hollywood to look in the mirror and say, Here’s what you said you liked!,” Leonard told me. “Because there’s been so much success with the list, not only are studio execs and producers saying that, but now you have actors—when the list comes out—going through it, calling their agents, and saying, ‘Hey, you gotta get me that script.’ ”
Rowena Arguelles, an agent who represents screenwriters and directors such as Chris Terrio (Argo) and Ava DuVernay (Selma), agrees. The Black List is “part of our industry lexicon,” she told me. “The phrase means something to the town.”
Consider the example of the 2015 Best Picture nominee Whiplash, an unlikely psychodrama about a jazz orchestra at a top New York conservatory. “We knew it would be a difficult sell, so we thought we’d take a scene and make it a short,” Helen Estabrook, the producer, told me. “We shot it in three days, and we took it around town as a proof of concept.”
During this time, the script landed on the 2012 Black List. “I was basically walking around town with the DVD” of the short, Estabrook said, “and it certainly helped to have it on the list.”
I asked Estabrook why, and she explained that the spot on the Black List offered “a level of validation that proved, ‘Hey, I’m not a crazy person—many other people agree with me.’ ”
What’s perhaps most surprising about the Black List is that nobody had ever thought of it before, given its obvious utility. “Historically, what movies got made and what movies were good were the decisions” of a small number of individual executives at the studios, Leonard said. And even the most esteemed studio heads have blind spots.
Because of the financial pressures associated with making a movie, they tend to err on the side of safety, preferring films that are somehow similar to ones that have done well in the past. (Thus, the seven Fast and the Furious sequels.) But convention can be the death of creativity—and it’s no guarantee of box-office success, either. The Black List offers a different way of looking at scripts. By using the wisdom of the crowd to assess the best stories, it reassures financiers, executives, and producers that they’re not going too far out on a limb.
But while the list inevitably helps those in the middle and at the top of the Hollywood food chain—agents, producers, executives, actors—the subset most clearly assisted is the group traditionally at the low end: writers. Even if not all the scripts on the list get made, the careers of the writers on it certainly can be.
“I’ve read plenty of great scripts on the Black List that wouldn’t necessarily make great movies,” Ruben Fleischer, who directed Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less, and Gangster Squad (all of which appeared on the Black List), told me. “It can be a really entertaining script and an incredible screenplay, but it might be a hard movie to realize.” For writers, though, getting onto the Black List “can be great exposure and great access.”
Take Joshua Zetumer, who was working as an assistant “not really in Hollywood,” though he (sort of) knew two people who were. “One was a friend of an ex, the other was my roommate’s brother,” he told me. In 2006 Zetumer wrote a dark thriller about two brothers, called Villain, and passed it along to his friends of friends, who got it to an agent. That year, Villain was the No. 4 script on the Black List.
“It was the first big thing that happened,” Zetumer told me. The script never ended up getting made into a movie—it was “a violent, character-driven thriller,” Zetumer said—but he quickly started booking serious writing gigs. He wrote two more scripts—one for Leonardo DiCaprio and another that had Hugh Jackman attached to it— that made the Black List, but neither of those has been made into a movie yet either.
“It’s frustrating,” he said, “but off of those scripts, I’ve been able to get a wonderful career.” Zetumer has worked on big-budget projects like the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace and the RoboCop reboot, as well as the recent film Patriots Day. “I can’t say what my life would have been like” without the Black List, he told me.
For as many nobody-to-somebody stories as the Black List has created, its power to open up Hollywood to new voices is limited, as Leonard himself readily admits. Scripts have to find their way into the industry pipeline before they can make the list: An agent or a manager has to have the script in order to get it into the hands of other agents and executives so that they may, in turn, like it and vote for it. And it is a select group of men and women who can move to Los Angeles and forge the connections necessary to get a script into the pipeline in the first place.
“The industry is a closed circle,” Leonard told me, criticizing the arrogance behind the assumption that “everyone who wants to work in Hollywood will move to L.A. and network themselves into a position.” That expectation, he noted, is fine for kids who went to Ivy League schools (Leonard himself went to Harvard) or have parents willing to float them cash while they work in agency mail rooms. “But if you’re a suburban mom in Chicago,” he said, “you can’t do that. And that has nothing to do with whether you’re a good writer or not.”
Earlier in his career, Leonard urged would-be writers outside Hollywood to apply for the Nicholl Fellowship, a $35,000 grant for amateur screenwriters offered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But the Nicholl is highly competitive—offering no more than five grants a year to an average of 7,000 applicants—and eventually he decided that it was “an insufficient answer.”
“There was no efficient mechanism by which people with talent could even make the industry aware of their talent,” he said. So he decided to try to create one. In September 2012 he left his job at Overbrook
Entertainment, Will Smith’s production company. The next month, he added the Black List screenwriting service to his website. One aim of the service is to give would-be writers, for a fee, a chance to get critical feedback on their scripts—a coveted asset in a town where honest and thoughtful critiques are hard to come by.
