The Black List: Identifying Screenplays in Hollywood

The Black List, an annual list of the year’s most-liked unproduced screenplays is a genius idea that seems so obvious in hindsight. Planet Money does a good podcast that explains what the Black List is and how it started. In short, it was started anonymously by Franklin Leonard, a junior producer working at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company who had to sift through piles of screenplays to find the best one for Leo to star in. Hollywood, like many industries, is a pattern matching machine, so the movies that end up being created are movies that are similar to previous movies that have been hits. Those movies, due to historical circumstance, tend to be written by white men, for white men, starring white men.

Franklin Leonard, while sifting through all those scripts, saw some incredibly interesting scripts that may have made great movies, but he did not feel comfortable surfacing those to his bosses as those scripts tend to be really different and really hard to explain (I forget the specific example that he used, but I’m sure you can think of many successful movies where the one-sentence synopsis sounds very peculiar). One day, he had an idea, which was to anonymously email all his connections in Hollywood (junior producers also sifting through mountains of scripts) to ask them for their top ten favorite scripts. Information is power in Hollywood, so most people would ordinarily be loath to share such information, but here was the catch: Leonard would compile the results and send back the ten most voted on scripts to anybody who responded. 90 people responded and Leonard had his first annual Black List.

The genius behind this idea is that he finds a way to extract information out of people who would have otherwise not been willing to share such info. And then, by compiling the results, he is able to provide everybody with additional insights. Junior producers who might be nervous about surfacing a really odd but intriguing script to their superiors can vote for it in the Black List, and if enough other people vote on that same script, they are able to receive validation from their peers. Win-win for all parties. In an industry that so heavily factors what was previously successful, this was a way to produce different movies from unique screenplays that many people thought were fantastic. Many of the screenplays in the Black List have resulted in massive hits such as Juno, which was written by someone living in Montana without previous screenplay experience. Additionally, the Black List touts its effect on bringing more diversity to Hollywood by surfacing screenplays from people who may have otherwise been overlooked. It has provided a way to bypass the gatekeepers.

I can easily imagine having a similar concept in other industries and the one that comes quickest to my mind is the world of VC-backed startups. It is similar to Hollywood in many ways. Silicon Valley also heavily indexes (some would argue over-indexes) on founders that are similar to previously successful founders, is a hits driven business, has a relative lack of diversity, and heavily values information and relationships. The biggest difference is probably that startups are much easier to get off the ground than movies as it takes far fewer people and can be done with far less money. Other than that, the similarities are eerily similar. Imagine a Black List that asks a group of VC associates for the ten most interesting companies/pitches they saw that year but that their firm passed on and then circulated the list to the VC community. Seems like it would be highly valuable to me, though I don’t know the inner-workings of the VC world.

Though I think the Black List is a genius idea, I do see some downsides, assuming its success and influence continues. I mentioned earlier that the Black List accumulates data that people otherwise would not share and then is able to provide a product that has value for both the accumulator of data and the people who provided the data. What else does that sounds like? Facebook and Google. When they started, they also accumulated data that people otherwise would not have shared and the value they provided was a free product that people loved. In the beginning, everybody celebrated how Facebook was able to bypass the gatekeepers in the mainstream media and provide education to the masses. But now, things have changed. Facebook and Google have become so powerful that they are now the institutions they decried. I think the Black List is far from that right now, but what makes it so incredible is that people provide their unvarnished opinion. I’m not sure about its current state, but in the beginning, nobody was trying to game the Black List. But as its power and influence grows, so will the amount of people trying to game the system. That’s the danger with any aggregator of information. Still, that’s pretty far down the line and right now, I would love to see a concept similar to the Black List emerge in other industries.

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