Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Black List

An appreciation of the most important screenwriting brand in Hollywood.

It was about 6 years ago when I saw a comment on one of my blog posts from Franklin Leonard. Turns out he was a big fan of the site. Thus began a conversation between us which led to Go Into The Story becoming the official screenwriting blog of the Black List.

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Franklin pretty darned well. I can tell you this: I admire the hell out of him. His passion for movies and storytelling, his desire to explore innovative ways to open doors into Hollywood for talented writers outside the system, for more and diverse voices to have the opportunity to see their stories make it to the screen, and his staunch support for screenwriters and great screenwriting, all of that communicated through one of the most eloquent and thoughtful voices in the business has combined to make him a powerful advocate on behalf of our craft.

Then there’s the Black List team: Terry Huang, Megan Halpern, Kate Hagen. They are not only great at what they do — I mean really awesome — they also flat out love movies and working with writers.

So the other day, The Atlantic Monthly featured a lengthy and informative article entitled “The Hollywood List Everyone Wants to Be On”. And this 30 minute podcast:

With that nice bit of press, this thought occurred to me: What would Hollywood be like without the Black List? With a tip of my hat to the central conceit of It’s a Wonderful Life, here are some thoughts on the matter:

  • It’s very likely dozens of some of the best and most provocative movies in the last decade would not have been produced. We are talking about movies like The Imitation Game which may never have gotten Benedict Cumberbatch’s attention unless Graham Moore’s script hadn’t landed atop the Black List in 2011.

The business of making movies is a risky one and it can be challenging to know if a script is great or not. What the annual Black List does is provide a year-end snapshot of the most popular unproduced scripts at that time. That’s the official language. What it really does is give a kind of imprimatur to the town: “This is a really, really good script. Go make it.” It can help a scripted project meet the comfort level of studios, production companies, and financiers, especially if by being on the Black List the project attracts significant talent.

  • Dozens of writers’ careers would have shone less bright because meetings and connections they made after having a script land on the annual Black List probably wouldn’t have occurred.

I have interviewed 48 writers whose scripts have made the Black List. When I ask, “How did being on the Black List impact you,” all of them say it made a significant difference. Doors opened. More meetings. Bigger projects. A definite career boost.

  • Hundreds of writers with little or no connections in Hollywood would not have gained representation, optioned or sold scripts, or gotten their passion projects produced as movies had it note been for the Black List website making their scripts available to over 3,000 industry insiders.

Here are some of the paths to break in as a screenwriter pre-Black List. Go to film school. Downside: Expensive, time-consuming. Enter screenwriting competitions. Downside: Nobody pays much attention to any of them other than the Nicholl Fellowships. Use a personal connection. Downside: You have to know someone… who is a sister to someone… who was college roommates with someone… who slept with someone… who works in Hollywood. Then you have to beg them to read your script. And wait. Wait. Wait some more. And hope against hope they (A) actually read your script, (B) like your script, and (C) do something about it on your behalf. Move to L.A. and intern somewhere. Downside: You have to move to L.A. and intern somewhere.

Once the Black List website launched over 4 years ago, you could live anywhere in the world, upload your script, and based on the quality of your writing and story — and that alone — break into the business.

Beyond that, the Black List has created a slew of initiatives — 14 by latest count — to create avenues for writers with diverse backgrounds and stories to tell to have an inroad into the business.

Then there is the relentless battle to elevate the status of writers in Hollywood. How many articles do we read or interviews we see where they feature the actors and/or the directors… but NOT the writers. Yeah, the very people who sat down and created a story out of nothing more than their imagination, sweat, and stubborn courage to see that script through from FADE IN to FADE OUT through multiple rewrites.

In other words, no movie gets made unless it has a script. And there’s no script without the writers.

What does the Black List do to put a spotlight on screenwriters?

  • Black List Live! Stage Readings: Script performances by name actors in Los Angeles and New York, playing to halls and auditoriums filled with hundreds of people… and lots of press.
  • Ear Movies: A popular podcast featuring script table reads by name actors and interviews with screenwriters.
  • Black List Blog: Features, interviews, and articles, focused on screenwriters and screenwriting, as well as great movie analysis series.

Then there’s something I’m particularly proud of: The Black List Feature Writer Labs and Mini-Labs:

Las Vegas (September 2013)

New York (May 2015)

Toronto (September 2015)

Chicago (October 2015)

San Francisco (October 2015)

Los Angeles (November 2015)

Athena Film Festival (February 2016)

Los Angeles (October 2016)

I have been a mentor at every single one of these workshop events with some incredible fellow mentors including Jessica Bendinger, Max Borenstein, Stephany Folsom, Derek Haas, Eric Heisserer, Brian Koppelman, Graham Moore, Scott Neustadter, Billy Ray, Kiwi Smith, Victoria Strouse, Beau Willimon, and others. Writers fortunate enough to be selected for these sessions have all raved about their experiences and many of them have used them as a springboard into the business — from obtaining representation to having scripts optioned or sold to landing TV writing staff positions and more.

When I read an article like the one in The Atlantic Monthly, I am reminded about how fortunate we — screenwriters, TV writers, filmmakers, and movie and TV lovers — are to have the Black List.

For more information on the Black List, go here.

[For the record, I am not paid by the Black List. I stipulated this from the beginning of my conversations with Franklin because (A) I still work in the industry and (B) I want to maintain my blog’s editorial objectivity and freedom to write whatever I want to write. So no, this is not a paid advertisement. Rather it is an honest appreciation of an outfit for whom I have the utmost admiration.]


The Black List was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

The Black List

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