Once a script is uploaded to the site, a Black List reviewer reads it. These anonymous men and women have worked for at least a year as an assistant in the industry. If a script performs well in its initial evaluation, the writer is given the option of a second, free evaluation. As long as the feedback remains good, the script is entitled to further free reviews. In this way, Leonard attempts to ensure that the best scripts stay in circulation, and that good work is rewarded. The site also gives moviemaking professionals a portal through which they can search out new—and well-reviewed—scripts, based on any number of criteria, including budget, genre, and a variety of tags (exploding buildings, sharks, yakuza).
Ruckus and Lane Skye, a husband-and-wife filmmaking duo based in Atlanta, first heard of the Black List through its year-end survey. They were interested in directing and writing, but had never seriously considered moving to Los Angeles. “We write a lot of southern stories,” Ruckus told me. Still, they would visit the city a few times a year, to “try and make inroads.”
Lane described the futility of doing this without an agent or a manager. “We would go out there and accomplish literally nothing,” she said. “We were meeting with someone’s friend who was in the mail room.” The two had just finished writing the script for a low-budget jailhouse thriller, Rattle the Cage, when they saw the announcement for the Black List screenwriting service in late 2012. They decided to try it, “just to see what would happen.”
The reviewers on the site offered encouraging feedback. “I remember one of the first ones was ‘This is a no-brainer. This film should be made,’ ” Ruckus said. “Up until then, just our friends had read it.” Within six weeks, they got a call from a manager in Los Angeles who was interested in representing them. Soon they were having meetings on studio lots. A year later, a director named Majid Al Ansari, who is based in Abu Dhabi, read the script on the Black List website—he had joined the site to look for new material.
Rattle the Cage takes place in Georgia. The Skyes wanted to direct the film themselves, and figured it was a story that would shoot well—which is to say, for little money—in their backwoods. The script was filled with southern colloquialisms, but this was apparently of no concern to Al Ansari. He liked the script and wanted to make the film. And he wanted to set it in the Middle East.
The Skyes refused—they were determined to direct the film themselves. Al Ansari was undeterred. His employer, Image Nation Abu Dhabi, offered to buy only the Arabic-language rights; the Skyes could keep the English rights for themselves and direct the American version when the time (read: money) was right. “We tried hard to think of a reason not to do it—and we couldn’t,” said Ruckus. The couple agreed. Rattle the Cage became Zinzana, the first thriller shot in the United Arab Emirates. Last March, Netflix acquired the rights to stream the film globally.
How did a movie set in a southern jail cell become an Arabic thriller? Instead of the backwoods of Georgia, the jailhouse was set in the desert, sometime in the 1980s. The most significant character change was to turn an unmarried pregnant woman into a chubby woman with asthma—presumably to conform to the UAE’s strict religious views. Overall, the Skyes said, it was “about 80 percent” the same film.
The southern version of the film is now fully funded, with the Skyes attached to direct it. They no longer have day jobs, Ruckus told me, because “this is what we’re doing.” They had found a new way into an existing power structure.
Success stories like the Skyes’ show how the Black List screenwriting service might begin to widen the funnel through which talent reaches Hollywood. Still, in one respect Leonard has been disappointed: He’d hoped that the site would help more women and minority screenwriters get discovered. Instead, the overwhelming majority of submissions have come from white men, a pattern that mirrors the industry as a whole.
The lack of diversity in Hollywood has come under increasing public scrutiny, especially since last year’s Academy Awards. The all-white nominees for the top four acting categories, plus the overwhelmingly white casts of all the Best Picture contenders, sparked a national outcry. Movies are still one of America’s most powerful and popular forms of cultural expression, advocates argue, and they should reflect the realities of their American audience.
A recent study by the Motion Picture Association of America found that people of color purchased 45 percent of movie tickets in 2015. But a report from the Annenberg Foundation and the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California revealed that in the 100 highest-grossing films of 2015, only 26 percent of the characters with speaking parts were nonwhite. Statistics like these have stoked a debate over whether the market for films starring white actors is simply larger, or whether the industry is guilty of bias in producing an overwhelming number of films with white stars.
Danny Strong, a writer, actor, and director, told me a story that revealed how bias—whether conscious or not—can seep into assessments of a film’s financial prospects. Strong wrote the script for the HBO film Recount, about the 2000 election, which nabbed the top spot on the Black List in 2007. The film came out in 2008 and won three Emmys and a Golden Globe. He was then hired to write a script about Eugene Allen, a butler in the White House who had served eight presidents. The script, called The Butler, appeared on the Black List in 2010. Steven Spielberg “planted his flag in it” just three days after Strong finished writing the first draft, he told me. Yet despite the writer’s good reputation, his clearly well-liked script, and the interest of an industry titan, getting The Butler made into a movie took years. I asked Strong why, and he laid out the challenges.
He began by detailing the financial realities of Hollywood. “Because of the advertising costs,” he said, “it’s $20 million to $40 million to promote a film. And DVD sales used to bring that in, if not more.” But streaming has largely supplanted DVD sales—which fell by almost 70 percent from 2005 to 2015—and isn’t nearly as profitable for studios. “When that went away,” Strong said, “it caused irreparable harm to the film business, as far as getting movies green-lit.” Faced with a dismal sales forecast, big studios have chosen to focus on films they expect to do well overseas. In 2015, international sales accounted for more than two-thirds of the industry’s revenue, with the majority coming from Asia, especially China.
