Inside man: The Black List's Franklin Leonard on Hollywood, visibility, and #OscarsSoWhite
'A good story well told will always have value.'4
The Academy Awards are only days away, and most of Hollywood is preparing for the movie industry’s biggest night, as onlookers wait patiently to find out who will take home the Academy’s highest honor. But thanks to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, this year’s award season has been tense, sparking heated conversation about diversity in film. The uniformly white acting nominees have drawn the most attention, but so too have the mostly white producers, writers, and directors behind the camera shepherding each movie to the industry’s biggest stage.
It’s clear by now that Hollywood has an intrinsic inclusivity problem, and it goes far deeper than the Oscars. The system that gives us 20 white acting nominees goes all the way down to the script development level, well before a movie is even made.
Hollywood's inclusivity problem goes all the way down to the scripts
But even in an industry as slow moving as the film industry, there are people working to create pathways for stories that might otherwise never be made. The Black List, launched in 2005 by former Universal Pictures executive Franklin Leonard, is a yearly survey of some of Hollywood’s best screenplays. The list, which features scripts that might have otherwise gone unproduced, includes hundred of features, including two of this year’s best picture contenders, The Revenant and Spotlight. I spoke with Leonard about increasing visibility for minority filmmakers, how scripts are chosen, and where #OscarsSoWhite can go from here.
How did the Black List get started?
I was a junior executive at Leonardo DiCaprio's film production company. My job was to find the the best stuff out there, either for Leo to star in, or for us to make, or writers that we could develop future projects with. I was reading hundreds of scripts a year, probably in the 500-750 range, maybe even higher, and most of the stuff that I was reading was mediocre to bad. And I didn't want to spend my life reading bad scripts. Like, one of two things was happening: either I was really bad at my job, which was finding good scripts; or the job was reading bad scripts. In either case, it's probably best that I didn't take my mother's weepy phone calls asking me if my LSAT scores were still valid and official more seriously. But I was on vacation for two weeks, and I knew I wanted to read some good scripts while I was on vacation, so I put in a call to 75 of my peers asking them to send me their favorite unproduced screenplays from that year. In exchange I would send them the combined list, slapped a quasi-subversive name on it, and that was how the first Black List came to exist.
What was the process of shopping a script around like at the time?
I was looking to solve a problem for myself, which was "How do I find good screenplays?" The way material has historically circulated around Hollywood is agents and managers are the ones that control the information about the scripts. So, their client gives them a new script that they've completed, or a draft of a script that they've written on assignment, and then the agent is the one that's calling around casts, letting people know about it, [and] sharing it with people that might want to buy it. So you can certainly choose material by finding out about it from another source or through your own personal network, but for the most part it was an incoming call business, where you'd get a phone call saying, "Hey, this is a script that exists, do you want to read it?" And that felt incredibly inefficient to me. And so I was looking for a more efficient way to find good stuff.
It's been 10 years since. Has that process gotten better, aside from the Black List?
I think so. I think on a number of fronts, we sort of built the business now around the idea of more efficiently identifying great material and celebrating it. So we've done the annual list for the last 11 years. About a thousand scripts have been on that list. More than 300 of them have been produced. Those movies have made more than 25 billion dollars in worldwide box office. They've won three of the last seven best picture awards, and eight of the last fifteen screenwriting Oscars. Spotlight and The Revenant were Black List scripts long before they were made. And then three years ago, we built a website that sort of functions as like a real-time Black List. Another analog might be Angie's List but for film, where anyone on Earth can upload their screenplay, pay a small fee to have it hosted on the site, pay a small fee to have it evaluated, and if it's good, we tell the entire industry, "Hey, there's a great script, we should do something with it." And then our members, which number over 3,500 right now, can then go download it and do with it what they want. I jokingly refer to the site as eHarmony for people who write movies and people who make movies, in that we're introducing you and you're paying to put yourself in a pool of people who want to be introduced, but we're not going to show up on your wedding night and ask for 10 percent.
The Black List has become a kind of champion for challenging scripts that are worthy of praise. Why would a good script, apart from being hard to find, go unproduced even if it's well liked?
