By Adam Popescu
Franklin Leonard sits in a plush seat high above the Sunset Strip at Soho House. Snug in a cardigan and plaid shirt, sporting glasses and the cleanest dreadlocks in town, the 34-year-old types away on his MacBook.
A stone's throw away, big-screen faces parley over cocktails and coffee, but Leonard seemingly is oblivious to the wheeling and dealing in the members-only club that doubles as his makeshift office. He didn't come here to be seen; he's here to work. And the baby he's building is fast gaining recognition as one of the hottest rising stars in Hollywood.
It's called the Black List, and it has become both a powerful tool for writers seeking to break out and the focus of Leonard's entrepreneurial ambitions. The list ranks the year's top unproduced screenplays, calculating which are the most beloved based on submissions and comments from studio and production company executives.
Leonard solicits roughly 650 members of the film industry, and typically about 300 respond, sending in up to 10 screenplays that fit three criteria: They're amazing, they came to the respondent's attention in that calendar year, and they aren't scheduled to go into production that year.
“When you survey people about what they love, not just what they can sell their boss on, you get this eclectic mix of total unknowns and established names,” Leonard explains.
Chances are you've seen some of the scripts on the list. In the last seven years, about 250 Black List screenplays have been made into features, earning a whopping $16 billion in global ticket sales, as well as roughly 165 Academy Awards nominations, 35 wins and five of the last 10 screenwriting Oscars. They include Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech, Juno, Argo and The Social Network.
The idea for the list came in 2005 when Leonard was working as a development executive at Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, Appian Way. His job was to read scripts and send up the best material.
But there was a problem.
“The vast majority of things that I was reading were not good enough to pass along to my bosses,” he remembers. “That meant that either I was very bad at my job, which was to find good material, or that the job was just reading bad material and passing on it, which was not interesting to me from the personal perspective.”
Frustrated, Leonard prepared for a trip to Mexico to disconnect. Hoping to read good scripts while he was gone, he asked 75 of his peers to send him a list of their 10 favorite screenplays that weren't being produced.
He aggregated the information, he says, then “slapped a vaguely subversive name on it; went on vacation with the scripts; didn't think a second thing of it.” But when he checked his work email halfway through the trip, his list “had literally been forwarded back to me a bunch of times and everyone was, like, 'Oh my God, what is this document?' And I was, like, 'Shit, I'm going to get fired.' ”
Fearing for his job, he kept his authorship quiet. Then, about six months later, Leonard got a call from an agent that showed how powerful the list had become. The agent was buzzing over a script he had just read.
“Don't tell anybody, but I have it on authority that this is going to be the No. 1 script on next year's Black List,” he told Leonard.
Leonard decided to compile another list the following year. And although the Los Angeles Times ran a piece outing him, it had already become clear that affiliation with the list was no liability.
One of the top scripts on the 2007 list was Juno, and when that film won Diablo Cody the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay a year later, it was major validation.
“Then it became, 'Oh, this document is a real indicator of a script that, if you make it, you'll go on to be successful,' ” Leonard recalls. “And the numbers have really gone on and borne that out. Three of the last five Best Pictures were Black List scripts, and seven of the last 12 screenwriting Oscars.”
The hive, apparently, can identify top material. “I cite those numbers because I think the correlation is fascinating: That when you gather together a significant percentage of the Hollywood development community and the gatekeepers, they do a very good job of identifying material that is really good — and not necessarily the most obvious commercial stuff,” Leonard says.
Greg Beal is director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science's Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, which last year vetted a record 7,197 submissions. The Black List's value, he says, is much like the Nicholl's: It routes good scripts to the right people.
Last year, three of the five scripts that won Nicholl Fellowships ended up on the Black List, Beal says. “That means they're going around town and multiple people are putting them in their top 10 favorite scripts of the year.”
The format of the list has changed dramatically since its 2005 inception. “By 2011, the idea of the once-yearly PDF that circulated via email was adorable,” Leonard jokes. He decided to change the list from an annual product to a real-time tool. “We built essentially a real-time Black List for anyone who's signed up as a member to rate the scripts they've read. Those ratings aggregate in a real-time list that you can sort and filter.” Inspired by Amazon and Netflix, the list now also offers recommendations based on user feedback and past choices.
There's more: Screenwriters can upload scripts to the site for $25 per month, and they're then evaluated by a team of professionals for $50 per read. If ratings are good, those scripts get referred to industry members via Black List email blasts and on-site placement.
In late June, the list announced a partnership with the Writers Guild of America, West, allowing its members to submit scripts to the list free of charge, as well as providing them a free month of hosting scripts on the site. Coming in October is a program in which six writers, deemed promising by the list, will be flown to Las Vegas to work one-on-one with such mentors as screenwriter Billy Ray (Hunger Games) and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith (Legally Blonde).
Leonard came to Hollywood by a circuitous path. Born in Hawaii, he grew up an army brat and lived in Germany for a time before spending his teen years in Georgia.
The self-described math nerd eventually graduated from Harvard with a degree in social and political theory. He worked on a congressional campaign in Cincinnati, as a reporter in Trinidad and as a media analyst at McKinsey & Company. It wasn't until 2003 that he moved to L.A., getting his first job in the business as an assistant at Creative Artists Agency.
Ten years later, Leonard's a savvy entrepreneur focused 100 percent on the list. He sees it as a way to open up Hollywood to people much like himself: Smart people whose parents don't work at CAA and who didn't grow up in Beverly Hills. He says, “I'm hopeful that there will be a ton more writers who get discovered that don't live in L.A. that go on to write brilliant movies that I get to pay money to go see.”