The What, How, and Why of the Black List: The Long Answer by Franklin Leonard

October 16th, 2012 by

Yesterday the Black List launched a new service for enabling aspiring screenwriters to get their scripts in front of 1000+ industry insiders. It generated considerable press and lots of questions in the online screenwriting community. Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard put together a comprehensive response which I am posting here in full.Dear Reader,

Yesterday morning, the Black List announced what we hope will be the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way screenplays are discovered by people who make movies.  As with any shift of this nature, there were a number of questions and concerns from people likely affected by it, via email, via Twitter, via Facebook, via our official screenwriting blog Go Into The Story, via the forums on DoneDealPro, via the comments on Deadline Hollywood Daily, and a few other places I’m sure that I’m forgetting at this late hour of the early morning.

Frankly, I’m glad there were. I’m glad because it means that the community of people likely affected by this are aggressively policing those who may do them harm, and I’m glad because it demands that I explain why I believe that this is a tide that can raise all boats, especially those of writers writing good screenplays.

After spending the evening trying to answer each question individually, I decided that the best approach might be to try to answer them all.  What follows is my (possibly foolhardy) attempt to do just that:

During the almost ten years that I’ve worked in the film industry, there have been long periods wherein I haven’t read a great screenplay.  We’ve all had those periods.  It’s the nature of the beast.  There are more scripts generated and circulating in Hollywood every year than it’s possible for one person to read.  Consequently, you do everything you can to get your hands on the good ones.  It’s your job after all, and life’s just better when you’re reading better scripts. Trust me.

The Black List began during one of those periods.  I took a survey of my peers and asked them to send me a list of their favorite screenplays from the previous year that wouldn’t be in theaters by the end of it.  I aggregated the information and sent the list back to those who submitted.

I’ve repeated that process every year since and though some of the finer details have changed, the essence of the thing is identical.  Today, I don’t include every script that gets a single vote.  I change up the voting period and add other internal protections to limit the potential for gaming the system.  I disclose misleading information to prevent anyone from knowing exactly what’s on the list before it’s released each year.  But the essence of it is the same.  People who make movies, who read scripts as a vital part of their job, anonymously share the names of the scripts they love, and the Black List shares the names of the scripts that are most beloved.

As I say on every list, the annual Black List is not a “best of” list. It is, at best, a “most liked” list.  That is all that it is. What’s remarkable is that what is “most liked” is often an eccentric mix of wildly ambitious screenplays from writers who are just starting out and screenplays that are set up at studios with writers who are already household names, at least in Hollywood.  This has always been the case. Aaron Sorkin’s script for CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR was the #5 script on the first list, and David Benioff’s script for THE KITE RUNNER followed just behind it.

There’s something special, I think, about a list where Aaron Sorkin’s script for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, which would go on to win an Oscar, is behind a speculative Jim Henson biopic written entirely outside the Hollywood system.  The absolute net effect of it I can’t and won’t speak to for fear of overstating it, but I am certain that it is positive.

What has also been remarkable about the list is the success of the films that have been on it.  The extent to which the Black List has catalyzed these films getting made is fundamentally unknowable, and I prefer to err on the side of conservatism in speculating, but my experience suggests that in sum it’s not insignificant.  But even if you believed it was utterly irrelevant, it’s ability to predict future success seems noteworthy.  The Oscars are obviously an imperfect evaluation of quality, but over 140 Academy Award nominations, 25 wins, 2 of the last 4 Best Pictures, and 5 of the last 10 Screenwriting Oscars says something.

I’m not claiming genius in assessing scripts though anyone who knows me knows that I have a healthy opinion of my own ability to do so.  I am claiming, however, that what we’ve created and are continuing to improve on is an infrastructure where the genius that matters – the writing – can be recognized more efficiently and promoted within an industry that is highly subjective and desperately in need of good screenplays.

It’s far from perfect, but it’s better than anything that currently exists, and we’re going to do everything we can to make it better.

