Franklin Leonard The Black List

“It is a deeply courageous thing to share something you’ve written, that is 100 or more pages long, and ask for judgment. That requires courage,” says The Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard.

“That is the courage that defines all artists on some level, right? So I think that we have an obligation given that dynamic to be as respectful and considerate as possible, and treat writers’ work with care and consideration. Even if we disagree about the quality of it.”

It’s been nearly two decades since Leonard started The Black List, which may be the least opaque way into Hollywood. In a town known for confounding, mysterious decision-making, Leonard’s company stands out in its efforts to open doors to new writers and be as open as possible about how it helps them.

The Black List began when Leonard, a few years out of Harvard, was working as a junior executive at Leonardo DiCaprio’s company Appian Way Productions. His job involved meeting industry contacts and reading scripts, novels, articles, comics, and anything else that might someday become a movie.
After a particularly unimpressive pitch for a movie that would have pitted DiCaprio against a toxic superstorm, Leonard began to wonder if there might be a better way to find great material than the traditional Hollywood pipeline.

So he made a list of 75 contacts — everyone he’d recently met with — and sent an anonymous email asking them for a list of up to 10 of their favorite recent screenplays that were not destined for the big screen anytime soon. Almost all responded, as did several others who had heard about the idea. He assembled a spreadsheet, ran a pivot table, and made a PowerPoint that he emailed back to his sources. He called it The Black List.

Since then, Leonard’s annual Black List has grown dramatically in ambition and influence, highlighting more than 400 scripts that were turned into feature films, yielding more than 250 Academy Award nominations, and 50 Oscar wins — including four for Best Picture and eleven for screenwriting Oscars. Black
List films have earned more than $28 billion. A Harvard Business school study found that Black List scripts were twice as likely to be made into films, and generated 90% more revenue at the box office than similarly budgeted films that did not make the list.

Leonard takes care not to claim too much credit: “I think it is dangerous of me to overclaim The Black List is the reason this person got signed. People got signed because the script was good. We just happened to tell
people about it,” he explains.

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In addition to the annual list, in 2012 The Black List launched a unique online platform where writers can share their work with readers, buyers, and employers, and receive scores of 1 through 10. If Black List readers give a script an 8 or higher, it gets special promotion to the industry via tweets, newsletters and other means. The site has hosted more than 100,000 scripts and provided more than 130,000 script evaluations, and has helped countless writers earn representation.

Users — including your humble correspondent — appreciate The Black List’s feedback service for the no-nonsense, quick evaluations — which cost $100 and take an average of six days. Enter a typical contest, and
you might go months without feedback — and not get a chance to make changes in time to improve your script and score well.

Leonard’s long list of achievements includes working in development for Universal Pictures and the production companies of Will Smith, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, as well as serving as a contributing editor of Vanity Fair. He earned the 2019 Writers Guild of America, East’s Evelyn F. Burkey Award for elevating the honor and dignity of screenwriters, and is a member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

But for all these accolades, he is not a movie snob. Ask him his list of favorite films, and he’ll include Tommy Boy. (We agree.) He’s also happy to take to Reddit to answer questions from people who love
The Black List or want to gripe about a reader’s feedback, and often tells people — as he did several times during our interview — that if a writer feels that a Black List reader failed to give a script the kind of attentive, helpful feedback it deserved, the company will often offer a free second evaluation.

He’s also upfront about not yet knowing what the impact of A.I. will be on screenwriting, or where exactly to draw the ever-shifting line. But he is certain about one thing: If a Black List reader uses A.I. for an evaluation — something disappointed screenwriters sometimes accuse various contests of doing — that reader will be
fired. He hasn’t had to fire anyone so far.

We talked with Leonard about who reads Black List scripts, matching writers and readers, and jumping from the Black List hosting site to the annual Black List that nearly everyone in the industry watches closely. He also talked about interviewing for his old job with DiCaprio.

TIM MOLLOY: How many readers does the Black List have? I’m amazed how fast the turnaround time is.

FRANKLIN LEONARD: It varies widely how many people will be reading in a given moment. Once you’re hired to read for us, you can sort of come and go as you please, as long as you continue to provide consistent, high-quality feedback. If you don’t read for six months, you have to reapply.

But I think people sort of graze consistently over time. At any given time,probably between 75 and 100 are active. It’s not me with a bunch of emails trying to assign things. It’s automated, where people are qualified to read in the format that they have experience in — film, television, theater. Then you indicate what genres you’re interested in and we match by genre.

And then there’s a third level, which I think is unique: We ask every writer to indicate whether their script includes sexual assault, child abuse, gunplay, whatever, and our readers have indicated subject matter that they don’t want to read about. So we negatively match based on that, for two reasons.

I don’t want our readers reading anything that’s going to traumatize them, and I also don’t want writers who are submitting work — and I’m operating on the assumption that they’ve written about the subjects in good faith — I don’t want them to be judged by someone who believes that their experience is going to affect their experience reading the script. I want to give them the best shot of enjoying the thing.

TIM MOLLOY: There’s The Black List you started in 2005, with unproduced scripts that people in the industry thought should be produced, and then there’s also the website that writers can submit scripts to to get feedback. How often do the scripts on the latter skip over to the annual list?

FRANKLIN LEONARD: I have to be really responsible, I think, about causation and correlation. But every year, there are at least a dozen writers who The Black List has previously highlighted as somebody to pay attention to, who end up on the annual list — and usually a fair bit more than a dozen.

