Two Hollywood startups announce a partnership today designed to bring new voices to entertainment. The Black List, a community of unrepresented screenwriters, is partnering with WIGS, the Fox-affiliated digital studio, which has committed to producing a drama pilot by a yet-to-be-chosen Black List writer.
For as long as Hollywood has been Hollywood, it’s been dominated by a clubby atmosphere that sometimes seems designed to frustrate the dreams of new writers. The Black List, founded by Franklin Leonard (one of Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business 1000), began as a list of high-quality unproduced feature film scripts. Since 2012, though, Leonard has grown the brand into a website for the hosting and evaluation of unproduced screenplays and teleplays, with some users of the site going on to receive professional representation and optioning of their work.
WIGS, meanwhile, is a twist on the idea of a traditional TV network. Its foundational question: Rather than cobbling together the tens of millions of dollars it takes to launch a traditional cable channel, why not launch the equivalent directly on YouTube? WIGS launched in May of 2012, cofounded by entertainment veterans Jon Avnet (Black Swan, Risky Business) and Rodrigo Garcia (In Treatment), who bring A-list talent to what might have been dismissed as mere "webisodes." Its most popular drama is Blue, which features Julia Stiles as a single mother who makes ends meet as an escort. Since launching, WIGS has entered into partnerships with Fox (which airs prime-time ads promoting WIGS) and Hulu. The Blue pilot garnered 12 million views on YouTube; today WIGS has about 1.6 million subscribers across a few different platforms (like Hulu, YouTube, and its own online player).
Leonard and Jake Avnet (Jon’s son and the COO of WIGS) had known each other socially, and when The Black List opened its doors to teleplays, the two got in touch about making a possible deal. "It was the equivalent of a first date where both people are excited about the deal," recalls Leonard. "I was hoping Jake would be interested in something like this." And he was. His company’s brand already revolved around online communities and fan bases, so despite the fact that WIGS was already turning down pitches from established content, Avnet decided that a partnership with The Black List made sense.
There was also a shared mission around amplifying lesser-heard voices in Hollywood. Though mostly named as a cheeky nod to the McCarthyist witchhunts that ruined Hollywood careers, The Black List has also carved out a niche as a source for talented writers of color. And WIGS, for its part, has decided to focus its content all around female protagonists. Other actors on the channel include Grace Gummer and Anna Paquin, and over half of its directors have been women, whereas in the broader film industry, only 6% of directing work went to women last year. (Nevertheless, for the Black List partnership, WIGS has not committed to choosing a woman or person of color to develop its pilot.)
For both, it was a match that made sense. Avnet and Leonard alike see technology as a means both to shake up that clubby Hollywood atmosphere and to simply solve the manpower problem of sifting through mountains of quality, unproduced work. "There are literally tens of thousands of pieces of material registered to the Writers Guild of America each year," says Leonard (and he's struck up partnerships with the Guild, too). "It’s impossible for one person or team to sort through this stuff, so people default to the path of least resistance." In other words: the already-represented, in both senses of the word—those with agents, and the white males who have traditionally been unduly prominent in the industry.
"Technology has the power to make this all more efficient, and better," says Avnet. Then, perhaps remembering the Black List scripts he needs to sift through—and perhaps mindful of the fear that a data-driven era could hollow out the soul of entertainment—he adds: "That said, I don’t think technology’s the only answer. It’s a mix of technology and human input that create the magic of good content."