As for our new venture…

REAL TIME BLACK LISTS

Think of our industry professional community as a real time Black List.  We approve a select group of industry professionals based on their involvement in the film industry and the extent to which their job relies on reading, evaluating, and getting involved in working with screenplays (just like we curate the people who vote for the Black List).  They range widely, from agency assistants to studio presidents of production like Greg Silverman at Warner Brothers and Hannah Minghella at Sony (both of whom serve on our advisory board) and A list actors and directors.  Our current membership of almost 1300 may seem large, but less than one in four who have applied have been approved.

These members are allowed to rate the scripts they’ve read on a scale of 1-10. Those ratings are then aggregated to create a real time Black List that’s filterable and sortable along a number of dimensions (a functionality we continue to expand.)  Instead of once a year seeking out a simple list, our members can, for example, see a list of most liked dramas in need of a producer or most liked comedies over the last quarter that have a producer attached but haven’t yet found a director.

We use these ratings further to make individualized recommendations using a recommendations algorithm built by our CTO Dino Sijamic with a little early help from a few of the people who won the Netflix Prize.  Without revealing too many of our herbs and spices, we look at your taste and people with taste similar to yours and predict other scripts you might like based on the relationships between them.  Those recommendations are similarly sortable and filterable.  In practical terms, if I’m a producer I can go looking for a comedy script I am personally likely to like that doesn’t yet have one.  If I’m a manager, I can go looking for action writers that don’t yet have a manager and who suit my tastes.

Three aspects of this part of our site I’d like to note:

  1. Most importantly, (and I will bold this for emphasis) we do not make scripts available without the explicit consent of the rightsholder of the screenplay.  Our industry professionals have access to a script’s title, author(s), representation, and production information (as they would on the annual Black List.) We assume that if you’ve been approved for a membership, you have the resources to get a copy of a script you’d like to read as part of your daily work.
  2. Our top lists are not simply a ranking of average ratings.  Like Amazon, Netflix, and many other services we use in our daily lives these days, we use Bayesian estimates to determine our top lists.
  3. A script’s average rating is NEVER visible on the site.  While we use the ratings to determine our top lists (again, Bayesian estimates), the hard numbers are never visible.  In fact, the only number our members ever see are our algorithm’s predictions of what they would rate it were they to read the script.

TODAY’S LAUNCH

I should begin this section by saying this very plainly: The annual Black List will continue to exist separately from this new initiative.  It will be constructed using the same process we have used for the last seven years.

That said, yesterday we launched a service that allows anyone who has written a screenplay to pay $25 a month to have their script hosted and indexed as part of our database.  For a writer’s $25 a month, we make their script available to our industry professional membership so that they may download it, rate it, and contact writers directly if they so choose.  All of these reads are 100% free.

We also provide the ability for those writers to monitor the volume of traffic to their script within our site.  They will know how many people have viewed their script page, how many people have downloaded it, and how many people have rated it. They will also know their average rating.  It is their decision and their decision alone to make that number public to our industry membership.

Writers will not know the names of the people who viewed, downloaded, or rated their scripts, only the number of people who do.  We do this to encourage reads, and it reflects the reality of the way material is discovered in practice.  It’s possible that in the future industry professional members may have the ability to opt into making their identity known in this way.  It’s something we are considering.

Writers can also pay an additional $50 per read to have their script read by readers we have hired who have expressed a specific interest in the genre that they are evaluating.  We encourage, but do not require, writers to purchase these reads as it generates additional data which we can use to more efficiently and effectively connect these scripts to people who may like them and want to reach out to the authors. As with the average rating, the decision to make these evaluations public is the writer’s alone.

Writers who have uploaded scripts but who are not industry professional members are unable to read or rate scripts by other authors.  The only information visible to them is a script’s title, author, genre, and logline, just as it would be on the annual Black List.  Yes, there are professional writers who have industry professional memberships.  We extend it as a professional courtesy, recognizing that many professional writers also direct and produce and want to facilitate their ability to do so.

We could require paid reads as a part of joining the service. We could require a staggered process wherein a writer pays for a read and then makes their decision about whether to list their script. We could require a monthly purchase of these reads.  We could require that each writer spend $500 on ten reads so we could be even more confident in our algorithm’s ability to recommend well.  But we’re not.

