While he was away, the email went viral within the industry, garnering around 500 responses each with their own list of scripts. After totaling the most common responses, Leonard produced the first annual Black List [pdf link], which names the hidden gems of Hollywood each year, often authored by industry outsiders. Trends emerge from the list, and once overlooked movies often get a second, more critical look from Hollywood and sometimes make it into production. Past Black List films include Oscar winners The King’s Speech, Juno, and Argo.
Now, The Black List has entered its next phase: A website that acts, as Leonard says, “like an eHarmony for people who write content and people who make content,” enabling anyone to upload a script and have it potentially read and rated by vetted Hollywood executives. The site is aiming to reshape the way the typically insular world of Hollywood makes films and is providing even more ammunition for those who believe the best creative economy is one where talent trumps all.
Q. Did The Black List stem from a particular moment in your past? What lead you to create it?
A. I often got asked: “I wrote what I think is a very good script but I do not know anyone in the industry. How would I get my script to somebody who could do something with it?” The answer was usually, “Pick up your life and move to Los Angeles, work at Starbucks, and network your way into knowing somebody.”
That works if you are an upper-middle class kid whose parents can help support you, but if you are a single mother, with a mortgage and two kids, working in the South Side of Chicago, you can’t pick up and move to Los Angeles. And your ability and willingness to do so has nothing to do with your ability as a writer. So, I wanted to create something that could solve that problem. And that problem, I think, results in a film industry that was pretty non-representative of the country and the world as a whole.
Q. It seems the Black List plays into the human psychology that we feel better about our opinions when they are validated by others.
A. I think that is right. My favorite example is Lars and the Real Girl, which was on the Black List [before being made into a film in 2007]. It takes courage to walk into your boss’ office and say, “I read a script last night about a guy who buys a sex doll and treats it like a girlfriend. You should read it immediately.”
No matter how confident you are in your opinion, you are going to think twice about having that conversation with your boss. The difference is that when Lars and the Real Girl is number three on the Black List, you can walk into your boss’ office and say, “I read this crazy script that I love and everyone loved, you should read it immediately, and if you think it is great too, think about buying it.”
Q. Hollywood’s track record just speaks to how hard it is to predict commercial success.
A. Yes, but I think this is probably a bit more possible than the industry wants to believe. The industry always defaults to the William Golding quote, “Nobody knows anything.” Which I don’t think is true.
When failure happens, the response is never “lets understand why this film didn’t work.” The more common response is, “Well, no one knows anything so it’s not surprising that it failed.” I think that it is changing to some extent now. The people in leadership positions in the film industry are a lot more focused on understanding why things work and why they didn’t. But I do think that there is a belief that says, “It is impossible to know anything, so let’s take credit for the hits and dismiss the failures and move forward.”
Q. How has the Hollywood attitude toward outsiders changed in recent years?
A. Well, I never want to overstate the role of Black List. I think historically, there was a notion that there may be talent outside the system, but there is no way to identify that talent amidst the morass of not-talent. And looking outside the walls would be akin to looking for a needle in the haystack. What we do is walk into the hayfields with a metal detector, come back and say, “Here’s a bunch of needles.” And I think that, as a consequence, there is more openness to outsiders than there would be.
Take for example Gary Graham, who six months ago was working at the Genius Bar at the Manhattan Apple store. He wrote a script, uploaded it, and it was discovered via the website. He then sold the script to Warner Brothers, and that script is now being used as the basis for the I am Legend prequel.
And I don’t know if that would have been possible prior to the advent of Black List because if an Apple store employee were to show up to Warner Brothers and say, “Hey, I have a script that should be used as a prequel to I am Legend.” People would have said, “Yeah sure buddy. We’re going to call security now.” So, if there is anything that has changed, it’s that we give insiders a more efficient way of finding outsiders that may be of value to them.
Q. What is your advice for the people who are still working at their version of the Genius Bar?
A. Worry a lot less about who you know and the process of developing a personal network and focus a great deal more on your work being amazing when people who are in the system do become aware of it. Because it is possible now to make your work seen very quickly by a large number of people who matter. So just make sure it is good when they do see it.
Q. What would you say to the writer that says that they do great work but people still aren’t biting?
A. Even if you are not yet a good writer, you can get feedback from industry professionals who know what the market is looking for can tell you, “Here is what you are doing right, here is what you are not doing right. Here is how far you have to go before your work can be legitimately be considered as part of the industry standard.”
Some of the most gratifying emails that I get from a customer service perspective are emails from people who received a low rating on the site. They say, “Your reader ripped me a new one, but this is the first time I have ever felt like someone was paying attention to me. I am excited to go do a rewrite because I understand the direction I need to move ahead.” And so, I think in addition to providing a window into the walled city, we also do a really good job of letting people know what they need to do to be able to crawl through that window at some point.
Q. I suppose we need to loosen the standard of success beyond “getting a movie made.” Success can be people talking about the thing you are doing, to help you improve.
A. Success is usually not one moment. It is a series of minor successes. It is getting feedback for the first time. It is completing a rewrite based on that feedback. It is discovering that your rewrite did, in fact, improve your script. It is doing another rewrite. It is having a bunch of people read your script because it attracted attention. It is an agent calling you for the first time. It is signing with an agent. It is being referred to a production company or studio. There are many successes on the way to what most people would perceive as public success. And I know for me, the only way that I have been able to continue to wake up every morning is by trying to focus on those immediate successes and acknowledging them for what they are.
Q. Will the film or TV worlds ever truly be a meritocracy?
A. In some ways we are already there. Ten years ago when I first came to the film industry … if you wanted to make a feature or short film, you needed a fair amount of money to do it. So you could always have the excuse, “I’m a brilliant filmmaker I don’t have access to a million dollars to make a feature.” But now you can make a short on your iPhone and MacBook for not that much money. Generally, the difficulty of breaking through the gatekeepers is directly correlated to the volume or capital necessary to make the art.
I think short-form content is the way around the gatekeeper and around high budgets. We are seeing a decline in the number of gatekeepers that really matter because I can make a short with my iPhone and put it online. I do not need to go to any gatekeeper to do that. I don’t need permission. But if I want to make a $100 million movie, I do need to have people that say, “Hey, alright there is $500 million, come back with a profit of $100 million plus.”
Otherwise, you are not going to get $100 million to make your second movie, and I think most filmmakers have more than one story they want to tell. There are always going to be gatekeepers at that level. But certainly as the cost of production goes down, the relevance of gatekeepers will continue to decrease.
Q. If you could hop in a time machine and go back and give advice to your 20-year-old self, what would you tell him?
A. Relax. [laughs] I do not tend to look back on my life with a great deal of regret. I am in a really good place and very happy. I think I have benefited tremendously from the missteps that I have made. I mean, I had three different careers by the time I was 24.
I was a mess. I was so high strung, so obnoxiously arrogant. I was just way too self-serious, I think. And, some of that self-seriousness came from being worried that I would be a massive failure in life and never be able to provide for a family or be a good person that was contributing in a positive way to society. I am probably still way too self-serious, but I think now I have the advantages of being chastened by life and I think once that happens, you worry a lot less because you know that your ability to recover matters more than your ability to avoid failure.