Two reasons. I think first of all, there's a notion of good that's fundamentally subjective in art. I don't really believe in an objective standard of art. I think it's highly subjective, if not entirely so. So I think some of it as just one person's trash is another person's treasure. But then there's also extreme economic imperative on the art form as well. Film, unlike fiction, requires many millions of dollars to mount and mount well in the studio system. So, the stakes are much higher, which means that the people who are are making decisions about greenlights tend to be a lot more risk averse, and so they default to a lot of core assumptions and conventional wisdom about what audiences will want to see and what’s viable on the marketplace. Which really isn’t as true as they think it is. But one thing that we can be sure of is that a good story well told will always have value. I think we do a very good job of identifying those good stories well told and reminding people that a lot of people like those scripts and in so doing, we sort of shift the demand curve by shining a very bright spotlight on very strong material.
You’ve been around for more than a decade, and now you have a podcast. You’re working directly with screenwriters and actors. Do you think you’re increasing their chances of being recognized in Hollywood?
We hope so. I mean, look, just as anecdotal evidence, literally hundreds of writers have gotten signed with major agencies and management companies. There have been four produced films that have come from the website [through] introductions. Every single one of those has premiered at a major festival. Nightingale, the first one, was nominated for two Emmys, two Critics Choice Awards and a Golden Globe. The most recent one, Eddie the Eagle, just coming out this weekend, was a script that was posted on the site, and the writers has said that it helped him improve the quality of the script with the feedback that we provided. Another script, Shovel Buddies, the writer was discovered on the site. He found his producers on the site, he ended up on the annual Black List the next year, and his film is gonna premiere at the SXSW film festival this year. So I think we are. And then on our live events and the podcast, we did a live script read of a script called Gifted last year. The star of that was an eight-year-old girl named Mckenna Grace, who ended up getting cast in the actual movie in the lead. We also did a live read last year for a script called The Shower, by a woman named Jac Schaeffer. Within a month after that, Anne Hathaway optioned it to produce and star, and since then it has sold to Warner Bros. and that looks like a highly probably movie in the next two years. So yeah, I think we're doing a very good job of raising the profile of people who are doing really good and ambitious work.
The film industry is glacial in its pace oftentimes. The gap from finished screenplay to completed movie can often be years, and since we've only been live on the website for three years, live on the podcast for not even a full year yet, I think we're going to start to see those seeds that we planted bear fruit in the next 24 to 36 months.
So speaking of the glacial pace of the industry, the #OscarsSoWhite conversation has blown up this awards season. As an insider and having worked in the system previously, what are your opinions of what's happening right now?
I think that the #OscarsSoWhite conversation is an important one, and I think the reason why the Academy ends up being the focal point for a broader conversation about inclusion is that it is the most visible moment of the industry in any given year. These problems exist throughout the industry, but it's a lot easier to attract news coverage for the Academy Awards then it is for disproportionate hiring at the screenwriter level at the major studios amongst women and people of color. The Today Show isn't covering that sort of thing. They'll absolutely cover the Academy Awards. So I think that is sort of where the high volume and pitch of the conversation is happening, and why it's happening.
I think in order to address that problem, it needs to be addressed on a number of fronts. It needs to be addressed in the development and sourcing of talented women and people of color throughout the industry. Other industries, like banking, the legal field, they all recruit very aggressively at really star universities. Hollywood's attitude is generally like, "Well, you really want to do it, there are a million people that want to, so, if you really want to you'll make your way out there." And that's not really the best approach to sourcing the best people who may say "You know what? I'm graduating from college this year. I'm the first person in my family to graduate from college. I'm gonna take that job at Morgan Stanley that's close to six figures instead of answering somebody's phone for $22,000 a year." So that's the beginning of the pipeline. I think there needs to be far more inclusion and conscious decisions at all levels of the industry. Everything from internships to assistants to junior executives to senior executives to people that have greenlight authority. I think it needs to be done in terms of hiring for writers, directors, all of those things. Something akin to the Rooney Rule in the NFL is probably a good idea, where there are no quotas for who you have to hire, but you have to interview at least one woman and at least one person of color for every job that you are hiring for. If the NFL can change their numbers in a decade with that approach, certainly it should have some positive effect on an industry that says it wants to embrace inclusion, and has a financial incentive to do so.
