The What, How, and Why of the Black List

October 17th, 2016 by

I am flying out to Los Angeles today to participate this week in the Black List’s 2016 Feature Writers Lab, a wonderful opportunity for 7 gifted writers. As it happens, the lab coincides with the 4 year anniversary of the Black List website launch as noted just the other day by founder Franklin Leonard:

Here is what Franklin penned on October 16, 2012 and posted on The Black List Blog:


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…


Interview: Gary Whitta (2007 Black List)

June 10th, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: Early in 2015, I had the opportunity to interview screenwriter Gary Whitta whose movie credits include The Book of Eli (2010), After Earth (2013), and the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One (2016), and had recently seen his first novel “Abomination” published. Gary and I had a wide-ranging conversation touching on a host of subjects which I think readers will find quite interesting.

Here are links to the six installments of my July 2015 interview with Gary:

Part 1: “I mean, some writers, they go to film school and they have a formal entryway into the film industry. But for the majority of people, it’s not like that. It’s a combination of having a dream, having a persistence to pursue the thing that you want to do, and a bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time as well.”

Part 2: “You’re always looking for that balance between art and commerce. For me, it needs to be an idea that I can get creatively excited about, while also having the confidence that at the end of the process it has enough commercial appeal to actually sell it and see it get made.”

Part 3: “I often have a hard time writing a piece until it has a title. I was very lucky with Eli that the title suggested itself to me quite early and I always loved it and I always felt exactly as you say, it has a cool double meaning to it when you get to the twist ending.”

Part 4: “People often forget, Star Wars started as a spec script. Every big franchise started with an original piece of material.”

Part 5: “If you have any ambition to see your story realized as a big movie, something that is not going to be super‑cheap to make, I do think you have be able to boil that idea down into one or two sentences that makes people say, ‘I would see that movie'”.

Part 6: “Allow yourself to experiment, to bend and break the rules you’ve learned. The more that you try to adhere to some kind of screenwriting formula, the more likely you are to end up with a formulaic screenplay, and who wants that?”

To learn more about Gary’s 400 page historical fantasy novel “Abomination,” go here.

To purchase “Abomination,” go here and here.

Gary is repped by UTA and Circle of Confusion.

Twitter: @garywhitta.

Interview: Michael Werwie (2012 Black List)

June 9th, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: Michael Werwie’s original screenplay “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” not only won the young screenwriter a 2012 Nicholl fellowship, it also landed on the 2012 Black List. He is also adapting the novel “Lost Girls” for Amazon Studios.

Michael was kind enough to agree to an interview and recently we had a wide-ranging hour-long conversation in which we covered a lot of territory related to screenwriting.

Here are links to all five installments of my January 2013 interview with Michael:

Part 1: “So by the time I got to my 10th or 11th script, I just started writing whatever I felt like writing, regardless of genre, and trusted that I had the skill and craft to do it well.”

Part 2: “It all began with a character, a tone, and my own obsession.”

Part 3: “I was on the phone with one of my managers as it was being announced on Twitter and we were both in suspense. It was all very exciting.”

Part 4: “The two scripts that have done the most for my career both began as character concepts.”

Part 5: “If I can force myself to crank out a first draft, it becomes a lot easier for me to go back and assess it in an analytical way.”

Michael is repped by UTA and Evolution Entertainment.

Interview: Chris Sparling (2009, 2010, 2013 Black List)

June 8th, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: In 2014, Variety named Chris Sparling as one of their 10 Screenwriters to Watch. With good reason. Chris made his first splash in the business with his script for the movie Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds and followed that up with another contained thriller ATM. He has multiple projects in development and two movies slated for release: The Sea of Trees, starring Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts and Ken Wattanabe, directed by Gus Van Sant, and Mercy which Chris wrote and directed to be streamed by Netflix. Chris also wrote and directed the movie The Atticus Institute.

Sparling Chris 2

Here are links to the six installments of my January 2015 interview with Chris:

Part 1: “I spent my first college year writing my screenplay, saying to myself, ‘All right. By the last day of school, I will finish this.’ And I did. It’s funny, I still have it – I still have that script. I’ve never actually looked at it since, but I remember it was atrocious.”

Part 2: “He asked me, ‘What are you doing with the script? I loved it.’ I was like, ‘Well, I was planning on making it about a month from now.’ He asked, ‘Would you be willing to not direct it and instead go out with it as a spec?’ And of course I said, ‘Absolutely. I’m dying here, for 10 years, trying to catch a break!’”

Part 3: “I always had that idea in mind, the idea of the government stepping in if there really was a possessed person, and then asking myself, ‘What would they do?’ What would they do if they just ‘stepped in’? What does that even mean?”

Part 4: “It’s easy to write “They fight.” But there’s a lot of people involved with “They fight.” It takes me two seconds to write “They fight,” but it could take two days to actually shoot, if not a hell of a lot more.

Part 5: “It’s weird to know that, unlike features, where things can have a life elsewhere, generally, with TV, that’s not the case. When it’s dead it’s dead, so you move on.”