Black List Founder Franklin Leonard on His Advice to Screenwriters

TIM MOLLOY: What scares you or makes you nervous about the process?

FRANKLIN LEONARD: Things that I spend a lot of time thinking about? One, how to most effectively communicate to aspiring writers out there what our services are, what the value proposition is, and how best to use them. One of the reasons why I’m so open about this stuff on social media and when I have
these conversations is I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what The Black List is and how it functions. If people better understood how we think about it, and what its goals are, people would think about it very differently. And I frankly think a lot of the criticisms would recede.

All writers should create a writer profile on the site. It’s free. Have your bio, have a list of your scripts. Include a logline so they’re searchable by our 7,000 industry numbers. I don’t know what upside there would be in not having a writer profile on the Black List website.

I’m not going to tell people how to spend their money, but exhaust all the free resources you have at your disposal to make the script as good as possible before you spend any money on it. … Put your best foot forward if you’re going to spend money on The Black List.

I think the other biggest piece is, I know how many good scripts and good writers we’re finding. How do we most effectively communicate to as many working members of the industry as possible, “Hey — we found something great here, you really should pay attention”?

We do that in a number of ways. There’s the eight-plus tweets, there’s the emails that go out every Monday, there’s the website that has these top lists. We do a ton of work that we don’t even talk about and can’t talk about, when people come to us and say, “Hey, we’re looking for this kind of thing,” and we can point them to specific things. Because when we do that, they’re more likely to come back and look for more stuff.

I personally believe that the industry undervalues writers. There are a lot of studies of the industry that reflect that. A good script is the best business plan. And if you have a good script, you can get a good
director. And if you have a good script and good director you can get the talent.

TIM MOLLOY: The dream is a script that’s almost bulletproof.

FRANKLIN LEONARD: Well, the reality is, there’s never been a script that couldn’t fail. It still requires incredible people, incredible artists pouring into that script, to make it realize its potential. A lot of people in this business love to quote William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.”

What they fail to quote, and they fail to remember, if they read the rest of that paragraph, is that he basically says, nobody knows anything, it’s a guess every time out — but if you’ve done the work, it can be
an educated guess.

What he’s saying is, you can have four aces and you still may lose. But you can give yourself a better chance
by paying attention to what works and what actually has value. And I would bet if I could interview William
Goldman now, he would say educated guess-wise, the best starting place is a great screenplay.

TIM MOLLOY: Why didn’t you ever want to write screenplays yourself?

FRANKLIN LEONARD: I do a little bit of writing. It’s mainly like journalistic and editorial writing. … I took fiction writing classes in college, and I would say, with possibly more than a healthy ego, I’m a decent writer.
I don’t think I’m a great writer. I think that the time and effort and frankly emotional pain that it would take for me to write something great is not — if I could get there at all — I don’t know if it’s worth it for me.

And I think that my calling is probably to help identify and help support writers who are capable of greatness, rather than me pulling my hair out and being miserable trying to be mediocre. On some level,
I have too much respect for what writers actually do. I’d rather work with the great ones than try, and fall short of their greatness.

TIM MOLLOY: I mean, you changed the industry. So there’s that.

FRANKLIN LEONARD: Thank you for saying that. But for me, I have an incredible amount of reverence for what writers do, especially the ones who do it incredibly well. I see an industry that does not support them adequately. It frustrates me, both as someone who loves great movies, and as someone who wants to see this industry be successful — and someone who wants the business to work.

I’m kind of a nerd. I’m an efficiency person. I like systems, right? I built this entire thing around a spreadsheet of screenplays. I want the system to work well. And I see the system not working well.

Franklin Leonard on Knowing Your Favorite Movie

TIM MOLLOY: You’ve told a great story in the past about when you first sat down with DiCaprio for your job interview. He asked you your favorite movie and you had a moment where you froze — like we all do sometimes. I don’t know what I’d say. Should you say Titanic because you want the job?

FRANKLIN LEONARD: I’m never living this down. It’s funny. For years, when people asked me how to prepare for a job in Hollywood, the advice I’d always give was, “Know your favorite movie.” Even before this happened.
You’ve got to have your list of movies that you can talk about. Think about what those say about you. Have some from different decades in case people want to ask you about something before the year 2000.

Yeah, in this interview, Leo asked me my favorite movie, and I just froze. I couldn’t think of a movie, much less a favorite movie. And any movie that sprang to my head, I could immediately make 100 arguments for why that was an embarrassing answer.

I ended up calling [Appian Way then-president] Brad Simpson, who became my boss. I said, “Well, I’m just gonna write a list of all of my favorite movies and why I love them. And I’m gonna email it to you, if you could just forward it to Leo and be like, ‘Look, sometimes people’s brains freeze.’”

TIM MOLLOY: So do you have an updated list of favorite movies?

FRANKLIN LEONARD: It changes day to day. I would say those that stay toward the top of the list are A Prophet, the French film; Being There, one of my all-time favorites — some days it’s probably number one; Amadeus, a banger; Dr. Strangelove; Parasite. I’m always loath to mention recent films because you always worry that there’s a recency bias… but I think that one’s going to stick around. I think that one’s uncom-
monly brilliant. When Harry Met Sally; Do the Right Thing. Tommy Boy.

I think people underappreciate those early-mid ’90s SNL actor movies like Billy Madison and Tommy Boy. They’re incredibly well-structured and very, very funny. And their politics I think are really interesting — about who deserves success in a capitalist society. I think those movies are sneaky, super smart.

Main image: The Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard. Courtesy of The Black List.