We considered all of these options, but we chose the structure we have because it provides a writer maximum flexibility, at this early stage of this project, to decide how they want to put their script into our ecosystem.  If a writer wants to index it in our database without being read by our paid readers, they are welcome to do so.  It’s easy to imagine particularly creative and ambitious souls, like the mythical duo of Robotard fame, coming up with ways to get their script read in our ecosystem without ever using one of our reads to catalyze the process.

To us, the most important thing is that we give writers the information necessary to assess how their course of action is affecting interest in and response to their script.  We strongly encourage them to respond accordingly.

SCRIPTS

Let’s be honest: most screenplays circulating in Hollywood are not great.  It’s why everyone’s constantly asking each other “Have you read anything good lately?”

Scripts from outside Hollywood are likely to be, on average, worse.  The overwhelming majority will get very low ratings from our readers.  The first bad read should be a wake up call. If the writer chooses to get a second read, and it is reviewed similarly, it is unlikely that our site will draw attention to their screenplay and therefore unlikely that someone will find it, love it, and contact them unless they find one of those more creative ways to get read.

It’s up to each writer to decide when to remove their script from our database, just as it’s up to each writer to decide when to stop slipping their scripts to their industry contacts, stop writing query letters, or stop writing screenplays altogether. As “ratbag” in the comments section of Deadline Hollywood said, “It should be the same mentality as listing your house. Don’t let it get stale on the market if it’s not selling.”

Will some terrible writers manage to slip through our systems and into positions as working writers in Hollywood? Highly doubtful. However, if they manage to stay employed despite consistently failing, they have skill of some sort even if it’s not writing, and someone clearly thinks they’re worth spending money on.

Will some brilliant writers still get overlooked? Possible, but I doubt it.  Here’s why: Great scripts mean a better chance of making a great movie, which means a better chance of making a lot of money.  And like any business, Hollywood is in the business of making money, both because of the perhaps lesser elements of human nature and because making money means being able to make more movies.

Moreover, even if your movie is not implicitly the money-making type, this industry, and I think human beings in general, are looking to be inspired, to feel some true emotion whether it be noble or base.  It’s why we watch movies at all, is it not? To laugh, to cry, to be afraid, to be in awe, to feel what it would be like to be somewhere else, as someone else or as a few people or as a robot or a zombie, for a few hours before returning to our own lives.  If you can do that, in a screenplay, to a few people who spend their lives reading screenplays in the hopes of making movies that do just that, the rest will take care of itself.  At a minimum, you’ll have a real chance at writing movies.

The point is, if there’s a reliable source of good screenplays, people will pay attention, even if it’s imperfect.  That’s why the annual Black List has become what it has become.

It’s an imperfect analogy, but I’m reminded of a story about two friends out for a hike who see a bear who is quite clearly about to chase them.  One turns around and begins to run.  The other sits down and begins putting on running shoes.  The first turns around and yells “What are you doing? Running shoes aren’t going to help you outrun that bear.”  The second calmly responds, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”

When it comes to finding good material, think of the Black List as running shoes.  Really, really good running shoes.

The traditional process of finding great scripts and getting great scripts will continue, as it should.  The Black List exists alongside it and to make it more efficient.  If your script is getting consistently poor reviews, do not continue to give us your money. Please. The Black List exists to identify and promote work that people will want to make, the kind of work that will allow people, including the writers, to continue to make movies whether it’s because they make a lot of money or because they inspire us to continue to make movies.

OUR READERS

Our readers are a mission critical part of this venture, and they have been selected with a seriousness that reflects their role.  Of the 250 who applied to be Black List readers, less than forty were chosen to begin this project along with us.  They have all worked as first filters at major studios, agencies, production and management companies, the companies that compose our industry professional membership, companies that make movies.  They have also read widely and are familiar with the current market for screenplays. It’s part of the reason they were selected: their evaluations of other scripts are what allows our algorithm to make its best recommendations amongst the screenplays submitted.

