The Black List: what it can, and cannot, do for Hollywood filmmaking

Nearly everyone in the film industry will be reaching for their BlackBerrys or iPhones this morning for an e-mail that will shape the film industry next year. Known as the Black List, this annual ranking of the year’s most-talked-about unproduced screenplays has the power to catapult an unknown screenwriter into instant talks with a major studio. That’s how Diablo Cody, writer of “Juno,” got her break.

In the Byzantine and often opaque business of filmmaking, the list of about 100 scripts also provides guidance in an increasingly risk-averse industry. This year has seen an upsurge in expensive box-office bombs, and DVD revenue continues to decline. In such a business climate, a list of scripts highly praised and ranked by industry heavyweights offers an invaluable guide.

This year’s Black List has produced more buzz than any of its predecessors. Culled from the recommendations of more than 300 film executives, producers and financiers based in Los Angeles, New York and London, it is rumored to include two major biopics -- on Muppets creator Jim Henson and chess whiz Bobby Fischer -- along with scripts dealing with such contemporary topics as Facebook.

But there’s a problem. Most of the scripts turned into movies from past Black Lists have been commercial disappointments, highlighting the disconnect between Hollywood elites’ personal tastes and those of ordinary moviegoers.


The list got its start in 2005, when Franklin Leonard was working as a development executive for Leonardo DiCaprio’s film production company, Appian Way. His job was to read screenplays for the star, selecting those with the most potential to be made into movies. The scripts were uninspiring for Leonard, who is now a director of development at Universal Studios. To alleviate the humdrum of his task, Leonard e-mailed friends and contacts in the business, asking them to send him their lists of the top 10 screenplays written that year and yet to be produced. That first list, then anonymous, circulated quickly around town.

Other than the obvious ironic allusion to the original list of Hollywood’s supposed communist sympathizers, Leonard, an African American, named his survey the Black List to challenge the negative cultural symbolism associated with the color black.

The Black List’s clout stems from its ability to turn scripts into movies. Tens of thousands of scripts are written every year, with the vast majority never making it to a studio reader, let alone an executive. But nearly 40% of the scripts appearing on the 2005 Black List, and about 30% of those on the 2006 list, have been made into films, according to the list archives.

It’s hard to fully capture the list’s impact because of the lead time from screenplay to post-production. Movies made from scripts on the 2005 and 2006 lists continue to come out, while those on subsequent lists are still in the works. So the number of Black List scripts that go into production is probably much higher.

What’s more, many of the films go on to pick up coveted awards. In 2006 and 2007, 40% of the Oscars in the top categories went to movies first mentioned on the Black List. For example, in the Oscar race, Helen Mirren won best actress in 2007 for her performance in “The Queen” (ranked seventh on the 2005 Black List); “Little Miss Sunshine” (ranked 43rd on the 2005 list) won best screenplay in 2007; and “Juno” (second on the 2006 list) won for best screenplay in 2008.

As effective as the Black List is in turning scripts into movies and in predicting award winners, it has been a contrary indicator for box-office revenue. Only “Hancock” (named on the 2005 list) became a big top grosser ($230 million, domestically), and that may be chiefly because its star, Will Smith, is a huge box-office draw. Still, compare that number with the $423 million that “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” brought in in 2006.

Far more representative of the Black List’s film revenue are such 2007 films as “Things We Lost in the Fire,” ranked No. 1 on the 2005 Black List and earner of only $3.3 million; “Rendition,” No. 3 on the 2006 list and generator of less than $10 million; and “A Mighty Heart,” a mid-ranked script, which made $9 million. The 2006 Black List script “There Will Be Blood,” which collected numerous critics’ awards and two Oscars, brought in only $40 million in 2007.

Altogether, 67 Black List scripts from 2005 were turned into movies between 2006 and 2008, and they collectively generated $2.5 billion in U.S. box-office receipts. That figure is equivalent to the total of the top 10 earners in 2008.


Given this track record, why has the Black List achieved such inordinate influence? One reason is that there’s safety in numbers. When the smartest and most successful people in the business agree on something, it’s hard to resist their preferences, especially when a lot of money is on the line.

There’s another reason, one that explains the artistic bent of the Black List’s membership. The ranks of those who vote on the Black List are increasingly populated by graduates of fancy film schools and Ivy League colleges. And as one film executive told me, “You’ve read 18 ‘Die Hard’ rip-offs this morning, and then you read this story about a guy with a blow-up doll, and you say, ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ ”

He was referring to the script for “Lars and the Real Girl,” the No. 3-ranked screenplay in 2005, which made only $6 million.

But because it is so good at what it does -- providing clarity in a marketplace that chiefly operates on rumor, gossip and ego -- the Black List, it would seem, could also be calibrated to identify scripts with moneymaking potential. Currently, screenplays are primarily ranked on their artistic merits. What Leonard needs to ask his Hollywood insiders is which screenplays they think people in Kansas will want to see as movies. That may require them to call their aunts and uncles who live far away from Hollywood. But the result could be a happy one: the perfect marriage of art and business.


Elizabeth Currid, an assistant professor in USC’s School of Policy, Planning, and Development, is the author of “The Warhol Economy.” She is writing a book on celebrity.