Part 6: “Screenwriters need to read screenplays. You have to, have to, have to. It’s a free education and it’s arguably just as good as any other form of education you could get in this field.”

For my four part December 2011 Q&A with Chris about his movie Buried, go here.

Chris is repped by UTA and Kaplan / Perrone Entertainment.

Twitter: @chrissparling.

Interview: Will Simmons (2012 Black List)

June 7th, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: Will Simmons made a splash when he wrote the 2012 Black List script “Murder City” which was subsequently acquired by Aldamisa Entertainment. He also has three other projects in the works: “Romeo,” a modern day re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play, “Defenders,” a science fiction thriller pitch bought by Warner Bros in June 2013 based upon a Hugo Award-winning novel, and “Day Men,” based on a comic book series about a group of mortals entrusted with protecting vampires while they sleep during the day.

Simmons 2 small 2

Here are inks to the six installments of my April 2013 interview:

Part 1: “For me, The Usual Suspects is part of a holy-trinity of seminal films that every screenwriter should study. The other two are Blade Runner and Chinatown.”

Part 2: “A writer’s currency is a finished screenplay. And there’s no better way to master your craft than by buckling down and writing pages.”

Part 3: “I know everyone has their own process, but for me, pre-production is essential for effective storytelling. Characters and plot dynamics can evolve throughout the draft, but you need to have control over your narrative before you begin scripting.”

Part 4: “This fast-food style of storytelling is bad for movies. Catharsis comes in many forms and we don’t need a manufactured or formulaic third act for the conclusion to feel satisfying.”

Part 5: “If you’re about to spend months writing and developing a script, you want to be certain that the central concept is worthy of your time. So I look for ideas that haunt me and keep me up at night.”

Part 6: “Take risks. Your writing should be personal and dangerous. Reveal yourself on the page. Don’t hold back.

Will is repped by UTA and Energy Entertainment.

Twitter: @willsimmons_.

Interview: Stephanie Shannon (2013 Black List)

June 6th, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: Stephanie Shannon not only was one of five recipients of the 2013 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, she did it with her very first full-length screenplay: “Queen of Hearts.” Beyond that, the script landed on the 2013 Black List and now has Seth Gordon attached to direct. In addition, Stephanie landed the assignment to adapt the YA novel “We Were Liars”.

Shannon Stephanie

Here are links to the six installments of my March 2014 interview with Stephanie:

Part 1: “I read a lot of scripts on that desk. When I was reading, all I could think was that I wish I had tried harder to be a writer. I just felt like I could write something better than half of what I was reading.”

Part 2: “I made a promise to myself that I would write a screenplay that year and enter the Nicholl. This was around November of last year. I started researching in December. Then I started writing in February.”

Part 3: “Like with me, I wanted to be a writer, but I thought it wasn’t practical. But, turns out it was something I could do. If you really embrace who you are, these amazing, wonderful things can happen.”

Part 4: “What I felt was interesting about Alice In Wonderland is that before it came upon the scene, most children’s books were very routine. They were all based around morals and lessons and kind of talked down to the child, making them feel like they weren’t allowed to have fun. I think Lewis Carroll is the first person to make the child the hero of the story.”

Part 5: “To me, writing is a lot like playing God. You’ve got these people down there with free will. And you don’t want to tell them exactly what to do per se. But you can know their minds and tendencies and orchestrate certain events in their lives that nudge them in the direction you want them to go, to fulfill a greater plan. If I look at the relationship between plot and character in that way, I think the result becomes much more organic.”

Part 6: “That’s what’s beautiful about storytelling. It’s ageless. It’s a way to affect the lives of people that you’ll never even know their names, but you know that you have.”

Stephanie is repped by CAA and Brillstein Entertainment Partners.

Twitter: @stephshanz.

Black List Interview: Britta Lundin

May 29th, 2016 by

Kate Hagen, director of community at @theblcklst, recently interviewed Britta Lundin. Last autumn, I worked with Britta at the Athena Film Festival / Black List Screenwriter Lab in New York City and am happy to see how her career has blossomed as she has landed an agent and got staffed on The CW series “Riverdale”.

How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?

Ohmygod so many ideas folders. I have an ideas folder in my email for writing emails to myself, an evernote for clipping online articles, a folder on my desktop for images and screenshots, and a physical folder for magazine and newspaper clippings. I usually have a list of things to write that’s six scripts deep, so while I’m waiting for notes back on the second draft of a feature, I’m diving into the outline for my next pilot, while organizing my thoughts on the idea after that. There are always too many ideas and not enough time to write them all.

Upon a lot of reflection about what types of stories make it into my ideas folder, there are some common threads. I love stories about smart, driven people going up against obstacles that are bigger than them. I also love the “girl does something only boys are supposed to do” genre, and stories that feature a lot of women and/or LGBT characters are interesting to me. Knowing what I’m interested in helps me weed out the kinds of stories that would make a good script for someone, but probably aren’t right for me personally.

Since using The Black List, how has your career been impacted?

