The Black List

September 14th, 2014 | by | filmmaking, screenwriting

Sep
14

A quick bit of catch-up for those who don’t know what the Black List is: Almost ten years ago, Hollywood development executive Franklin Leonard started (anonymously, at first) compiling an annual list of the best unproduced screenplays of the year. His industry-insider survey of fellow development people quickly became an eagerly anticipated yearly announcement — even outside the industry, including considerable attention from the mainstream media. Then, a couple of years ago, the Black List umbrella was expanded to include a website where screenwriters could upload their work to be read and evaluated by accredited Hollywood professionals.

See, once upon a time it was actually not all that hard to get your stuff read at a studio or production company or agency. A decent letter that made it sound like you had something potentially interesting could probably do it. But now, with aspiring screenwriters bulk-emailing every Hollywood address they can get their hands on, those on the receiving end are a lot cagier — plus the relentless waters of litigiousness have eroded the shore so much that those people are usually forbidden by their legal department from coming anywhere close to looking at unsolicited material sent in over the transom.

All of which leaves those trying to “break in” with fewer options to get a screenplay read by someone who will love it and throw down a rope to haul them out of the bloody fray and up-and-over the heavily guarded defensive walls of Hollywood.1

So that’s where the Black List website has stepped in. On the site, for a fee, you can list your screenplay and have it evaluated by experienced Hollywood script readers: the same folks who read for studios and production companies and agencies. The scripts with the highest evaluation scores receive higher visibility which will, presumably, bring them more readily to the attention of the accredited industry membership.

That brings us to me. And my Black List Experiment.

A little while back I finished a first draft of a script that was going to be, well…it was going to be quite a bit more expensive to make than things I’ve made previously. I showed it to a producer colleague, and his response was…that it was going to be quite a bit more expensive to make than things we’d made previously. Basically, it wasn’t something I was going to be able to turn around and start shooting tomorrow. So, with nothing to be immediately done with it, I did a little tidying and put it up on the Black List website. I didn’t use my name — I just put it up under my initials. I think that was probably because (1) it was basically an experiment, and (2) I didn’t necessarily want it to cross-pollinate with anything else I was working on. A third reason might have been that if it turned out it actually sucked and people hated it, it would be convenient for me not to have my name on it, but I certainly wouldn’t admit to that even if it were the case. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it. I paid my money, uploaded the script, and other than that mostly forgot about it.

I should mention that when the Black List website was first announced I was skeptical. That’s because when it comes to the “screenwriting industry”2 my default position is to be highly critical. But over the Black List’s first year or so of operating I was impressed enough with how the site was conducting itself — as well as with exactly what it did and (just as importantly) what it didn’t promise — that I was willing to give it a pseudonymous whirl myself.

Anyway.

The script received a couple of overall 9s (out of 10) for its professional Black List reader evaluations and also — likely because of those scores — attracted some attention on the industry member side of things. So it was nice that people thought the script was decent enough.3 Shortly after the script got its evaluations, the Black List let me (or rather my initials) know that they were going to be selecting it as a featured script, which meant that they were going to have an artist do a poster for it, so at some point before that happened I thought I’d better do up a new title page with my name on it.

Based on my limited experience, here’s what I’ve learned about the Black List website so far:

1. If you’re looking for a way to get your screenplay out in front of real live professionals to read, there may be no better way to do it other than having a high-profile agent and/or being Shane Black. If your script scores well in its Black List evaluation, it will get increased visibility on the site. Film industry professionals do visit the site. They do see those high-scoring scripts. And they will likely see yours if it’s one of them.

2. The coverage you’ll get — i.e., written notes from readers — is not the reason to be putting a script on the Black List website. I’ve seen complaints that the Black List coverage is too slight or not extensive enough in examining the various strengths and shortcomings of a particular script. But the thing is, as far as I can tell, that’s not what it’s designed for. Black List coverage is not story analysis. That’s not to say that the Black List’s coverage isn’t helpful: it certainly can be. It’s just that it’s not a screenwriting rewriting class. More than anything, Black List coverage resembles the coverage you’d get at a studio or production company or agency — which makes sense because that’s where the Black List readers come from. And that coverage is almost solely for a reader to tell his or her boss as efficiently as possible whether to consider the material. Usually you’ll never see the coverage you get in the professional world: it’s not for you, at all.

