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If you want to become a screenwriter in Hollywood, you need to write an exceptional screenplay. That part is obvious. What happens next is not. Your script lands you a manager and an agent, who will shop your work around. Then, with any luck, they’ll find a studio or producer who likes it, too. And then … they’ll hire you to write something completely different.
Such as? “A movie with a number at the end of it: ‘Something-something Part IV,’” explained Graham Moore, screenwriter of the new Oscar hopeful The Imitation Game. You know. Something with a superhero or maybe Seth Rogen in it.
The annual roster of great screenplays is the result of a single-question poll. Every year, Black List creator Franklin Leonard and his business partner, Dino Sijamic, reach out to more than 500 executives at studios, production companies and financiers and ask them to name their favourite unproduced scripts. The answers are fed into an Excel spreadsheet, and the titles with the most votes end up on the Black List.
Past honourees have included a number of this year’s Golden Globe nominees, including The Imitation Game, which topped the 2011 list with 133 votes, Selma (2007), Whiplash (2012), St. Vincent (2011) and Foxcatcher (2008). The 10th annual list was announced Monday, and the winner was, for the first time, a woman. Kristina Lauren Anderson received 51 votes for her script about Catherine the Great.
Black List alums have taken home a slew of best screenplay Oscars (including Django Unchained, The Descendants, The Social Network, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine), not to mention best picture nods (Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire).
Some of these movies would have been made regardless of their Black List accolades. The big-screen fate of Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network was most likely never in doubt. But others could have easily fallen through the cracks — or, nearly as tragically, been used as a writing test to prove someone could handle the next Iron Man instalment.
The Black List “does the thing that the agency is supposed to do, which is promote the writer’s work,” Moore said. “But a lot of times, agencies are invested in getting their clients to quickly slide into the ‘Part IV’ because there’s a lot more short-term financial gain in that. One of the great things about the Black List is it’s a way to get attention for those original scripts.”
“It was really born of self-interest, honestly,” he said. “My job was to find great material and serve it up to my bosses, and I hadn’t been finding great material, which I sort of chalked up to being bad at my job.”
He needed a solution to his problem, so he took a survey of friends in the industry, asking them what scripts he should read on his upcoming vacation. He promised, as a reward for helping him, to send the whole list back to the respondents.
When he returned from vacation, he was surprised to find that the list had been forwarded back to him several dozen times. People were talking about the list. It turned out Leonard wasn’t the only one who thought he was failing at his job.
In the years since, the selection process for the list has remained unchanged, although Leonard has opened up the voting to a more comprehensive group of executives. For screenwriters, especially up-and-comers, getting on the list can mark a pivotal professional moment. The stamp of approval gains the attention of producers, directors, even actors.
Ben Affleck read the script for Argo because of its presence on the list, and Benedict Cumberbatch found out about The Imitation Game, a movie he lobbied to star in, because of the buzz it got from the list.
The effects can be almost instantaneous. Randall Green has two scripts on the list this year, The Swimsuit Issue and Cartoon Girl. Both scripts have been circulating for the last year — and they were well-liked enough to get Green the gig of writing the new live action Scooby-Doo reboot. But neither could find a producer or financier. Mere days after the announcement, however, it looks like that could change.
“It really is immediate,” Green said of the Black List afterglow. “The list lends a degree of momentum to any project associated with it.”
In other words, the Black List wields power. And where there’s power, there’s politicking. But Leonard believes the voters stay honest because it’s a blind vote and also because the executives don’t benefit if people are doing favours by nominating unworthy candidates.
“Everyone knows that the list is only valuable if people are honest in their assessment of what scripts they love,” Leonard said. “If everyone is voting for what agents told them to vote for, then the list has no value. Then it’s just a reflection of lobbying.”
That’s not to say lobbying isn’t happening. Every year, after the list comes out, Leonard inevitably receives calls from agents or managers who are sure their client’s script was left off the list because of some clerical error.
“I then respectfully go back and double-check to make sure I haven’t made a mistake,” he said. And he always ends up telling those agents and managers the same thing: “I think six or seven people lied to you.”
Not all of the scripts that land on the Black List end up being winners. Lars and the Real Girl was nominated for a best screenplay Oscar, but didn’t make an impact at the box office. Sex Tape became a rom-com with Cameron Diaz and Jason Segal, and No Strings Attached turned into a Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher vehicle, but both were regarded by critics as pretty standard multiplex fare. The Draft Day script topped the list two years ago, but the finished product last spring with Kevin Costner left both ticket buyers and critics indifferent.
The Beaver is another example of a movie that was very popular, and it was the No. 1 screenplay on the list,” Leonard said. “And then obviously its prospects were affected by things well out of the writer’s control.” (Read: the presence of Mel Gibson.)
In the last couple years, Leonard has turned the Black List into a larger enterprise. The list’s website is also a database where writers can upload scripts and get feedback, and producers and filmmakers can search for new talent. In fact, that’s how this year’s winner, Anderson, got her script in front of executives. Three writers on this year’s list, including an Apple store employee named Gary Graham who uploaded his script while on the job, ended up finding representation through the site. (Graham’s story has been reworked into a prequel of I Am Legend, proving that even wholly original scripts can be repackaged into movies that make studios less panicky.)
Although the list has become a Hollywood tastemaker, Leonard always puts the attention back on the writers. He refers to the Black List as a mere hype man. But screenwriters Moore and Green see the list leading the way to something more important — the first seeds of a Hollywood paradigm shift.
“I am not the first person to suggest that as studios make more superhero movies and fewer movies about people, there is more and more of a need to help movies about people get made, and help movies for adults get made,” Moore said. “There’s a crying out among actors and directors and fellow filmmakers for more serious material, and that’s part of what the Black List can help galvanize.”