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Franklin Leonard: The Realist’s Guide To Changing the World

About this talk

While in college, Franklin Leonard was convinced he was going to change the world. “I went to college debating between pursuing the sciences, where I was sure that I was going to cure cancer,” he says. “And going into politics where I was sure I was going to find, nurture, help elect, and run policy for the next great liberal president.” The stint in politics didn’t work out, and Leonard was left adrift before eventually moving to Hollywood.

He soon realized once more how difficult it can be to enact global change. That’s when, almost accidentally, he founded The Black List, a collection of the industries top unproduced scripts. Today, films on the list have been seen by millions of people around the globe, earned over $25 billion dollars, and have been nominated for 223 Academy Awards (and have won 43). In his talk, Leonard explains a shift in his perspective on what it really means to change the world, and why it’s better to start small.

Franklin Leonard, Founder & CEO, The Black List

In 2005, studio executive Franklin Leonard surveyed almost 100 film industry development executives about their favorite scripts from that year that had not been made as feature films. The result was the first ever Black List. Since then, the voter pool has grown to about 500 film executives, and the list has become a means to catapult scripts such as Slumdog Millionaire, Argo, and Juno into produced films. Leonard is a graduate of Harvard University and resides in Los Angeles.

Full Transcript

My name is Franklin Leonard. I work in Hollywood, and I help screenwriters get their work to people who can make them into movies. And a couple of months ago, I got an email from Sean Blanda, who you all know at this point, asking if I wanted to speak at this conference because, and I quote and I want to read this because I can get it right: “Our audience is full of people who are on the bleeding edge of creativity and thus are always interested in how the ways we are discovered and get noticed are changing.”

I must admit, for a couple days after getting that email, I was feeling really, really good about myself. Y’all are well over a thousand people on the bleeding edge of creativity. From the stage, there are a lot of you. And someone wanted me to come talk to you about the future of that bleeding edge. So by association, I must be awesome.

And on top of that, it would be a great opportunity to up my brand equity, proselytize on behalf of my company, get my social media followers up, and all the things that you’re supposed to do in , at least I’m told. And, unfortunately, that feeling of feeling really good about things changed pretty quickly.

Early in April, I had a prep call for this talk with Sean where I was informed that I would be part of the last session. So, no pressure. And that the subject of that session would be as, you all know by now, changing the world.

Yeah. Again, no pressure at all.

And even then I thought, “It’s fine.” Despite my crippling fear of public speaking, which may or may not be evident, I’ll just adjust my standard speech a little bit and I can procrastinate this thing until a few days or hours before the speech. And it will all be fine.

And then on April 12th, a 25-year-old black man named Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore for possession of a switchblade blade. Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether possessing a switchblade is a crime because it’s not really relevant to my comments here tonight. And minutes later, all of which he had been in police custody, presumably handcuffed, he was dead with a severed spinal cord and a crushed larynx.

And so on Monday night, I was sitting in my hotel in Union Square before I got to the Ace, watching the news at 2 AM procrastinating, because that’s what I do apparently. And I was watching a CVS in Baltimore burn, and I was watching a militarized police force trying to corral hundreds of young people who look not too dissimilar from me. I was also watching the death toll rise in Nepal where an earthquake that was 6.8 on the Richter Scale had struck miles east southeast of Lanjutan just two days prior. I was watching Instagram, where images of the devastation in Nepal we’re piling up from people I didn’t know it would never meet. I was watching Twitter, where defenders of the violence in Baltimore were arguing with an aggressively hatefuls– aggressively hateful opponents of the violence and debating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

And I found myself asking myself, “Am I really going to get on stage on Friday in front of a thousand people on the bleeding edge of creativity on the topic of changing the world, and talk to them about how to make it more efficient for good screenplays to get to producers?” Was I actually going to get on stage and talk about changing the world when I long ago came to a conclusion that I am often reminded of at times like this, and one that I’m going to say now with the full knowledge that I will probably never get invited back to this conference or any other conference like it.