According to Strong, The Butler had to overcome two of Hollywood’s widely held assumptions: Films starring African Americans don’t do well abroad, and neither do films about American history. “It had two X marks against it for international sales,” he said. But Strong didn’t agree that The Butler had limited appeal. “To me,” he said, “the beats of that movie were very mainstream. It was not this indie, art-house film. It was a sweeping, mainstream, emotional epic.”
Spielberg ultimately passed on directing it, but Lee Daniels, fresh off an Oscar nomination for the film Precious, signed on. Daniels put together a cast that included prominent black stars such as Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker, as well as major white stars such as Robin Williams and Jane Fonda to play the presidents and first ladies. Daniels then went to “every Hollywood financier and studio—and every single one of them said no. Not one wanted to make it,” Strong recalled.
In the end, The Butler found a champion in a producer named Laura Ziskin, who had considerable clout in Hollywood: She had produced Pretty Woman and the Spiderman trilogy. (She died in 2011 of breast cancer.) Strong told me that Ziskin went on a “crusade” to raise the money independently. She targeted wealthy African Americans, urging them to fund the project because it was a chronicle of the civil-rights movement.
Sheila Johnson, a co-founder of BET (Black Entertainment Television), was one of the first to sign on. Dozens of others followed. “It took 41 producers to get the film made!,” Strong told me, still somewhat in disbelief. “The producers were anyone who gave us money or got people to give us money—they got an onscreen credit. That was the journey.”
The journey was indeed an extraordinary one. I was astounded that even with the critically lauded team of Strong and Daniels, a script that was acknowledged to be one of the year’s best, and the involvement of Oprah—a kingmaker in her own right—The Butler had faced such an uphill battle. Did it really come down to financiers and studio executives thinking that a black, American-history movie couldn’t do well overseas? If that was the case, had they been right?
I asked Strong how The Butler had done in the foreign market.
“Gangbusters,” he said. The international-distribution rights sold for double the expected amount. The Weinstein Company ultimately picked up the movie for distribution—and gave it the wide release that Strong had always believed it deserved. The Butler was the No. 1 movie in America for three weeks. It brought in more than $116 million.
Strong then recounted the story behind Slumdog Millionaire, whose script—an Indian love story set against the backdrop of a high-stakes game show—appeared on the 2007 Black List. Warner Independent Pictures, a division of Warner Brothers, picked up the film but was soon shuttered. The executives at Warner Brothers decided to release Slumdog Millionaire as direct-to-DVD. That was the plan, until Fox Searchlight picked up the marketing and distribution rights for a limited release and the film became a word-of-mouth and critical sensation. It was only after it won Best Picture at the 2009 Academy Awards that ticket sales really took off, raking in $141 million in North America and $365 million internationally. All for a film that very nearly wasn’t released in theaters.
How could so many people in Hollywood have been so embarrassingly, overwhelmingly wrong? Strong was sanguine. “Everything always goes back to that William Goldman quote,” he said: “ ‘Nobody knows anything.’ ”
Leonard has a more pointed explanation. “The industry is making a subset of all scripts that exist, based on a set of beliefs about what’s profitable,” he told me. “Many of the beliefs about what’s profitable are fundamentally racist and misogynist.” Take the example of The Hunger Games, the first installment of one of the most successful movie franchises in recent history.
The script, which was based on a young-adult book, featured a strong, independent teenage girl as its heroine, an unusual protagonist for an action film. Most of the major studios passed on it, leaving it to Lionsgate, a studio that had little experience making this type of movie—up until that point, the studio was mostly known for the Saw horror-movie franchise.
Lionsgate bought the script in 2009, just before the book was published. The next year, the script appeared on the Black List and the book sold 4.3 million copies. Lionsgate was rewarded for its foresight: The Hunger Games brought in $408 million at the U.S. box office, and another $286 million overseas. In 2012, it was the third-highest-grossing film in the U.S., and the ninth-highest-grossing film worldwide.
When the Academy holds its 89th Oscars on February 26, it will likely recognize a considerably more diverse pool of talent than it did in 2016. Films like Moonlight, Fences, Lion, and Loving, all of which star lead actors of color, demonstrate that while Hollywood is of course the home of the Fast and the Furious franchise, it is also a place of true artistry from diverse voices.
Yet such films are by no means the future of the industry. They are rare and extraordinary exceptions—the backstories of which almost inevitably include a great deal of perseverance and serendipity. The very thing that Hollywood prides itself on—making films with compelling plots and rich, interesting characters—is the thing that it is doing less and less of.
This isn’t a problem just for film buffs. Storytelling lies at the root of filmmaking—a truth that can get lost in the analysis of foreign-box-office sales and profit margins. “We are, as a culture, defined by the myths that allow us to dream about what’s possible, and think about how we interact and value each other as human beings,” Leonard said. Without stories that reflect both the great and the tragic, the mainstream and the marginalized, the country risks losing a vital artery for empathy, concern, and curiosity. Movies, after all, are one of the ways America tells itself who it is.