Dozens of screenwriters have just been blacklisted—and they're delighted. Whereas Senator McCarthy's blacklist ended careers, Franklin Leonard's makes them. His list of the best unproduced screenplays includes a range of zany and intriguing story conceits: a buddy comedy featuring a college-aged Karl Rove, for instance, and a movie where a vampire and a zombie team up to fight off an alien invasion.
Franklin Leonard, who was recently featured as one of Fast Company's "Most Creative People," transformed from an ordinary mid-level development executive into what the Los Angeles Times calls "Hollywood's most important soothsayer" almost overnight. Back in 2004, buried in lousy screenplay submissions, he shot off an email to some production company executives, asking what the best unproduced screenplays they had recently read were. Leonard culled the data, noted which titles recurred, and sent off a list to some friends.
The list went viral. Within days, people were forwarding it back to Leonard, without even realizing he had authored it. Leonard decided to make it a yearly tradition, cheekily dubbing it the Black List.
Since then, Leonard, a 32-year-old from Columbus, GA, has become an unlikely Hollywood kingmaker. Remember the Oscar-winning "Juno"? It first gathered real buzz through the Black List, along with the Oscar-nominated screenplay, "Lars and the Real Girl." Catch a flick called "The Social Network"? Another Black List favorite.
"There were end of the year 'best of' screenplay lists in Hollywood before the Black List, but they were generally informal affairs put together by a single agency or a small group of assistants," Leonard tells Fast Company. "People would consume them at the end of the year, but always with the knowledge that the list was implicitly biased in one way or another or not fully representative of a community with a wide ranging taste profile."
The Black List's rules—it focuses on not-yet-produced screenplays—are such that sometimes films that are already in production are named. Six of this year's Top 10 have already been scooped up by studios, including Margin Call, whose star-studded cast includes Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, about the 2008 financial meltdown. "Margin Call is a complete film and headed to Sundance this year. Very excited to see it," Leonard says.
But when the Black List does its best work, it primarily generates buzz for projects underway and reflects much appreciated attention to the writers behind them. "When the list finds those new writers, the Diablo Codys, the Nancy Olivers, the Josh Zetumers, the Kyle Killens, the Chris Weekes, the Wes Joneses, the Noah Oppenheims, more people with real power—to hire, to greenlight, etc.—will read their material and be more likely to hire them," Leonard says.
The list also has the power to turn around careers that had been languishing.
"I was cleaning up after a lawyer's maid," Josh Zetumer, a former Black List beneficiary, told Entertainment Weekly, "and suddenly I'm writing dialogue on a cocktail napkin, and it's landing in a Bond movie!"
Other eye-catching titles from this year's list:
- "Murdoch" by Jesse Armstrong: "As his family gathers for his birthday party, Rupert Murdoch tries to convince his elder children to alter the family trust so that his two youngest children by his newest wife will have voting rights in the company."
- "Replay" by Jason Smilovic: "A man dies, wakes up in his 18-year old body, and gets to relive his life over and over."
- "Jackie" by Noah Oppenheim: "Jackie Kennedy fights to define her husband's legacy in the seven days immediately following his assassination."
- "Hovercar 3D" by Blaise Hemingway: "Set in the future, an ex-con street racer has to transport a whistleblower across country in a high-speed hovercar with an army of authorities trying to stop them."
- "F*cking Jane Austen" by Blake Bruns: "Two men angry at Jane Austen for creating unrealistic romantic expectations among women today get set back in time to the 19th century. The only way for them to return home is for one of them to get Jane Austen to fall in love and sleep with him."
Is there a second act in the Black List's future, in which it becomes something more than the insider's guide that it is? "It's difficult for me to answer that question," Leonard says. If you're planning on pitching the next Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle, you might want to watch his talk from our last Most Innovative Companies event just in case. "I can say this," he ads cryptically, "The Black List as it currently exists is a beginning."