The National Board of Review recently bestowed screenplay awards upon the writers of "The Descendants" and "50/50," perhaps giving their scribes a leg up in the Oscar race. Yet, in 2008, when those films were just ideas on a page, they had already been recognized for their potential to be great movies by the very people in Hollywood who read scripts for a living.
Both projects landed on the "Black List" — an annual compendium of the most-liked screenplays that have yet to be turned into movies.
Black List founder Franklin Leonard, a midlevel development executive, is releasing his seventh annual compendium Monday. The most noticeable trend on this year's list of 73 screenplays, which surveyed 307 Hollywood insiders such as development executives at studios, producers and financiers, are the number of scripts that already have agents touting them. Leonard believes it's a reflection of the surging acquisition market, which in the last year has seen close to 100 scripts written speculatively by writers snapped up by studios and production companies.
The list's topper, "The Imitation Game" by first-time writer Graham Moore, is a prime example. The drama about British World War II cryptographer Alan Turing received 133 votes, more than any Black List script ever. When it hit the market in October, it prompted a bidding war, with Warner Bros. nabbing it in a reported seven-figure deal; Leonardo DiCaprio has been buzzed about as a possible star. Moore has already been hired to pen "The Devil in a White City" for the studio.
Warner Bros. has acquired nine other scripts on the list — which may surprise everyone except those at the Burbank studio.
Said president of production Greg Silverman: "It seems obvious that all the execs at Warners would be voracious script readers, but sometimes it catches people by surprise. Maybe there still exists the mythology that studio execs are taking three-hour lunches and partying on the weekends. The truth is, we all love reading great writing. … So we are reading a lot and are always excited to purchase something great, something daring, something unique, something that will be the new thing that drives people to the theaters."
Leonard began the list on a whim in 2004, when he was looking for good scripts to read over the holiday break. He has always claimed the list is a "most liked" compilation and not a "best of," yet over the last seven years it has grown in prestige, making the unveiling of the list each December a much-anticipated event.
This year, quite a few Black List scripts could be described as "elevated genre films," where zombies, vampires and other such tropes are given dramatic, more creative story lines.
For example, in "Maggie," John Scott 3 tells a father-daughter relationship story via a zombie tale as a girl's family helps her come to terms with the infection that is slowly turning her into a flesh-eating monster. "The End" by Aron Eli Coleite is a post-apocalyptic film about four people trying to make peace with their lives before an interstellar event ends the world. Warner's has picked up "The End," while financier Pierre-Ange Le Pogam has purchased "Maggie."
Also popular this year are scripts that take historical events and give them alternate endings. Ed Whitworth wrote "Powell" based on the run-up to the Iraq war; Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers scripted "The Knoll" about the John F. Kennedy assassination; and Arash Amel's "Grace of Monaco" centers on Grace Kelly and the difficulties between France and Monaco. For young screenwriters, winning a spot on the Black List offers a jolt of confidence.
"I had always aspired to write features, but I didn't necessarily think I could make a living doing this," said Will Reiser, who was primarily a television producer in New York until he wrote the autobiographical "50/50," originally called "I'm With Cancer." "I know writers who are far more talented then I am, but there is that fear of failure. The Black List certainly helped me get over that."
Leonard marvels that both the scripts and their writers that have appeared on the list in the last few years get the "Black List" moniker in newspaper articles and press releases. And he's proud of the effect the list has had on many fledgling screenwriters.
"The Black List has shown a bright spotlight on a lot of up-and-coming writers," he said.
Leonard is trying to parlay the Black List into a year-round resource with the launch of a subscriber-only website that tracks Hollywood's most popular scripts in real time. (The site launched in October with a $20 monthly fee and has several hundred users.)
The website allows agents and managers access to scripts and even solicits their opinions, but they can't vote in the annual ranking because it would be too tempting to make self-serving choices (already some engage in intensive campaigning ahead of the vote). Leonard maintains that the list has been able to hold onto its integrity.
"I think the voters have a surprising amount of integrity in terms of how they vote. It's a rare thing that a script shows up on the list that I've read and talked about with others and everyone hates it and all of a sudden it's got 70 votes," he said. "That's never happened."
Even if their scripts don't get turned into movies, writers who land on the Black List have been able to use the recognition to score other jobs. Former cop Will Beall's "L.A. Rex" made the list in 2009 but has never found its way into production. Still, he's been given two high-profile writing jobs, scripting "Gangster Squad" for Warner Bros. and a "Lethal Weapon" reboot.
Reiser advises younger writers not to write a speculative script with the hope that it will get produced. "When you write your first script, a spec, don't write it thinking you will make it," he says. "But write it so you can get the attention of the industry."
As an example, he cited a script on his desk, "Chewie" by Evan Susser and Van Robichaux. A satirical look at the making of "Star Wars" through the eyes of the actor who played Chewbacca, it just landed in third place on the Black List. It was forwarded to him by a development exec who thought it was hilarious and a must-read.
"This sounds like a movie that could never be made because of the licensing issues, but how great for those writers that they can write something that people are talking about in the context of the Black List," Reiser said. "Those writers will get lots of meetings, and it will help their careers. Franklin did a great service to writers when he created this."