And I think the Academy Awards do matter. Every year there's a slate of films that are advertised as "From Oscar Nominee" or "Oscar Winner So-and-So." So when it's impossible to even break through and have your work considered on equal footing, it's impossible to then have that additional marketing aspect for your next film. I think that you end up in a vicious cycle in terms of preventing people who may be able to do great, Oscar-calibre work from being able to make those movies, because they don't have the association with that kind of quality despite their work being very much of that quality. So I admire greatly the actions that the Academy has taken to try to change the voting body of the Academy.
What I'd say further is that I am sympathetic to [people] who may lose their voting rights because of their age. Among the -isms the industry needs to address, ageism is definitely one. It would be quite sad if someone who had joined the Academy and has been trying to get movies made and trying to be an active member of the industry was then unable to maintain that active status because they were struggling with the same biases that exist for people who are trying to invest in these changes. So I would love to see an additional component that says that you can retain your voting membership and you can retain your active status by actively making films or by actively being engaged in mentorship of the next generation of filmmakers. So, if you haven't worked in 15 years, but you're a professor [and] you're going down to schools in South LA every week to work with a bunch of kids on how to tell their stories, by all means vote. But you know, if you're a former Academy member who left Hollywood and doesn't do anything any more and hasn't done anything in years, I don't know why you expect that you should be able to vote any more than somebody who's been in the industry for three or four years and is very good at their job but hasn't yet joined the Academy. The voting body should be the best of folks who are working in film in 2016, not the best of folks who were working in film in 1976.
Have you seen patterns as to what people will subjectively consider good art or Oscar-worthy art versus what isn't? Or who those movies would be made for, and who they'll include?
Look, there’s a subset of movies that win an Oscar every year. It’s a serious drama, highly likely that it's a biopic or an adaptation of serious fiction. The assumption is that it is probably about a white cis man, or about a white cis man encountering a change in his world or in himself. It's hard to say, right? Because when I see something like Straight Outta Compton or Beasts of No Nation, I say "That's an obvious Oscar nominee." I think, unfortunately, those stories are dismissed because they have black faces on screen, because they're being released by Netflix, because they're about a hip-hop group that scared some people when they first came out. But I think another way to look at Straight Outta Compton is not as the gangster rap movie, it's also the biopic of arguably the most important musical group in the most important cultural movement in the last 40 years, worldwide. And I think if you look at it like that, Straight Outta Compton should have been seen as Oscar fodder years before it was made. But it was not.
As things progress, and the Black List thrives, are there other areas where things are moving too glacially or are impeded by other issues that you could see another kind of Black List coming forward and really changing who they work?
I think there's probably a value to someone curating a list of particularly strong writers and directors, [and] maybe even executives and sort of business figures who are women and who are people of color. One of the excuses that a lot of people use for not hiring more in that vein is that they just don't know anybody. They don't know they exist. And the fact of the matter is, they do. Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, her entire TV show is gonna be all female-directed this year. And they have female and person of color heads of department throughout the show and she's like, "Look, it's not that hard! I did it! I'm making my first series and I pulled it off! What's your excuse?" I think some sort of curation of the list of folks that you can hire that are really strong in this vein I think would be very helpful.
"There's a large audience that's currently being underserved."
I remain optimistic for one principal reason, which is this: there is a lot of money to be made by casting and making movies that are diverse in their perspectives and in their presence onscreen. That's why every time a black movie comes out, it opens at No. 1 and everyone's like, "Such-and-such movie over-performed!" It's like, how many of your movies need to over-perform to change your expectations about their performing? And I think that's true for female-written films, I think that's true for films about people of color.
38.7 percent of the US population is of some minority status. And that's not even counting women. That's just people of color. And all kinds of studies indicate that people of color go to the movies more frequently than non-people-of-color. So there's a large audience that's currently being underserved, and I look forward to sort of simple, capitalist principles overtaking the historical biases. I try to be as helpful as possible that people will be able to overcome those biases so that the industry as a whole can make more money and better movies.