2b. That’s actually a good thing. Because what the Black List website allows nonprofessional and/or unrepresented writers to do is to dip a toe in the professional pond — or peer over the professional bejewelled wall — and see how their work stacks up. If you’re looking for feedback on how your script can be improved, the Black List is probably not the place for that. The Black List is open about the fact that they’re not comparing your script to other amateur scripts: they’re comparing it to other professional scripts. Keep in mind that the original Black List was and is a compilation of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. If that’s not the ballpark you’re comfortable stepping into with a particular script, it may not be the best use of your money, because the greatest value by far that the Black List website provides is visibility. And then only if the people who read your script deem it to be good. If they really don’t, it might4 be an eye-opener as to how high a professional level of screenwriting actually is. (Either that or you can read Michael Clayton or the Coens’ screenplay for True Grit and curl up Salieri-like into a little ball, sobbing and swearing to never bother trying to write anything ever again.)

3. The Black List’s customer service is excellent. Anything I contacted them about was quickly and professionally responded to and dealt with. Franklin Leonard personally answers questions in any number of forums, and there is clearly a real effort to provide a high degree of transparency and to clearly communicate to writers just how things work and what they can expect. Their Annual Report is about as full a disclosure of numbers and statistics as you could possibly hope for. Reputation is obviously very important to the Black List, and that’s something that doesn’t come without a lot of hard work. As someone who also tries to provide the best possible customer service to screenwriters, I do appreciate that.

4. I kind of wish that an industry member rating was somehow more than an anonymous number. Don’t get me wrong: I’m fine5 with someone not liking something I’ve written or made. But it’s different if there are hundreds or thousands of people rating something on, say, IMDB: the presumption is that the size of the sample results in an accurate, representative curve. Especially when the percentage of downloaders that rate a script is so low (based on my sample of one script, less than 2%), it’s the one part of the site that seems, from the writer’s side of things, to be lacking in information. Of course any remedy for this — removing industry member rating anonymity, or making the process of rating more cubersome in any way whatsoever — makes things less appealing for industry members, which in turn makes things less appealing for writers hosting screenplays on the site, because the whole point is that you want those industry members there and reading your work. You want it to be as easy and inviting as possible for them to keep reading scripts — so that hopefully they’ll read yours. In the end that’s far more important.

5. The Black List website costs money. But I would say that it is (relatively) inexpensive and worth it. It costs $25 a month to host a script, and $50 for a paid evaluation. And if you score highly, you’ll get an additional evaluation for free. In fact, I believe that now if you continue scoring highly, you’ll continue receiving additional evaluations (which was not the case when I did it). Now, whether that $75+ is, to a given individual, expensive or worth it is an appraisal that only that individual can make. I addressed the coverage thing above; and if you really, really want to, there are people you can pay to give you notes on your script (albeit often for a much higher cost). But if you think you have a brick of screenplay damned gold in your hands, well…I used to spend a lot more than $75 at my local small-town post office as a teenager mailing off printed scripts 120 two-brad-bound pages at a time.6

6. There are no guarantees. I was fortunate that the Black List readers liked my script enough to rate it highly, and overall my experience has been a good one. (Although I like to think that even if my script had not been as well received, my appraisal of the function and value of the site would remain objective.) People have gotten Black List evaluations that they didn’t agree with — probably, of course, because they thought they were scored too low. But just because one particular reader doesn’t like one particular script doesn’t necessarily mean a thing. And just because a reader or two really like your script may not mean anything either: anyone who’s been around the business long enough knows you can get a ton of attention from agents and producers and others and still not have it result in anything except a slightly larger ego. That’s just how it’s always been. I’ve tried to be fairly objective in this little overview, but unfortunately the world and the movie business and the writing and reading and liking of scripts are not.

But honestly, none of us would’ve set our sights on the movie business in the first place if we were cold, hard realists.


  1. This may or may not be an accurate depiction of the way things work. Okay, sure, fine: there is an actual, physically insurmountable wall surrounding all of Hollywood. And it’s heavily guarded. And bejewelled. But there is a door…you’re just not allowed to use it.
  2. That is, the “screenwriting industry” as entirely separate from the “film industry”, consisting of books and seminars and gurus and websites and contests designed to turn the hopes and dreams of aspiring screenwriters into cold, hard cash, with countless resultant pages destined to never come anywhere near becoming a movie.
  3. Multiple 9s puts it in the top…I have no idea. the Black List’s Annual Report and a little quick math would probably give me a percentile, but my coffee isn’t going to make itself.
  4. Might. See my closing point.
  5. Well, sort of fine. Basically fine. Fine enough.
  6. I did not, in fact, have a brick of screenplay damned gold in my hands. But like almost every screenwriter starting out I sure as hell thought I did.

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