What's Left to Discover on the Black List?
No sooner had the 2010 Black List been announced this morning than the griping began. First came the instant message from a frustrated screenwriter pal: "at least there's no f***ing sorkin." Then a steady trickle of bile puddled at the bottom of Deadline's coverage, where commenters amassed to judge, nitpick and/or hate on everything from Hollywood's taste to the prowess of certain producers and agents at gaming the system for this very moment. And, of course, the old, bitter chestnut: "It would be great for Leonard to solicit a more refined list of most liked scripts that truly are unproduced -- no producers attached."
"Leonard" would be Franklin Leonard, the 32-year-old Hollywood player who, in six years, has built the Black List's curated collection of highly regarded unproduced screenplays into an industry institution. Part celebration of the best screenwriting has to offer, part crystal-ball glimpse at the next two to three years of films likely to emerge from both majors and independents, and part megalomaniac wet dream, the Black List is like the Academy Award of development. "Black-Listed" scripts don't necessarily always get made, but when the 300 or so insiders whom Leonard polls annually speak, people -- very wealthy, influential people, often with large offices on studio lots -- tend to listen.
But the balance of influence has shifted since the first list in 2005, the top 10 of which included the accursed, aforementioned Aaron Sorkin (Charlie Wilson's War; he'd return to the list in 2009 with The Social Network), eventual Oscar nominee Nancy Oliver (Lars and the Real Girl) and eventual Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (Juno). The fundamental criteria of inclusion -- that a script be written, yet not released theatrically, during the calendar year it's recommended -- haven't changed since then. But the distinct pungency of Hollywood posturing has intensified. Major studios and seven-figure deals populate today's top 10; one script -- J.C. Chandor's finance-industry free-fall drama Margin Call -- has even been produced and will premiere (and sell, its producers hope) next month at the Sundance Film Festival. Half are represented by CAA, marking the agency's best top-10 showing to date and, more importantly, representing a key displacement of archrival WME (including its predecessors at William Morris and Endeavor) from Black List supremacy.
Many writers, agents and other industry observers saw this coming, fearing that what began as Leonard's attempt to combat Hollywood's late-December malaise with the town's most liked scripts would come to resemble little more than a power-broker popularity contest. But if you listen to those private whispers and whinges from the outside looking in (always anonymous and slightly defensive, of course, lest the Black List keep an actual blacklist), the Black List has forsaken something crucial: A spirit of discovery and revelation.
Leonard is sensitive to the criticism but unwavering in his standards. "The Black List tries to take a snapshot of a conversation that's being held around Hollywood in thousands of forms, thousands of times a day, every day of the year," he said in an e-mail correspondence earlier today. "It's an irregular, amorphous thing, and I'm not sure there's a way to create a single list that accomplishes everything that people seem to want the Black List to accomplish. The list does what it does: highlight new screenplays by some excellent screenwriters, some very experienced and some new."
In fairness to Leonard, whatever perceived imbalance has taken over the Black List kind of has to happen, particularly amid a vast, demoralizing spec-script wasteland that only seems to get worse every year. Good writers and their work are always in demand, and it only follows logic that they would be heavily circulated and/or snatched up at the earliest opportunity. On the other hand, critics say, of the countless available titles making the rounds as we speak, surely an operation that casts as wide a net as the Black List can find a hundred or so that would fulfill the same purpose as All You Need is Kill or Safe House -- two would-be studio tentpoles that have been around for what feels like forever.
"Like last year, you've got things that are already in production making the list. What's the point in doing that?" asked the cheeky industry blogger (and occasional screenwriter) known to his audience only as Temp X. "It doesn't really lend itself to being something that makes discovery of a script seem relevant. Take Social Network last year. Great movie and all that, but it was number two on the list and it was already in production. I don't know what the spirit of the Black List was when they founded it, but I can't imagine it was a way to recognize scripts Aaron Sorkin and Sony Pictures already decided they were producing."
Leonard, meanwhile, cited such projects as the precisely the kinds that make the Black List's newer talents stand out.
"[E]very year there will be major 'discoveries' (and it's worth noting that the last three #1s were written by brand new writers who didn't even live in Los Angeles at the time of the list's release: Kyle Killen, Austin, TX; Christopher Weekes, Australia; Wes Jones, Montclair, NJ -- I believe)," Leonard wrote. "And yes, that means every year there will be scripts from established writers who continue to do great work. Those who think that the list has lost its way should revisit the first list, which featured frequent Black List boogeyman Aaron Sorkin at #5 and David Benioff at #6. And personally, I think that's a good thing. There's something special about a place where Aaron Sorkin's script for Social Network is #2 behind a script by a total unknown who wrote a spec script about Jim Henson's life by doing research from his home in Australia. It legitimizes Christopher Weekes's work in a way that being the top of the heap of previously undiscovered writers will never do."
Yet with added power comes added responsibility, and Leonard seems to know it. "The Black List has some exciting new things coming in the new year that I think will address the needs and hopes of the folks who seem to have the most frequent complaints," he wrote. "Stay tuned." And don't think for a minute even Temp X wouldn't want the distinction someday of a Black-Listed script. ("That would be fantastic," he acknowledged.) Ultimately, though, let's face it: This is Hollywood we're talking about, where politics, avarice and ambition never hesitated to interfere with good intentions. And like anyone else in film, Franklin Leonard will have his hands full maintaining a product -- and a brand -- he can be proud of.
You probably haven't seen the end of "f***ing Sorkin" on the Black List, but let's hope -- for the list's sake and our own as moviegoers -- that's just the beginning of what we haven't seen there.