Franklin Leonard wasn’t looking to upend the system. He just wanted some good vacation reading.
In 2004, Leonard was working as a development executive at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, charged with sifting through piles of screenplays in search of the diamond in the rough that might spark the actor’s interest. With tens of thousands of scripts pouring into the industry every year, most of them lousy, it often felt like a Sisyphean task.
Looking ahead to some time off, Leonard decided to try an experiment. He emailed some 90 or so fellow development executives and asked them to name the 10 unproduced screenplays they’d liked the best that year.
“I was like, I know I’m going to spend a ton of time reading scripts, and I’d like for them not to be terrible,” Leonard, 36, remembered on a recent morning, sitting at the dining room table in the Los Feliz home he shares with a small poodle named Nick. “It was born entirely of self-interest.”
As a way of paying back those who’d participated, Leonard compiled the responses, ranked the scripts based on the voting and called the results the Black List — a nod to his own heritage as an African American man and the Hollywood writers who’d been barred from work during the McCarthy era.
“What if there was a black list people actually wanted to be on?” he said.
Leonard emailed the list to everyone who’d voted and left for vacation, not thinking much of it. When he returned a week later and checked his email, his Black List had been forwarded to him 50 times from people who had no idea that he had created it.
Leonard knew he had stumbled onto something big — and it freaked him out.
“My first response,” he said, “was ‘I’m going to get fired.’”
Ten years later, much to Leonard’s surprise, the Black List has become a Hollywood institution, its annual unveiling each December nearly as buzzed about, at least within the screenwriting community, as the Academy Award nominations.
In fact, the list itself has come to be seen as an early harbinger of the Oscars. Three of the last six best picture winners — “Argo,” “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire” — were Black List scripts, as were a few of this year’s Oscar front-runners, including “Whiplash,” “The Imitation Game” and “Selma.”
Previously unknown writers such as Diablo Cody have been propelled to prominence by the Black List, and many creatively daring and commercially risky movies have been green-lighted thanks in large part to their appearance on the list.
“The Black List has tremendous cachet and prestige, especially among younger writers,” said Graham Moore, who wrote “TheImitation Game.”
Moore says the film, which recounts mathematician Alan Turing’s efforts during World War II to crack the Nazi Enigma code, may never have attracted stars like Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley if it hadn’t been named the No. 1 script on the Black List in 2011.
“When you say, ‘We’re making this film about a gay English mathematician in the 1940s and at the end he kills himself,’ people aren’t instantly like, ‘I have to be a part of that!’” Moore said. “But the Black List gave it this stamp of approval.”
Once a sideline to Leonard’s day job, the Black List has grown to become his fulltime gig.
In 2011, while working as a development executive at Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, Leonard and partner Dino Sijamic launched a website, https://www.blcklst.com, intended to serve as a kind of real-time Black List.
The fee-based service allows writers to upload a screenplay and have it evaluated by one of 100 freelance script readers. And it allows development executives, agents and filmmakers who join the site to search through the scripts by more than 1,000 topic tags such as “superpowers,” “drugs,” and “relationships” and see which ones have gotten recommendations.
Monday morning, in honor of the Black List’s 10th anniversary, various stars and filmmakers, including Reese Witherspoon, Daniel Radcliffe, Matthew Weiner and Ava DuVernay, will help announce this year’s list via Twitter and YouTube. Industry insiders will immediately begin poring over it. Deals will be contemplated. Writers will pop Champagne to celebrate.
Leonard, who comes across as both an impassioned true believer in the power of cinema and storytelling and something of a fatalist, will be doing what he does every year that moment he sends the list into the world: worrying that he screwed something up.
“I sit at that desk and drink Pepto-Bismol, and I hope nothing goes wrong.”
If Leonard’s own life were a screenplay, this would be the inciting incident in Act I:
After graduating from Harvard in 2000 (honors thesis topic: slam poetry and liberal democracy), Leonard was working as an analyst at a New York consulting firm when, in 2002, he found himself laid off. With five months of severance and a vague plan to go to law school, he holed up one night in his apartment during a snowstorm and watched three movies back to back: “Amadeus,” “Being There” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
Inspired, he bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles, where he quickly landed a job as an assistant at Creative Artists Agency.
Once inside the Hollywood system, though, Leonard was bothered by the way, particularly for writers, achieving success seemed so often to boil down not necessarily to talent but to relationships.
“For the entire history of the industry, getting in was one of those ‘How do I get ID if I need ID to get ID?’ situations,” he said. “You had to know somebody, you had to move to L.A., you had to network your face off to get your script in someone’s hands.”
In the Black List, he realized he had happened upon a way to address that problem.
“If you’re a single mother with a mortgage and two kids living in Chicago, you can’t pick up your life and move to L.A., but that doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer,” he said. “In fact, arguably you have more insight into the realities of life than the trust-fund kid who has Daddy pay for the BMW while he’s trying to figure out being a writer.”
In the past decade, the Black List has created more than its share of Horatio Alger stories.
Not long ago, Gary Graham was working at an Apple Store in Midtown Manhattan when he uploaded a script called “A Garden at the End of the World” to the Black List website, where it caught the attention of an agent at CAA. In October, it was reported that Warner Bros. had recruited Graham to retrofit the script as a reboot of the “I Am Legend” franchise.
Screenwriter Will Reiser was working as a TV producer when his first script, a semi-autobiographical dark comedy called “I’m With Cancer,” landed on the 2008 Black List. He had never even heard of the list, but suddenly he found himself getting called in for meetings all around the industry. In 2011, Reiser’s script landed in theaters as the Seth Rogen-Joseph Gordon-Levitt film “50/50.”
“Writers, especially young writers, are a neurotic, self-effacing, sensitive bunch,” Reiser said. “They need support and artistic nurturing, and the system can really be tough to navigate at first. Getting your foot in the door can feel like this impossible barrier. And Franklin is making it easier.”
Soft-spoken and cerebral, Leonard never set out to become famous and managed to keep his identity as the creator of the Black List from becoming widely known for its first few years. Now that he’s become its public face, he’s still not quite used to the attention.
“It’s gotten weird,” he said quietly. “Literally my entire career was built on being the guy behind the guy behind the guy, and somehow it has become the opposite of that.”
But although his Black List has launched many writers to success, it hasn’t made Leonard rich — at least not yet. (Sitting in his modest two-bedroom house, he spoke happily of a good deal he got on a new TV on Black Friday.)
“Look, my father is a pediatrician, and my mom is an educator,” he said. “There was not an entrepreneurial thing anywhere in my life, and the idea of starting my own business was terrifying. It’s still terrifying. I still wake up every morning convinced today is the day it all falls apart.”
Over the years, Leonard has read countless screenplays: great ones, awful ones and everything in between. But he’s never written one himself. For better or worse, he knows that’s not where his talents lie.
“On some level I feel like I’m more of a writer groupie than I am a writer, and that’s OK,” he said. “If I have to be Puff Daddy to the writing community’s Biggie, there are worse things in life.”