And here goes, it is not possible for one person to change the world. It is too big, it has too many people, it is too chaotic. We live in a world where entropy reigns supreme. So why am I here? Why run the risk of publicly embarrassing myself or front of you , 99% percenters, which I suppose is still very much a possibility. Why not call Sean and to the extent that it’s possible a couple days out, graciously withdraw? And trust me, I considered it.

The thing is, I grew up in a household where my father was a veteran of 25 years in the Army, and my mother was the stern schoolteacher-type. So we had very strict rules in my house, and one of those was that you honor the commitments that you’ve made. And so here I am. And on Tuesday, after that late night of watching the news and watching Twitter and watching Instagram, I found myself wondering what the hell I was going to say and being damn sure that I had nothing. And I guess we’ll find out if I don’t. So I started thinking about how it was that I came to the conclusion that one person can’t change the world and why ultimately I think it’s a good thing that I see the world that way, and why I think it’s probably a good thing that all of you do too.

And I think it’s pretty ironic that I feel that way, because half a lifetime ago, about 20 years, if you had asked me what I would do when I grow up, my answer would have been very simple. Change the world. I had no idea what that meant or how it was that I was going to do it, but for a self-righteous black kid growing up in the deep South, it seemed like the right answer.

I went to college debating between pursuing the sciences, where I was sure that I was going to cure cancer. And going into politics where I was sure I was going to find, nurture, help elect, and run policy for the next great liberal president. I chose the latter route and drove from Boston to Cincinnati, Ohio the day after I graduated from college to help run the congressional campaign of a 25-year-old candidate running in the first district of Ohio. We lost.

From there I moved to Port of Spain, Trinidad and wrote a column for The Guardian Newspapers on the subject of U.S. and Trinidadian politics. I don’t know how many you follow Trinidadian politics, but I think it’s safe to say that looking around in the US, I did not change US or Trinidadian politics. Or if I did, I changed them for the worse.

I then moved to New York City. I accepted a job as a management consultant, thinking that maybe there I could learn the skills that would help me change the world and whatever else I would do that would follow. At least one of you here today remembers me from that period, and probably remembers me as an insufferable asshole as a consequence.

Less than two years later, I was laid off from that job with the rest of my analyst class. And if I’m being honest, I’m sure that those that I worked for would agree that I probably deserved to get laid off quite a bit more than the rest of the people that I worked with. I found myself unemployed, very much adrift, and very much unhappy. I was not changing the world. I was a failure.

And in my sadness and self-loathing, I found myself turning to something that had comforted me greatly in my youth, movies. Because when you’re a black nerd in the Deep South and Urkel’s on TV, you don’t have much of a social life. And you end up watching a lot of movies on Friday night because it’s slightly less pathetic than staying home. I guess that’s actually debatable.

But in my unemployment, I watched a lot of movies. And many of those movies caused me to change the way that I saw the world, which gave me an idea. Movies are a popular medium, so I should go to Hollywood and make a movie that would change the world. And I packed my bag — I packed my bags 12 years ago and moved to LA. I got a job as an agency assistant, because I was told that’s a great way to start your career. And I sort of started working my way up. A year later, I got a job as a junior creative executive at a production company, which, at the time, was sort of lightning fast in Hollywood timelines. And I thought I was on my way. It would be very simple. I would find a great screenplay, I would get it made, it would change the world.

And two things became apparent to me very quickly. There were not a ton of amazing movie scripts lying around that were going to change the world. And those that seemed like they might, were probably the hardest, if not impossible, to get made. So I drifted from job to job. I worked for Leonardo DiCaprio’s company, where probably the only thing of note I did was desperate to find some good scripts to read over vacation, take a survey of my peers. And say, “Send me a list of your ten favorite scripts. In exchange, I’ll send you back the combined list.” And even despite having done that, somehow I was a casualty of regime change less than a year later.

I worked for Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella. Six months after I arrived working for them, Sydney was diagnosed with cancer. Six months after that, Anthony Minghella died. And a few months later, Sydney Pollack died.

From there, I went to work at Universal Pictures, where the high point of my job was being a junior executive on “It’s Complicated” and “Fast and Furious Five.” I don’t know how many of you are familiar with jobs in Hollywood, but that basically meant that I was taking notes in meetings and watching dailies to make sure that there were no major mistakes that would cost the studio too much money.

