The Black List’s Franklin Leonard on why picking winners doesn’t mean making losers

Tech and Hollywood don’t cross-pollinate that often, but when it comes to Franklin Leonard’s way of looking at things, maybe they should.

Leonard is best known as the creator of The Black List, a curated collection of the most underrated screenplays of the year. What began as a side project in 2005 is now a full-fledged hit-making machine. Four of the last 13 Best Picture winners came from the list. Overall, 54 movies from The Black List went on to win Oscars and more than 300 have been nominated. And according to box office numbers, films from the list rake in more revenue, too.

In a conversation at our virtual TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 stage, Leonard expanded on the philosophy behind his efforts and why elevating the work of creators isn’t a zero-sum game.

Opening the gate

Hollywood and venture capital have both been slow to the revelation that finding overlooked talent benefits everyone — not just the people lower on the food chain.

“It’s in the industry’s interest to find the people — to sort of go out into the field full of haystacks and find the needles to see if there might be something we can do with them,” Leonard said.

“It’s a problem-solving thing. The first problem was how do we identify the good stuff within the industry? The second question was how do we identify the good scripts and the good writers at scale throughout the world?”

In Leonard’s view, to find answers to those questions doesn’t mean taking on the role of a gatekeeper. The Black List doesn’t identify undiscovered scripts and wall them off, reaping the profits. Instead, it amplifies the good stuff that’s already out there and helps creators get connected to the side of the industry that doles out resources.

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to create an ecosystem whereby we are not asking more of the writers than the opportunity to share the good news of their good work,” Leonard said.

“We don’t have our hand in their pocket, we’re not democratizing access to us. We’re democratizing access to everyone who may make a film and be interested in finding a good writer, you now have the opportunity to go work with them entirely devoid of relationship with us if you prefer not to have one.

“That is the fundamental nature of our ethos and actually that is both an ethical approach for me, but it’s also a business approach because I believe that we do add value post that decision but I want to be engaged with partners who believe that we add that value and partner with us because we add that value — not because they owe us something.”

That perspective is ethically solid, but it’s also robust from a market perspective. Leonard sees The Black List as a tool that stepped in and streamlined a process where the existing system was failing.

“I’m just a big believer in tides that raise all boats and opportunities where there are radical inefficiencies in the marketplace. And to be clear there are massive ones in entertainment,” Leonard said. He argues that The Black List hasn’t “disrupted” the industry so much as transformed it.

“… Disruption has this association with winners and losers and in many ways everybody has the potential to win with The Black List,” Leonard said. “Writers, industry professionals, The Black List itself. And that’s because the market has failed to operate at anywhere close to efficiency.”

Flipping the power dynamic

While the tech industry hasn’t fully grappled with the rising tide bit, the idea of opportunities in inefficiency is very core to how the tech industry sees itself. But there are key differences between how something like The Black List elevates creators and how tech platforms have gone about their own version of democratization.

“I think there’s a fair amount of ego. Like, we build the platform and these folks are taking advantage of it and they’re using it and we did this amazing thing by giving them the platform, but what could they possibly have to tell us about our business? And you know, I think that’s just a mistake. I think that you know, the pride goes before the fall always. ” Leonard said.

But even as social media companies flipped traditional industries upside down, they’ve maintained the economics of keeping wealth and power concentrated at the very top. In Leonard’s view, the people at the bottom do most of the work and a few at the top extract disproportionate value from their work. “I don’t believe that that’s an optimum model,” Leonard said.

“Look, if you’re running a major platform right now and you look around your boardroom, you look around your senior staff meetings and you don’t see people that look like the world, you really have two choices. You can either figure it out fast or you can continue to do exactly what you’re doing… and someone will then replace you either because you’re fired or because another company will take your market share.”

On a long enough timeline, Leonard believes that power imbalance will right itself because the people creating the content, powering the platforms, inspiring the trends — they ultimately wield the true power.

“If you guys aren’t listening to us, we’re gonna take our talents to Miami — to use a basketball analogy — and build our own thing. And we’re gonna come back with a great deal more power,” Leonard said. “We’re then gonna win a championship and we’re gonna be able to dictate terms to you.

“I have a great deal of faith not because I think the people are gonna get it and change their behavior, but because if they don’t they’re going to get beaten. I know the talent that exists that is capable of beating them, and suffice it to say, it’s coming.”