Over the last few weeks, Franklin Leonard has become a true entrepreneur, making what was once a sideline his full-time job. The founder of the Black List—an influential tally of Hollywood’s best as-yet-unproduced screenplays—who left his position at Will Smith’s production company a few weeks ago, launches a new service through his site, Blcklst.com. The paid service allows anyone to upload a screenplay, get a read from a professional script reader, and in the event of a positive evaluation, have the script recommended to the roughly 1,100 industry professionals—assistants, agents, directors, even studio heads—who are members of the site.
“It has the potential, I think, to change forever how screenwriters get discovered and how industry professionals find movies to make,” Leonard tells us. And he is something of an expert in remaking how screenwriters get discovered, with the Black List having famously given second life to screenplays from writers whose work had been languishing unproduced.
But even those writers—take Juno's Diablo Cody, for instance, a Black List success story—at least had an agent to represent them. The new service opens doors to anyone and everyone, in a notoriously closed business. Traditionally, says Leonard, there have been three ways to break into screenwriting. First, nepotism: know someone, or know someone who knows someone. Second, send a cold query to an agency, and pray that a benevolent intern passes your work up the ladder. Third, win a screenwriting competition—but only a few dozen people in the industry even bother to pay attention to those.
The Black List’s new service adds a fourth means of discovery. Any screenwriter can upload a script, pay $25 a month for it to be hosted and indexed for The Black List’s roughly 1,100 users to see, and can pay $50 for an evaluation from an anonymous professional script reader. “If the script is wildly good, that is immediately communicated to our members, who can download the script, contact you directly, and you’re free to make any deal you please. We take no finder’s fee, and no producing credit,” says Leonard.
Leonard is not sure yet how people will use the site—if they’ll pay to have their work showcased indefinitely, or if they’ll withdraw quickly if a script doesn’t gain traction. But he notes that it’s entirely possible to get work discovered by merely paying for one month’s hosting and a single evaluation, for a total of $75, or roughly the same as a late-submission fee for a screenwriting competition. The fee is certainly affordable next to rates offered by other screenplay evaluation sites and services, which can easily run hundreds of dollars.
Leonard says that the Black List’s professional readers are “admittedly relatively junior people in the business” who nonetheless have all read for major production companies, studios, agencies, or screenplay competitions. From a pool of 250 applicants, he selected less than a quarter. The Black List has embraced a “do no harm” policy for aspiring screenwriters, meaning that while it might promote a screenwriter’s work, it will never denigrate it. Users of the site can pull up beloved scripts, but there’s no way to ask the site to show least-liked scripts. Precise evaluation data is hidden unless the screenwriter chooses to make it public. Leonard adds that the criteria by which users are alerted to good work varies. A studio head may only want to see scripts that knocked the ball out of the park, while an agency assistant may be happy to see ground-rule doubles.
It’s potentially a new chapter for screenwriters everywhere, and it’s certainly a new chapter for Leonard, who for the first time is making his living off the Black List, having just left (not necessarily voluntarily, it’s been reported) the latest in a line of development jobs he’s held in Hollywood. Tracking his evolution as an entrepreneur, Leonard says that it was actually being chosen as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in 2010 that helped spur him into building the Black List into something more than a film industry curiosity.
He first began to realize that the Black List had brand cachet when an agent called him six months after the first list circulated virally. “Listen, I have a new client, and don’t tell anybody, but I have it on good authority that it’ll be on next year’s Black List,” the agent told Leonard—not knowing Leonard himself was the Black List’s organizing force. Leonard realized his creation had become a mark of quality for writers, and he had a few ideas of how to build on that, but lacked the confidence to proceed immediately.
“I was thinking about it, but I didn’t take myself seriously in a real way until you guys took me seriously, which is a really embarrassing admission, but it’s true,” says Leonard. “The Fast Company thing was the first indication that there might be significant value in the Black List outside the very narrow band of film industry development in which I worked.” Leonard presented at Fast Company’s MCP event in 2010. “I was absolutely catalyzed by that experience,” he says. “Putting together that presentation, doing a deeper think on what the Black List was, what it represented, and what its potential was directed me in the right way, towards what we’re building now.”
In late 2010, a coy Leonard told Fast Company that “the Black List as it currently exists is a beginning.” By fall of 2011 he had transformed the site into a paid social network creating a real-time Black List, where it had previously been a once-yearly event. Building that community in turn enabled Leonard’s latest venture.
Does Leonard, a longstanding lover of movies and storytelling, have a screenplay of his own he might want to dust off, now that he enters a new phase of his career? “There’s a very bizarre meta-Social Network-slash-memoir screenplay I guess I could write five years from now,” he says. “But I think for everyone’s sake, I should probably leave it to the professionals.”