Obvious statement of the day: screenwriting is not an easy profession to break into. Because of this truism, a cottage industry of screenplay services has popped up to help Hollywood hopefuls get notes, learn how to market themselves, and—most lucrative of all—have their material exposed to someone who might actually get their passion project made. But while much has been said (even on this site) about how worthless most of these services are—an inefficacy often inversely correlated to price tag, mind you—there might be room for a company to actually do it right. The Black List, a script reading service started by former development executive Franklin Leonard, is hoping to bridge the gap between screenplay services and producers.
Leonard has an impressive pedigree. His Harvard diploma first led him to management consulting at McKinsey, before he came to Hollywood and quickly worked his way up to becoming a development executive at Universal Pictures, followed by running development for Will Smith's Overbrook Pictures. He launched the original iteration of The Black List back in 2005, not as a reading service, but simply as a industry list of the best liked screenplays that hadn't yet been turned into a movie. The list took off over the past decade, and thanks to agent jockeying for votes for client scripts, as Leonard himself has pointed out, became a barometer for the "most liked" scripts, not necessarily the best. While Leonard boasts that the original Black List has featured three of the last five Best Picture Oscar winners, and seven of the last 12 Best Screenplay, the fact is that those films were often already on track to production before making it on the list.
But unlike other script services that have you pay $50 - $100 per script just for notes, the paid arm of The Black List is aiming to do things differently. For $25 a month (a fee reduced by 20% for Writers Guild members; who can also list information on their scripts for free), a writer can host a full script that is searchable to a seemingly large database of actual industry insiders—many culled from Leonard's longtime experience in movie production. For another $50, the script can be read by a Black List reader who provides detailed notes. Said insiders can then search the vast database run by an algorithm similar to Netflix, upload their ratings, and start being recommended scripts based on their previous preferences.
Leonard, and his partners Dino Sijamic and Terry Huang, are attempting to run the site on a model combining technology and transparency, couple with actual access to industry dealmakers. They recently hosted an all-expenses paid screenwriting mentorship weekend, pairing six young writers with established writer/producers, and recently announced a new partnership pairing up one writer with mega-producer Cassian Elwes at Sundance. While all of this sounds excellent on paper, I remained extremely skeptical that The Black List was anything more than a very well marketed service; a most cunning of wolves in a well-coiffed sheep's clothing. To that end, I reached out to Leonard to find out exactly what he thinks sets his shop apart.
What do you think sets the Black List apart from other script reading services (i.e. The Script Reader, Screenplay Coverage, Screenplay Readers, etc.)?
We're not a script reading service in any conventional sense. It's one of the things we do, but we tend to think of ourselves more as Angelist or Google for screenplays. We're aggregating a database of every screenplay that anyone could possibly want to make and creating an infrastructure that helps them find them more efficiently and connect with their writers. That said, some differences:
Our Ecosystem—At any hour of the day, members of our site can go looking for exactly what they want/need (and conversely get discovered that way). Looking for the best horror comedies with no financier? Looking for an action script set in China that has car chases? We generate those lists in real time. We've got more than 60 genres and sub-genres and 800 script tags. The number of searches that someone can do on our site that yield at least one script has 225 digits.
Scale/Access—Writers get more access to people making movies than anywhere else; Folks making movies get the highest quality of more scripts than anywhere else. We have over 2000 industry professional members who have been approved for membership based on their ability to advance the career of a writer and/or an individual project (ranging from major agency assistants to studio presidents and working actors and directors), and we had more scripts submitted to the site in its first year of existence than any screenplay competition has ever reported in a single year (Nicholl 2013 had ~7250. We were just over 7300.) There were over 12,000 downloads of those scripts during our first year of existence.
It's Not Only About Up and Coming Writers—There are a number of working writers who host their scripts on the site in the hopes of turbocharging their representatives' exposure of their work. Everyone knows that their reps can't make 100 phone calls a day on behalf of scripts they wrote years ago that may have lost heat, but we can and do get exposure for writers' back catalogs (and front catalogs) and drive incoming calls to their representatives about their work.
Our recommendations algorithm—In addition to having a real time Black List of the overall highest rated scripts that can be filtered and sorted in a crazy number of ways, we also built a recommendations algorithm a la Amazon or Netflix with the help of Sean Owen, founder of Myrrix and current VP of data science at Cloudera. It's quite powerful.
