Black List showcases the best overlooked screenplays

One day a year, Franklin Leonard transforms from midlevel studio executive mired in development meetings, script readings and note-taking into Hollywood's most important soothsayer.


FOR THE RECORD
An article in the Dec. 13 Calendar section about Franklin Leonard's Black List of the best unproduced screenplays said his hometown was Columbus, Ohio. It's Columbus, Ga.


The 32-year-old native of Columbus, Ohio, is the mastermind and compiler of the Black List, a compendium of the year's best unproduced screenplays. Today marks Leonard's sixth annual metamorphosis, and when he presses "send" on his e-mail — shooting the list around Hollywood and beyond — he may again change the fates of scores of screenwriters looking to crack the big leagues.

"The Black List opened doors and turned my life around," says writer Michael R. Perry, 47, whose trippy script "The Voices," about a man tormented by his talking pets, landed in third place on 2009's list. "My writing career has totally taken off."

The production company Vertigo Entertainment is still in development with "The Voices," trying to land a high-profile actor-director team to champion it. But meanwhile, Perry, a former television writer-producer on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," penned this year's film "Paranormal Activity 2," has signed on for the third installment of the horror series, and is now working on a TV pilot with "Paranormal Activity" director Oren Peli for ABC.

Unlike in the early years, when most if not all of the scripts on the list were undiscovered gems, many of those on the 2010 Black List are spoken for: Of the 10 highest-ranked scripts, six have been purchased by studios. And with Hollywood bigwigs paying more attention, some people have tried to manipulate the system.

Nevertheless, Perry and others say their lives were changed by landing a spot on the list, which Leonard started in 2005 out of desperation. Then a development executive at Leonardo DiCaprio's production company Appian Way, Leonard had been drowning in a sea of bad screenplays. He turned to his counterparts in the industry for a life preserver, and his simple e-mail to 75 Hollywood execs asking for good script suggestions resulted in an avalanche of replies.

He compiled those answers into a dossier he dubbed the Black List — part self-referential title (Leonard is African American) and part ironic nod to the 1940s and '50s Hollywood blacklist of suspected communists and communist sympathizers that on occasion derailed careers. A phenomenon was born.

Today, 300 people participate in compiling the list; those invited to participate contribute an unranked list of up to 10 of their favorite scripts of the year. While the number of participants has ballooned, Leonard says the purpose of the list remains the same: to recognize solid screenplays.

"I hope the additional attention has more to do with the list's increasing ability to predict quality writers," says Leonard, who recently left his development gig at Universal Pictures for a job with Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment. "When we did the first list, no one knew what it was. Three years later when Diablo [Cody] wins [the Academy Award for "Juno"] and Nancy [Oliver] is nominated [for "Lars and the Real Girl"] and writers deliver other great scripts, the list earned some credibility. I believe it's a pretty good source now for buying good material."

One of this year's top 10 scripts, "Margin Call" by J.C. Chandor — which depicts the last 24 hours at now-defunct investment bank Lehman Bros. — has already been produced with Chandor directing. Kevin Spacey and Paul Bettany star, and the movie will debut at the Sundance Film Festival next month. (The rule of the Black List is the film can't be released in theaters in the calendar year for which it's been nominated.)

Fictionalized accounts of historical events occupy half of the top-10 spots this year. At No.1 is a buddy comedy, "College Republicans" by Wes Jones, which centers on a college-aged Karl Rove as he vies for the role of chief college conservative under the guidance of Lee Atwater. Shia LaBeouf and Paul Dano are said to be interested in the two lead roles. Spot No.2 went to "Jackie" by Noah Oppenheim, about the days immediately after President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

"Five scripts address the way in which the power was built and the way in which it has failed," Leonard says.

Also on the list is "Stoker," about a teenage girl who, in the wake of her father's death, must deal with her mysterious uncle; it is the screenwriting debut of actor Wentworth Miller, best known for his role on the Fox TV drama "Prison Break."

Dante Harper's high-profile "All You Need Is Kill," which Warner Bros. bought for seven figures this year, also landed on the top 10. Adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 sci-fi novel centered on an alien invasion, the script is one of Harper's many that have been gaining notice around town.

Over the years, the Black List has recognized scripts and writers that went on to fame, acclaim and even fortune. In addition to "Lars" and "Juno," which won an Academy Award for original screenplay, high-profile writers such as David Benioff ("The Kite Runner"), Allan Loeb ("Things We Lost in the Fire") and Matthew Carnahan ("State of Play") have made the list. Sometimes writers already well known in Hollywood also land in Leonard's ranking: Aaron Sorkin, who made it for the second time last year with "The Social Network," which hit theaters this fall and is a favorite to nab an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay.

Frequently, a citation on the Black List is the encore to a novice screenwriter's banner year. Take Oppenheim. The 32-year-old reality television producer behind such shows as MTV's "The Buried Life" crafted a deft screenplay that chronicled the four days between JFK's assassination and his burial as a way to showcase Jackie Kennedy's vulnerability and grace.

The script made the rounds in April, enticing a slew of buyers before Fox Searchlight purchased the property for Darren Aronofksy ( "Black Swan") to direct. Oppenheim then left his job at Reveille production company and is writing full time. Warner Bros. recently hired him to adapt a Swedish crime thriller as a starring vehicle for Zac Efron.

Despite the success "Jackie" has already had, Oppenheim welcomes the additional attention the list brings. "There are so many factors that determine whether a film gets made that have nothing to do with the quality of the screenplay," Oppenheim says. "The Black List is an outlet that shines a light on quality writing, and it gives us writers the attention we wouldn't normally get."

Leonard releases his annual list — available at blcklst.com — in mid-December for a reason: Hollywood execs are now conditioned to anticipate the compendium, grab hold of the screenplays and spend the last two weeks of the year when the town is shut down reading the work of many previously unknown writers.

Now that many in Hollywood know how the list works, some people are tempted to try to game the system. Some executives attempt to promote their studios' screenplays, whether they believe them to be the best or not, to win their bosses' approval.

Leonard knows his system isn't perfect.

"The math nerd in me would love for it to be more scientific," he says. "But it's impossible for me to standardize that. They are not all choosing from an equal pile. It's a snapshot from an irregular, amorphous conversation that's been taking place all year long."

But in the cutthroat world of Hollywood, the list offers a rare opportunity for unknowns to get a leg up. Some advice from a previous winner: "Some 300-odd executives have just said that your script is one of the best in town right now," Sorkin says. "If you don't have an agent, use the list to get one. If you have an agent, make sure he or she is trumpeting the distinction from the top of the Griffith Observatory."

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

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