Saturday, October 08, 2011


The release of the Black List has become an annual event of importance for writers and their representatives. Agent’s Hot Sheet goes behind the curtain to find out what the list is and learn how someday you too might be in the ‘Black.’

Reprinted courtesy of Creative Screenwriting

By Jim Cirile
The Black List is out, and you all should read it ( Why? Because anyone who is anyone in Hollywood feature lit is either on it or wants desperately to be on it.

Overbrook executive Franklin Leonard
Compiled at the end of every year by Overbrook Entertainment exec Franklin Leonard, the Black List is a compendium of industry favorite scripts, voted on by over 290 executives. Each voter selects ten scripts; a script must be nominated a minimum of five times to make the list. They are then rated not by # 1, 2, 3, etc., but rather, by the number of votes it received. For example, this year's top-ranked screenplay "College Republicans," about young Karl Rove's first dirty political campaign, scored 49 (pretty remarkable for subject matter which is itself blacklisted from the US corporate media.) The list has become instrumental in building heat around a writer. In other words, making the list is kind of a big deal. “It’s something that a writer now, as a result of how big the Black List has become, can put on their résumé,” says FilmEngine’s Jake Wagner. “When I send out (a submission letter), you always mention if the script was featured on the Black List. It’s clout. There can be a herd mentality oftentimes, so it validates it for people that are maybe on the fence.”

One of the cool things about the list is that the only criteria for inclusion are that the script be good. So a raucous comedy like Jeff Bushell’s “Ricky Stinicky” can share the list with the real-life Abscam thriller “American Bullshit” as well as the touching music drama “Imagine.” No Oscar-type snobbery here. And many of the scripts on the Black List are overlooked or undiscovered gems (a Black List rule is that a film cannot be released in theaters in the same year its nominated.) Included on the 2010 list are big spec sales like Evan Daugherty’s “Snow White and the Huntsman” and Dante Harper's manga-based sci-fi actioner "All You Need is Kill."

But for writers whose script may have been well-liked but perhaps not gotten the traction it deserved, making the list represents a rare second chance. “I went out with a script called 'Kitchen Sink' by Oren Uziel, which everyone loved,” says Circle of Confusion manager Britton Rizzio. Logline: a vampire, a zombie and a human teen team up to save their town from alien invaders. “But it was a harder sell because it was a little left of center. People shied away from buying it even though it had all these fans. And then it ended up on the Black List. (Former Sony exec) Matt Tolmach took notice, read it over the break, and ended up acquiring it the first week we were back from the holidays.” Rizzio thinks Tolmach might have missed “Kitchen Sink” had it not made the list. “People go through that list and they say, okay, what should I be reading or what should I have read this year? I think that’s important.”

Leonard says that he never expected it to turn into such a big thing. “I would love to claim that I had the strategic vision at the time to know that there was an appetite for a thing such as this, but no,” chuckles Leonard, who coined the name in part as a reference to the original Hollywood Blacklist as well as a hat-tip to his ethnicity (he’s African-American.) “Initially, I was working at Leo DiCaprio’s company, Appian Way. My job was to identify and filter great material up the chain of command, and I hit a bad patch where I was reading a lot of stuff that I didn’t think was very strong. I was looking at the rest of my life and saying, one of two things is happening here -- either I’m not very good at my job, in which case that’s a problem, or reading bad scripts is going to be the dominant feature of my professional life, for the rest of my life, which didn’t really feel like a good option either.” So Leonard reached out to his industry friends. “I asked them to send me a list of up to ten of their favorite screenplays (from) the previous year, and in exchange I would send them back everybody’s list. I think the first year was maybe ninety voters, and I sort of combined it, slapped a vaguely subversive name on it, and went on vacation.”

Now six years later, the Black List has become, in a way, the Spec Script Awards. But it’s not just writers who benefit from inclusion on the list. “It shows up on, the tally vote,” says Wagner, “what agency had the most, which I believe was CAA, and what management company, which was Circle of Confusion. It brands them as tastemakers. Relationships and taste, that’s the game, you know?” ICM’s Ava Jamshidi, who had several projects on the 2010 list, agrees. “I had a number of attorneys and managers either congratulating me or saying, hey, it’s awesome you’re on the Black List, what business can we be doing together? It’s definitely nice, especially with a couple of these guys who are on the list this year. They’re really homegrown. You really invest in (your writers) and in their talents and their abilities, and it makes me happy to see them getting that attention. It’s validating for me to know that I put all my energy and belief into something that other people see the same qualities in.”

The Black List’s popularity has also spawned competing lists. “I’ve been lucky to have people on the list in the past,” says UTA’s Julien Thuan, in the Black this year for “The Escort” and “Keep Coming Back.”  “But I honestly have little sense of where the value stands, particularly with the proliferation of so many other lists like it.” So are other lists like the Hit List, the Brit List and the Blood List diluting the Black List’s impact? “I do read all the other lists because I am curious,” says Wagner. “I think there were four or five floating around this year. But the Black List is the Oscars, and the rest are like the American Music Awards.” Says Leonard, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I think some of them are noble in their intent and decent in their execution; others are less so on both counts. But ultimately what sets (the Black List) apart is the process by which the information is gathered, and the fact that at the end of the day, it really is all about the writers.”

I asked Leonard about how he felt about the perception that the list has become overrun as of late with material that has already been set up, versus in the past. “I think that’s actually untrue,” he says, pointing out that the very first Black List had Aaron Sorkin and David Benioff scripts in the top ten, both of which were already rolling towards production. “I think where that’s coming from is, you have certain people who are like, oh, well, I used to love this band, but now that they’re on the radio, I don’t like this band anymore -- the anti-bandwagon bandwagon. I think that’s been the cause of a lot of the backlash against the Black List.” He notes that the last two years’ number one scripts were written by writers who did not live in Los Angeles, and the projects had not been set up or have producers attached at the time of the list’s publication.

So the big question then is, how can we all get in the “Black”? Or should we even try? “I think you should aspire, because it really validates the writer as a great writing voice and separates them from the pack,” says Wagner. “(When) I start (reading) clients’ scripts, I think to myself, this could be on the Black List , or I think, eh, probably not. I kind of instill that in the writer early, like, hey, this is a potential Black List script -- people are really liking it, you’re going to get some votes. I think that fires writers up.” But Rizzio cautions, “I think that aspiring to it will drive you totally bonkers. There’s not a science to it. Because I’ve had some things on the Black List, people have said to me, oh, I think you’re fixing it or I think you’re rigging it. But I swear, I put it out there and it kind of has a life of its own. So, advice I have for writers is write what you’re passionate about and that will translate.”

Good luck, and hopefully someday we’ll see you, too, on the list.

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Anonymous said...

That was really informtive. I've heard about this but never really known what the deal was. I always thought it was inside baseball, and it is, but this is definitely stuff we should know about. Thanks as always for bringing it to the people, Jim, and of course to Mr. Leonard for starting the whole thing and sticking with it.

Anonymous said...

a super cool article thank you!