An Interview by Lisa Mecham
Franklin Leonard is a film executive best known for founding The Black List, an online community where aspiring and working writers submit scripts to be hosted and evaluated and where film and television industry professionals go to discover new material.
If you’ve seen Little Miss Sunshine, Juno or Argo, then you’ve seen a film that’s been on The Black List.
What started in 2005 as an email list gone viral is now a major game changer when it comes to business as usual in Hollywood. While it’s certainly a nod to the blacklist of the McCarthy era, Leonard’s effort is also about inverting connotations of the word “black” itself—a word he was told once in literature class was “often used to symbolize ‘evil’ vs. the purity and heroism of the word ‘white’.”
I first met Leonard when he was a guest speaker at a screenwriting workshop run by Scott Myers of Go Into The Story, the official blog of The Black List. It’s hard not to be captivated by Leonard’s passion and steadfast devotion to his vision.
I talked with Leonard about his path to The Black List and how in the quest to satisfy his own creative impulses he has become fiercely devoted to facilitating creative opportunities for others:
Tell me the story of how you came to do The Black List.
In 2005 I was working at Leonardo DiCaprio’s company and my job as a junior executive was to read every script I could get my hands on and pass the good stuff up the chain of command. But I hadn’t read anything good in a very long time and I presumed that I was seeing the best of what was out there given I was reading for one of the best actors who had a reputation for really good taste. So that meant one of two things: either that I was doing a very bad job at finding good material or that the job was to read terrible material.
I was about to go on vacation for two weeks and I wanted to read some scripts while I was away so I defaulted back to my McKinsey way of thinking: I have a problem I need to solve, how would I solve it if I was working for them? I’ll take a survey. I’ll email seventy-five people I know and ask them for their ten favorite scripts of the year that haven’t been made yet and in exchange I’ll send them back the whole list. And that’s really all I did. It was a pretty simple idea that I’ve gotten more credit for than maybe I deserve.
I went on vacation and didn’t think anything of it. When I came back, the list of films had been forwarded back to me several dozen times and it became very quickly a thing. I was sure I was going to be fired. Six months later I got a phone call from an agent who said, “Hey, I’ve got this new client. I’m really excited about his script and maybe Leo would be interested in it. And, listen, don’t tell anyone but I’ve got it on good authority that this is going to be #1 on next year’s Black List.” He didn’t realize I’d started The Black List. It was a surreal moment. I started getting that phone call a lot. It made me realize this thing I’d created had more value than I anticipated.
I did the e-mail survey again the next December and that’s when the Los Angeles Times outed me. I had a long conversation with my bosses at Appian Way. They weren’t totally cool with it.
Leo understandably doesn’t like his name in the press unless it’s associated with his films or a cause he supports which I really respect and admire. They decided they would rather keep things internal.
And it wasn’t my intent to be in a news article about this thing I didn’t even realize I’d created. This movement. The idea that it was being covered by the L.A. Times was ridiculous to me.
I moved on to Sydney and Anthony’s company and shortly thereafter Juno and Lars and the Real Girl were nominated for best original screenplay. That was a big inflection point because they’d been two of the top scripts on the first Black List and so all of a sudden people took notice.
It was evidence that if you make these scripts and make them well, there can be critical and commercial success on the other end. And that’s largely proven to be true. If you look at the first eight years of the list, 270 Black List scripts have been produced into films grossing over $23 billion in worldwide box office. Black List scripts have won 37 Academy Awards—including three of the last six Best Pictures and eight of the last 14 screenwriting awards—from 196 nominations. It’s pretty crazy.
What were the barriers to those scripts getting where they needed to be in the first place?
A lot of them weren’t obvious commercial hits. Getting back to this idea that film is an unusual artistic medium in that it requires a large amount of money to make. There’s a calculus that goes into determining which stories get financed and if you can’t reasonably assume that you are going to make your money back, no one is going to finance your work. No matter how well it’s written.
I think The Black List is changing that. We’re providing folks with some cover, drawing attention to solid scripts and shifting the demand curve for them.
Part of your success is disrupting the status quo.
Hollywood needs to expand artistically along lines of gender, race, sexuality, and internationality. I do think the industry is slowly waking up to that reality but they should have years ago. The numbers have always been there. But you have people in these top jobs that have been in these top jobs for decades and they don’t live amongst those diverse communities and therefore don’t realize the ways in which demographics have changed around the world and in the United States. They make decisions about what they’re going to create based on what the world looked like 20 years ago.
The Black List is an online community that allows access to all types of information about the scripts. How does this renaissance of data aggregation factor into diversity efforts?
On that front, nothing makes me angrier than when I see data being misused. I’ll never forget, I think it was the film Ride Along at the beginning of this year. On Twitter, one of the box office prognosticators wrote “Does anybody think Ride Along will make twenty five million dollars this weekend?” And I wrote, “Yeah, it’s going to make more.” And then it made $40 million and I called him out on it and he was like, “Well, you know, nature of the beast, sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong.” And I was pissed because if you’re that cavalier about your errors it doesn’t say very much about how good of a prognosticator you are. And if your job is to make predictions, you have to stand by them or study why you missed them. It’s especially problematic when you keep missing films driven by people of color. On the race front, there are consequences to being consistently wrong because eventually if the assumption is black movies can only make X amount of money, then only so many black movies are going to be made in a year. But if we view it as they’re going to do better, you’re going to see more of them get made. The same thing is true of Latino driven films and female driven films.
I don’t know if we’re directly addressing it in ways that I’d like to on The Black List but I think we’ll get there. If your script is evaluated by us and is found to be good, we will broadcast it to the entire industry. And it doesn’t matter what your name is when you upload your script. If you’re a black woman you can upload your script with the name John Smith. It really is about the work and not about the person doing the work.
We’ve also created partnerships with other organizations to identify writers from historically underrepresented communities who are doing great work and that’s been really exciting for me; a black kid from south Georgia who didn’t leave college and move directly to Los Angeles because it never occurred to him that he could. I want to open some doors that have historically been closed.