We give our readers scripts in the genres in which they have expressed interest and expect them to read each script in its entirety.  Consequently, the speed at which we turn around these evaluations is entirely contingent on the number of requested reads we have at any given moment.  We make every effort to turn these around within the first month a script has been submitted.  As things stand now, we expect to be able to do so.

Despite the rumor circulating that we’d already had almost 4000 screenplays uploaded, that number refers to the total number of scripts indexed in our database.  We’ve had several hundred uploaded thus far. If demand increases dramatically, the wait time may be longer.  We prioritize quality over speed and will only hire and keep readers who can deliver both.  We will not, however, hire or keep substandard readers in order to deliver reads faster. It would defeat the point of the entire endeavor.

There is no perfect way to evaluate something as subjective as a screenplay.  Two rational people with decades of experience can disagree vehemently and frequently do.  Our readers were selected because the knowledge and experience they do have working in concert with the system we’ve created is likely to efficiently identify the type of material worthy of an argument between those two rational people with decades of experience.

DO NO HARM

Having diagrammed the apparatus, I want to highlight the ethic largely responsible for its construction: do no harm.

From its inception, the Black List was about celebrating well-liked screenwriting. We weren’t designed to be a “big dick measuring contest” as Nikki Finke has written, nor were we designed to stigmatize writers whose work was not so well received.

That ethic continues here.  The only ratings that might be visible on the site are the individual ratings of our readers and the aggregate rating of a screenplay, and they are only visible if the writer wishes them to be so.

The Black List only spotlights screenplays that are highly rated by the industry professional members who read them, highly rated by our hired readers, or that our algorithm predicts an individual industry professional would like based on their tastes and previously expressed interests.

THE FUTURE

The Black List was birthed in the feature world, but only because I was working there when the idea occurred to me.  There has been a great deal of demand for us to accommodate television, theater, and shorter form work.  While we’re not ready to do that yet, we will be soon, and we’re excited about the interplay between these forms and the opportunities it could create for writers working in one or another.

To conclude, I’m going to paraphrase the response I made on Done Deal Pro’s forums to Jeff Lowell’s typically astute comments and concerns about this paradigm shift:

We are building something that has never before existed.  I am confident that this is a tide that can raise all boats, especially writers’.  Moreover it was explicitly designed to be exactly that.  Quibble with our methodology as much as you like, we welcome the opportunity to explain why we’ve created what we have in the way that we have and to hear the ideas and concerns of those who might be affected by what we’re doing.  We will almost certainly incorporate many of these suggestions in order to improve the service.

Our fundamental goal is to make the market for screenplays more efficient so that an excellent script “finding its way into Hollywood” doesn’t take years and involve coercing your aunt’s husband’s brother who works at UTA into looking at your script in the hopes that he’ll pass it to someone who might like it, so that it’s not necessary to network like a banshee in order to find someone who will read your script and can do something with it.

It’s about making the work the focus and creating an infrastructure where the best of it can rise more quickly to the top.

If we’re able to do that, and I think we are, $75 (or more) is, I think, a small price to pay for access to it.

Obviously, we hope you agree.  Until you do, we’ll do our best to convince you in practice.

Sincerely,

Franklin Leonard

12 thoughts on “The What, How, and Why of the Black List: The Long Answer by Franklin Leonard

  1. rdlln says:

    Thank you for this opportunity Franklin. You’ve answered all of my questions. When you consider all the paid services out there (for polished specs) this is hands down the best bang for your buck.

  2. This answers most of my questions, but one big one remains: how many industry pros will use this service to look for scripts?

    Good luck with it, Franklin. Thanks for posting this update.

  3. SabinaGiado says:

    With the 25$ membership, are we allowed to categorize our script according to genre or anything for that matter?

    If not, isn’t the service likely to be overloaded and our script will disappear beneath the constant uploads?

