The Black List’s Franklin Leonard says greed can combat Hollywood’s bias

The Black List — a list of producers’ favorite unproduced screenplays — started with an idea so obvious that producer and Black List founder Franklin Leonard couldn’t believe it didn’t already exist. He just asked producers he knew what their favorite screenplays were, then created a list.

“I was terrified that I had violated some unwritten rule of Hollywood and that surely other people had had this idea, hadn’t done it for a reason, but I was too dumb to realize that,” Leonard told Kara Swisher on Recode Decode.

In fact, he had identified an incredibly valuable opportunity: an easy way for producers to find the best screenplays circulating, rather than digging through piles of mediocre work.

He came up with the idea while working as a script reader for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way Productions. Most of the scripts Leonard read were not great, and he thought there must be a better way of surfacing interesting material. So he emailed some of his peers and asked them about great screenplays they had read but passed on, then put the results in a pivot table, and created the first Black List.

The first Black List in 2005 included major box-office hit Juno and Academy Award-nominated Lars and the Real Girl. Since then, Leonard has published the Black List annually as a survey of over 250 film executives on the best screenplays they’ve read that have yet to be produced.

The list helps recirculate great screenplays that executives had passed on in a given year. Since its development in 2005, four out of the past 12 Academy Award winners for Best Picture and 10 of the last 24 winners for Screenplay came from the Black List.

This all raises the question: If the screenplays included in the Black List are so great, why didn’t they get produced right away? “The industry has gotten away from prioritizing ‘Is the script good?’ as the primary driver of whether you make the movie,” Leonard says. Producers have overvalued other factors of success like star actors, genre, viability in foreign markets, and strayed from fundamentals.

“Screenwriters are terribly undervalued in Hollywood, given their relative contribution to the success and failure of the things that we all make,” he told Recode Decode.

But the Black List has numbers to back up its success: Movies made from the Black List make 90 percent more revenue in the box office than non-listed films with similar budgets, according to a recent Harvard Business School study. “The Black List, to some extent, lays bare the fact that if you take great scripts, and make them into movies, you have a better chance of delivering a financial return,” Leonard says.

More recently, Leonard has expanded the Black List into a two-sided marketplace for screenplays. Each screenplay is scored by a Black List-sanctioned group of industry professionals. The marketplace allows producers to search within a given genre and by score.

In light of the lack of diversity among this year’s Academy Awards nominees, Leonard is optimistic that reducing barriers to entry is the key to telling more stories and getting more recognition. “We wanted to create something that anybody — if they were talented — could be discovered,” he said.

Leonard’s team has analyzed demographic data from the most successful screenplays from their marketplace, and noticed that the distribution of scores by gender are virtually identical with one exception: “At the very bottom of the scale — so the worst scripts — women just fall off,” he said. “Women are not submitting, on average, bad screenplays to our site.”

The data is confirmation for Hollywood of what Leonard already knew: “Who you are, or what demographic group you’re a part of, has no direct correlation to your talent.” It’s only a reflection of gatekeeping and who-knows-who that have traditionally circulated screenplays in Hollywood. A study of spec script sales from 1991 to 2012 showed women wrote only 13 percent of screenplays that were sold and produced.

Leonard’s hope is that maybe greed can finally diversify Hollywood because more diverse movies continue to break box office records both domestically and abroad.

And Netflix — famously data-driven — is leading the pack. He describes the weekend the streaming service released Always Be My Maybe, a romantic comedy with two Asian-American leads, and When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s miniseries on the Central Park Five that explores race and the criminal justice system, as a turning point.

“I suspect that that has to do with their approach to data,” Leonard says of Netflix’s strategy.

But if the Academy Awards nominations are any indication, mainstream Hollywood is slow to catch on. “Sometimes even the greed doesn’t overwhelm the bias,” he says. But eventually, he hopes that will change.