To the outside world I was a success. I had a cool job in a cool industry, and I still went home every night thinking that I was an abject failure. I had not made a movie. I was most definitely not changing the world. I wasn’t changing Hollywood. I wasn’t even changing the course of the company that I worked for.

But throughout these jobs, I continued to take an annual survey of people’s favorite unproduced screenplays and sharing it with the people who voted. Mainly because my job was to find good scripts, and I didn’t want to be terrible at my job. And then a strange thing started happening. The writers whose scripts were on this annual survey started getting more jobs. The scripts that were on the survey started getting made. And those scripts that did get made were often the weird, emotionally ambitious, try and change the world ones that people were surprised got made.

They were the ones about high school seniors getting pregnant and debating giving the baby up for adoption. They were the ones about dysfunctional families coming together on a fool’s errand of a road trip to a beauty pageant. They were the ones about a poor Indian kid living in the slum who goes on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” And these movies, which include “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” did well. They did really well. And that work allowed those writers to get more work, much of which was similarly emotionally ambitious, try and change the world type stuff.

But here’s the thing, I didn’t do anything with those scripts. I didn’t write them, I didn’t direct them, I didn’t produce them, I didn’t finance them, I didn’t act in them, I didn’t run cable or, like, post lights on the set. I didn’t even give them from one person to another who would then go do those things. All I did was change the way people looked at them.

And, certainly, there were movies on this list that would have gotten made without that change in point of view, but a lot wouldn’t have. And even if it were a small percentage of them, it’s worth noting. In the ten years that I’ve done this list, there have been about a thousand scripts on the Black List. About 300 of them have been produced. They’ve won 43 Academy Awards, 223 Academy Award nominations, 3 of the last 7 Best Pictures, 8 of the last 16 screenwriting Oscars, and half of last year’s Best Picture nominations were scripts on the survey.

All told, they’ve made about $25 billion in worldwide box office, which means that in all probability, tens of millions of people, if not hundreds of millions of people, have seen these films in the theaters. And I have no idea how many in post-theatrical environments like television, streaming, and let’s be honest, illegal downloads. Always on the mind of people working in film.

And for even the worst amongst those films, the people who see them, however many– however many millions there are, probably see the world at least a little bit differently when they leave the theater than when they went in. But, again, and I really can’t stress this enough, I did not do a damn thing to make them. Which brings me to my point.

Here we are a thousand plus 99 percenters on the “bleeding edge of creativity.” And I suspect that most of you, like me, grew up wanting to change the world in some capacity. Some of you I suspect, also like me, have found it paralyzing.

You’re racked by the burden of failure, brought on by the combination of ego, ambition, and altruism that I have been guilty of for most of my life and still am on most days, and I’m told is a symptom of my generation and those that follow.

So here’s what I’d like to offer, and feel free to take or leave this advice. Lord knows that in 36 years, the one thing that I know is that I don’t know much. And it’s something that I’m reminded of every time I turn on the news and see the rising death toll from somewhere in the world or reared that the explanation offered in Freddie Gray’s death is that he severed his spine and crushed his larynx himself in the back of a police van.

But worst case scenario, use this or me as an excuse to free yourself from whatever paralysis and or feeling of failure you may feel that is at all similar to the one that I’ve struggled with for the better part of the last decade and a half.

If you want to change the world, stop trying to change the world. It’s impossible. Fix something broken, solve a problem, make something, make something better, make something beautiful, tell a story, hold a mirror up to the world and show the rest of the world how it is.

If you absolutely must be more ambitious than that, do any of those things in a way that changes the way a few people see the world. Maybe they’ll do the same as a consequence and maybe, just maybe, you’ll end up doing that first thing which will go unnamed without realizing it. Either in your lifetime or long after you’re gone. Absolutely worst-case scenario, doing it that way usually makes it a little bit easier to wake up the next morning and try and probably fail to do the same thing all over again. It’s the only thing that’s worked for me. Thank you.

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