Over the last seven years, many of Hollywood’s most celebrated original movies, from Slumdog Millionaire to Juno, were studio rejects, resurrected through Hollywood’s little-known online graveyard of unproduced screenplays, The Black List. Executive scavengers scour and evaluate The Black List’s trove of scripts, potentially giving a movie new life if enough hotshots give it high marks. An unintended consequence has been smarter storylines that ordinarily get overlooked in favor of safe, formulaic blockbusters.
Now that founder Franklin Leonard has proven that the crowd can effectively skirt the otherwise nepotistic world of moviemaking, he’s transforming the Black List into a full-time, for-profit venture aimed at ranking every script imaginable. “Gone are the days where the only way into the industry for a screenwriter was hoping your aunt’s husband’s accountant’s brother worked at [talent agency] CAA or you got a job as a waiter at the Grille in the hopes of being able to slip your script to a particularly generous tipper,” Leonard writes to us.
The Black List began as a humble side project in 2005, surveying 100 film executives to re-evaluate potentially winning screenplays. The annual Black List quickly became an insider goldmine, as more producers were invited to evaluate an increasing number of scripts, resulting in $16 billion in world box-office revenue and 148 Academy Award nominations (25 wins). Over the years, Leonard has made the site-review process more sophisticated, adding TV scripts and a subscription model for writers to support Leonard’s while he was vice president at Will Smith’s production house, Overbrook Entertainment.
Leonard is cautious to credit The Black List for successes such as Best Picture winner The King’s Speech, but admits that reduced theater revenue and the traditional gated studio review process has exaggerated a trend of risk-averse, rehashed movies (how many Schwarzenegger remakes does the world need?). With enough upvotes from respected The Black List evaluators, a thought-provoking script might not seem as risky.
Today, Leonard has left Overbrook and is launching a full-time profit version of The Black List, with the ambitious goal to “index every single screenplay of reasonable quality on Earth and provide an efficient ecosystem that matches people who make movies with the kind of screenplays on which (and screenwriters with whom) they’d like to work.” For $25 a month, screenwriters can upload their scripts to the site and get a professional evaluation for another $50. Writers retain all rights, electing if and when they make the evaluations public. The Black List doesn’t ask for any royalties or finder’s fees. “The only time a member’s attention is drawn to a script on our site is if it’s one that has been reviewed well by the community or one our algorithm believes an individual user may like.”
Like other breakout Internet successes that depend on a high percentage of crowd participation, Leonard sees the psychological foundation of The Black List as a healthy mix of efficiency and altruism. On the selfish side, it’s an efficient system for perusing a large number of scripts, which could potentially become the next picture of the year. On the other hand, Hollywood is a relatively small community under the shrinking theater revenue. The Black List’s invite-only voters “want others to participate and recognize that by doing so themselves, it will subtly encourage that same behavior in their peers.”
As a kind of marriage between eHarmony and Reddit, The Black List has the potential to be the premier site for Hollywood screenplays. “I know from experience how quickly scripts either get bought or not, and it often has no bearing on whether they’re good or not,” said Sony’s former President of Production, Matt Tolmach. “Thank goodness for the Black List.”