  4. Jake Mosberg says:

    While this business certainly sounds leaps and bounds better than the scams to which it’s been compared, the central problem still seems to be the “readers”. One thing that stuck out in the well-written explanation above: “expected to read the whole script” (that this would be in question speaks more about Hollywood than the Black List’s new venture). Nabokov says that we don’t read, we only reread. That is to say the process of a first read is only to put together the pieces of the story. In a second or third read, we see see beneath the surface. The problem won’t be scoring the poor scripts (those in, say, the 1-5 range). If the readers have Hemingway’s BS detector, those will be easily identified and subsequently ignored, the only question left whether the process proves helpful to a writer trying to improve or looking for an excuse to do something more reasonable with their life. The problem will be those on the verge, those writers who can put together a story, write well, and engage their readers at most levels. My concern would be that the scoring in the upper half will be more subject to taste, the reader’s mood, and the manner in which screenwriting commandments can snafu us into awkward judgments – especially in a first read where an evaluation of strong material (even by the strongest of readers) can be a right brain/left brain broil in making emotional and logical connections. Sounds like high-rated scripts might generate 2nd opinions, but I’d throw out that 2nd reads by strong readers are at least as valuable. What any good material needs is an advocate. I would say an advocate is not born by having an opinion but a critical stance, something born of sustained engagement with the material.
    Overall, seems like a good proposition, even if it doesn’t create a utopia of starving artists rising up.

    1. Lydia Mulvey says:

      @Jake Mosberg

      “My concern would be that the scoring in the upper half will be more subject to taste, the reader’s mood, and the manner in which screenwriting commandments can snafu us into awkward judgments – especially in a first read where an evaluation of strong material (even by the strongest of readers) can be a right brain/left brain broil in making emotional and logical connections.”

      I suppose one could argue that the same thing could happen if a writer sends a script to a production company and has to get past a gatekeeper reader. The decision will rest with that person alone and will also be dependent on their mood, taste etc.

      But I’m not entirely sure about the concept yet. It’s quite costly, especially if you get no bites after the first month and you want to keep your script listed in the off-chance that it simply hasn’t been seen among the crowd yet.

      And a two tier system has already been established in terms of paying only $25 to list your script versus $75 to list and have an evaluation that contributes to the algorithm that determines the listings.

      I’m not saying the idea is a bad one, far from it. But it’s certainly not an arena for writers just starting out and who are finding their feet in terms of craft, style and voice.

      IMHO, this is really for writers who have worked hard to develop their work and are now at the point where the quality of their writing will generate serious interest.

      If one thinks one is at that point, then I think it could be a valuable resource and may open otherwise locked doors.

  5. Scott, through The Quest initiative you’ve stressed your readers to really think about whether their idea can be a movie or not, before deciding to spend several months writing it.

    When I hear about writers selling pitches to studios or production companies, I think, “Shit, if only I could pitch some of my ideas to see if people are willing to bite, before spending all that time writing a script.”

    It’s hard to get a screenplay sold if you’re outside of Hollywood, and I imagine it’s impossible to sell a pitch. But wouldn’t it be great if new writers, outside of Hollywood had the opportunity to pitch their ideas? That way they could make some money, so that they could afford to spend months working on a script.

    This new initiative by Franklin is fantastic. It allows outsiders to get their scripts in front of industry professionals. I wonder if there is anyway for this to morph into being able to get a pitch in front of these industry professionals. I would love to see that happen.

  6. Franklin/Scott,

    Is there a section for TV Pilots or is it currently limited to screenplays?

    Thanks.

    1. Yeah, I’m in the same boat. I hope television pilots will be considered. The same price would still seem fair to me.

  7. [...] The What, How, and Why of the Black List: The Long Answer by Franklin Leonard [...]

  8. Scott says:

    Just sent a note to Franklin who has just arrived in Austin for the film festival. He promises to get back with answers to these questions soon.

  9. [...] an exciting initiative, it also demands a high level of scrutiny. To that end, Leonard has penned a lengthy piece explaining his vision and its mechanics, and he spoke with me recently about the potential problems and paradigm shifts that might come [...]

  10. tawch.com says:

    [...] an exciting initiative, it also demands a high level of scrutiny. To that end, Leonard has penned a lengthy piece explaining his vision and its mechanics, and he spoke with me recently about the potential problems and paradigm shifts that might come [...]

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