I put my script SHIP IT on The Black List, and after it received high ratings, I was accepted into the Athena Film Festival Mini-Lab for three days of intensive workshops and discussion with my peers and screenwriting mentors. It was a hugely rewarding weekend that leveled up my writing in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own. I highly recommend writers apply to these workshops through The Black List.

Oh, also since using The Black List, I got an agent and got staffed on a TV show.

Another Black List screenwriter lab success story and I’m glad to have shared a small part of Britta’s creative journey with her.

For the rest of the interview, go here.

Twitter: @brittashipsit, @thathagengrrl.

Interview: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012 Black List)

May 27th, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have written scripts that have made the Black List a remarkable 5 times, broke in with the hit indie film (500) Days of Summer, and have become go-to guys for adapting novels having written screenplays for The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, and writing high profile projects Where‘d You Go, Bernadette, Rules of Civility, among several others.

Michael H. Weber (left), Scott Neustadter (right)

Here are links to the six installments of my March 2013 interview with Michael and Scott:

Part 1: “The false assumption I was under – that I think a lot of aspiring writers are under – is that most scripts in Hollywood are extremely good. Nothing like a few years reading unsolicited material to debunk that idea.”

Part 2: “When the guy doesn’t tell the girl how he feels, it’s because he’s scared. It’s a tool Scott and I have all the time, that probably more than any other tool in our toolbox, is we take a step back, and we ask the question, ‘What would really happen?’”

Part 3: “Again it goes back to the first time Scott and I met and liking the same movies. It wasn’t just great romantic comedies but I loved the work of John Hughes and they’re the movies I grew up on. They felt real to me.”

Part 4: “Happy endings aren’t real. Even the happiest ending is only happy because the story stopped there. But hopeful endings are a beautiful thing. That’s what I always aspire to.”

Part 5: “I would say – despite always having a proper outline before starting to write – I almost always find snags along the way that require us to step back and re-think things. Definitely don’t expect the writing to be surprise-free just because you think you have the road map perfected before you start.”

Part 6: “Just write every day, and then write some more. I try to even be competitive about it. What I mean is, I know that when I’m not writing, someone else is.”

Interview: The Fault in Our Stars.

Scott and Michael are repped by CAA and Kaplan/Perrone.

You may follow Scott and Michael on Twitter: Scott (@iamthepuma), Michael (@thisisweber).

AMA with Black List founder Franklin Leonard

May 25th, 2016 by

Recently it occurred to me we hadn’t had a Q&A with Black List founder Franklin Leonard in quite some time and with all the changes in the movie and TV business, as well as a host of new Black List initiatives including the Black List Table Reads podcast, Black List Happy Hour networking events in 12 cities in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., Black List Live! staged readings of Black List scripts, as well as numerous screenwriting workshops and fellowships available to writers worldwide, it’s a perfect time to check in on all things Black List.

So if you’ve ever had a question about the Black List, what it does, where it’s going, and how it’s impacting the screenwriting universe, here is your opportunity to get a response directly from Franklin Leonard himself.

For background, here is Franklin speaking at an Alliance for Artisan Enterprise event in November 2015 in which he provides an overview of how the Black List began and has evolved over the last decade.

If you have a question or comment for Franklin, please click Reply and head to comments and post it there.

Let me add I have gotten to know Franklin over the last five years of the blog’s partnership with the Black List. He is not only one of the smartest, most fascinating people I’ve met, he’s also just an all around great person who truly cares about screenwriters, screenwriting, and storytelling in Hollywood and beyond. When people talk about the need for ‘disruptors’ in the entertainment business, we are lucky to have Franklin taking the lead in that regard. And here is your chance to interface with him with your questions.

Interview: Kelly Marcel (2011 Black List)

May 24th, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: Kelly Marcel wrote the 2011 Black List screenplay Saving Mr. Banks which was produced starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, and Paul Giamatti and the 2015 movie Fifty Shades of Grey, and has many high profile projects in development including an untitled Elvis Presley project and the Disney movie Cruella.

Here are links to the six installments of my December 2013 interview with Kelly:

Part 1: “Working in that video store was my education. Nothing is going to teach you structure like watching endless movies and TV shows. Seeing what’s good and why it’s good. Seeing what doesn’t work and figuring out why it doesn’t.”

Part 2: “I loved the idea that this sweet film, this huge part of all of our childhoods, was born out of terrible tragedy. I was taken with the idea of redemption and the effect that our parents can have on us all the way into adulthood.”

Part 3: “I loved it, I wanted to write it, and that was that. It was only afterwards that I thought: ‘Oh fuckitty shitballs! This ain’t EVER getting made.'”

Part 4: “It cannot be said enough that no matter how good anyone thinks a script is, if you don’t have the right director -­- a person who will love it and own it as much as you have up to this point -­- then you are completely screwed.”

Part 5: “I wrote everything I wanted to say, it ran to 17 pages or more and then I cut it down and then I threw it all away and then I started again.”

Part 6: “I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along.”

Kelly is repped by WME.

Twitter: @MissMarcel.