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Black List Celebrates 10 Years as Haven for Screenwriters

In a business where the highest praise is often reserved for directors and stars, the Black List aims to be a haven for writers — an archive where the creators of concept, characters and content are given their due.

Perhaps the best testament to the credibility and effectiveness of the list, an annual compilation of Hollywood’s most popular unproduced screenplays, is that it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary. Out of the 970 scripts it has included over the past decade, 270 have been produced. Among that 28% to hit the bigscreen, nearly 200 (or 74%) received Oscar nominations, three of the last six won best picture and eight of the last 14 were voted best screenplay. The collective box office bounty generated by those productions totals $23.2 billion.

Even in an ever-shrinking movie market, with theater attendance on the downswing and studios releasing fewer pictures — predominantly franchisable event movies and superhero spectacles — the Black List has remained relevant as it continues to help raise awareness of unknown writers and elevate material that may not otherwise have a shot at getting made. “Saving Mr. Banks” co-scripter Kelly Marcel credits inclusion for shedding light on her work. “Without that attention, I think the movie may not have been made,” she says. Marcel has since penned the adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard, 35, the Harvard grad who started the list in 2005 as an email among development executives looking for better scripts, is amazed by the project’s longevity. “If you told me 10 years ago this is where I’d be, I’d think you were crazy,” he says. At the time, Leonard was a development exec at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production outfit Appian Way (later moving to Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment and then to Universal Pictures). “It was a self-fulfilling idea really,” Leonard says. “I didn’t think it would have an impact beyond that.”

The process to create the first Black List was relatively simple: Leonard asked a handful of peers for 10 of their most recent favorite scripts, tallied the results, and sent them back to those he had queried. Within a week, the list was excitedly shared back to him half a dozen times. These days, the annual list is compiled and voted on by roughly 300 executives at major studios, film financing companies and production outfits, all of whom submit up to 10 scripts apiece. The cutoff to make the list is approximately 5% of the vote. Typically, 75-90 scripts achieve that.

Michael Lewis for Variety

Leonard makes it clear that he and his five-person team, including co-founder and chief technology officer Dino Sijamic, don’t want credit for award wins and box office dollars. He’s adamant about keeping the spotlight on the writers.

“I’m more interested in the correlation between scripts on the list, the ones getting made and their success, than I am of causation,” he explains, easily slipping back into analyst-speak from his stint at McKinsey & Co., where he worked before his headfirst launch into Hollywood in 2003, as an assistant at Creative Artists Agency. “I can’t say that ‘Argo’ got made because it was on the list, but I can say that Chris Terrio said Ben Affleck found out about the script from the list. Ben still had to read the script, love it and get George Clooney and Grant Heslov onboard.”

While one could argue that the Black List should work on increasing its .280 batting average, Leonard says that’s not the primary goal. “The greatest metric of our success is whether the writers are getting more attention and being valued,” he says.

In October of 2012, the Black List expanded its purview, officially going online with theBlackList.com (www.blcklst.com) website, offering mentorships, workshops, fee-based script-coverage services and a free and comprehensive database of scripts ready to be paired with a prospective producer, financier, agent or manager.

“We’re the eHarmony of the moviemaking business,” Leonard quips.

The website has been a money-maker. The cost to keep a script on the site is $25 per month (there are approximately 18,000 such scripts), and there’s a $30-$50 fee per screenplay or episodic-pilot evaluation, depending on length. Leonard declines to disclose how much revenue the site generates, but says that he’s still working out of his Los Feliz apartment. The arrival of the website allowed him to quit his day job.

Since the site’s launch, purists and naysayers have griped that the Black List has lost its sheen of exclusivity, becoming too saturated with content and descending into Hollywood politics as usual.

“It’s not all pure,” suggests a high-ranking producer in regards to how and why some projects make the list. “There are scripts up there that sold for a lot of money, which means a lot of people read them, and by sheer numbers, that might get them on the list.” However, allows the producer: “It is the most quality-controlled of all the lists.”

Leonard has found himself having to repeat the mantra of his original mission: “This is not a best-of list; at best, it’s a most-liked list.” The confusion seems to lie in the distinction between the annual Black List and the website. While the list itself is a once-yearly compilation, the website is a real-time database of scripts that are filtered and sorted by category, including by quality. That assessment is determined by ratings that are assigned not only by the industry pros who are members of the site, which include voters for the annual list, but also by directors, actors, agents, managers, assistants — 2,500 in total — all vetted by Leonard and his team.

Still, there’s a fair amount of grousing in Hollywood about the process. How does someone like Aaron Sorkin end up on the list? Why would he need help advancing his career? The list used to be for the up-and-comers, say the disenchanted.

Leonard’s response to all the grumbling: “I call this the Hipster Complaint,” he says. “First off, it’s an ahistoric view. The first year of the list, Sorkin was fourth and David Benioff was sixth. The Black List is not about discovering undiscovered talent. It’s about identifying the most-liked unproduced screenplays in Hollywood for the last year.”

The loudest protests revolve around the blatant campaigning that accompanies the competing scripts — the kind of politicking inherent in seemingly every Hollywood popularity contest, be it the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys or even the People’s Choice Awards. But, warns Leonard, “Campaign at your own risk.”

Sometimes agents call voters, asking that their clients’ work be given preference. But since the balloting is blind, there’s no way for the agent to know that a request is being honored.

Indeed, given how high the stakes are and how nervous studio executives are today about greenlighting movies without built-in audience appeal, the list serves as somewhat of a safeguard.

“If a script is on the Black List, it’s gone through a filter of some sort,” says Adam Perry, an agent at APA with three clients on the list last year. “And it can give people a bit more confidence to move forward.”

Leonard believes that the Black List isn’t only helping to identify the writers of the next “Little Miss Sunshine” or “(500) Days of Summer,” but that it’s positioning serious dramatic writers of indie films to be next in line for lucrative tentpole assignments as well.

“Chris Terrio has written some very small movies on the list,” Leonard says. “ ‘Argo,’ on its surface, was a small film — and now he’s writing ‘Batman v Superman.’ You’re starting to see studios recognize the value of good writers who are salable to the public.”

As for where he and his list are headed, Leonard won’t reveal any immediate business development plans, and insists he has no intention of changing the way the directory is compiled, voted on and distributed. (Since 2012, the list, which had been shared via social media, is now available on a dropdown menu on the website. This year’s is due to be posted Dec. 15.)

“Our primary focus is to be a complete database of every single screenplay that anyone could want to make,” he says. “That eHarmony comparison started as a joke, but it rings pretty true — and we want to stick with it.”

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