Transparency and Control—Writers get full real time information on the volume of traffic to their script and script page so that they can assess whether we're helping get them traction on their script (and choose to stop giving us money if we're not.) Moreover, each writer has absolute control over what information gets shared with our industry members. Ratings low and don't want them visible? We hide them. An evaluation wasn't particularly favorable and you don't want it visible? We hide them. That said, our site is designed to only draw attention to scripts that are well regarded or that an individual industry pro is likely to like and all of that data - even the stuff that's been hidden - is used to identify those scripts. Writers can still keep individual criticism private though.
Our Readers—All of our readers have worked, in a paid capacity (not as interns), for a major agency, management company, studio, production company, or screenplay competition for a least one year. Some have far more than that. They're former executives or studio readers either between jobs or taking the careers in different direction. They know the market, both what sells and what is likely to inspire a lot of interest even if it's not on its face a commercial movie. And we hire less than 20% of those who apply with that level of experience. As I've said before, they're the best of who would be reading your script if you submitted it to any reputable company, and they provide a valuable, quick, and direct point of view about how the script will be viewed by the industry.
Our Partners—We're partnered with the WGA East and WGA West, the Sundance Institute, and Warner Bros Pictures on a number of initiatives (and there are many more coming.
How many scripts that were hosted on the site have been optioned or purchased, in comparison to how many have been hosted overall?
No one's required to let us know what happens to their script once they upload it, but some people have let us know. We know of about 40 major agency and management company signings of writers because of intros made on the site. About two dozen sales. One writer, Richard Cordiner, has a two script blind deal at Warner Brothers. Declan O'Dwyer, from Ireland, sold his script to Basil Iwanyk, who produced The Town Ryan Binaco sold two scripts to BCDF Pictures, who produced Bachelorette and Liberal Arts, from Sweden. And there's been one produced movie, Nightingale (originally called Ashland Avenue), starring David Oyelowo.
Obviously, we're very proud of all of that, but best metric to evaluate our performance, I think, isn't the number of signings/sales. The quality of the scripts that are submitted is out of our hands, and that's ultimately going to be the primary driver of signings and sales. Our work is to put people in a position where their work can be considered seriously for that opportunity.
What made you want to leave working in development to take the Black List from an annual list to an established service? Is there any world in which The Black List may come on as producers on projects down the road?
By 2010, the idea of an annual PDF that circulated via email had become simply adorable. We knew there was more we could do with it, and as we thought about exactly that would look like, we realized that we could answer the question "I wrote what I think is a great script. What do I do with it now?" in addition to creating a more efficient market for scripts already in the system (the Google for screenplays version).
How do you select partners like Cassian Elwes? Are you finding that people in the industry are open to being helpful to untested screenwriters?
They are. Mainly, I think, because everyone knows that a great script is the first step on the way to a great movie, and so there's naturally a desire to find them wherever they might exist. Most of our partners have approached us, and when someone presents an opportunity that we believe can help our writer customers or the writer community generally in a substantive way, we try to make it work.
Warner Bros, for example, wanted to do a better job of finding diverse writers, and so we developed a partnership with them where every six months we share with them a short list of 5 diverse writers identified via the site, one of whom may receive a two step guild minimum blind deal worth about $93K.
While The Black List drew some raised eyebrows when its first writer to be signed off the paid service, Justin Kremer, turned out to be a former intern of the site, my chat with Leonard has really brought me around on what the site offers—and how it differs from other services. One can argue that pitch festivals and query letters can also get your work in front of a producer (or, well, their assistant who just showed up for the free booze), but the steps needed for producers and agents to be approved to search The Black List are rigorous. The cost to host a script is nominal, and paying for reader coverage doesn't shoot you up in search algorithms any higher than a non-covered script.
I remain skeptical of any services that offer you an entree into an industry that's notoriously hard to break into, especially one that come with their own price tag, but I have to admit that The Black List's commitment to transparency, coupled with actually putting their money where their mouth is in terms of programs for young screenwriters outside of just hoping to be found on the site, has made me slightly less wary of their work. And if you still have your doubts, but have an old script laying around, the cost of drawing your own conclusions is cheaper than anything else you can buy in this town to try to get ahead.
[Images via ShutterStock, Art by Sam Woolley]