Tomorrow sees the release of Ivan Reitman‘s “Draft Day,” a sports drama starring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner. There aren’t many reasons that it’s particularly notable, other than being a late-period Ivan Reitman movie that doesn’t have terrible reviews (merely middling ones). However, its claim to fame is that it’s one of only a handful of produced movies to have topped the famous Black List when it was in screenplay form.
Founded in 2005 by Franklin Leonard, then an executive at Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Appian Way production company, the Black List set out to showcase the best unmade scripts in Hollywood, surveying development executives (now up to a pool of 500) on the best thing they’d read in the previous year. The organization has grown (now providing a script-reading service rated as one of the best and fairest in the business), and the December release of the list remains an event in the Hollywood calendar, and can make a career overnight.
The list has showcased Oscar-winners and blockbuster hits, but of the nine scripts that have actually topped the list, four remain unproduced: Western “The Brigands Of Rattleborge” which Park Chan-Wook is attached to; Jim Henson biopic “The Muppet Man“; GOP higher education comedy/drama “College Republicans,” which the “Kill Your Darlings” team are making; and last year’s winner “Holland/Michigan,” which Errol Morris will shoot later in the year), while Benedict Cumberbatch starrer “The Imitation Game” is due for release later this year. Of the four that have been made, they haven’t led to immediate success—HBO drama “Recount” was widely praised, but Susanne Bier’s “Things We Lost In The Fire” was underseen and Jodie Foster‘s “The Beaver” was marred by the bad press surrounding Mel Gibson.
We’ll see how “Draft Day” goes down in the coming days, but we thought we’d use its release to examine the track record of the Black List, by picking out the ten best and ten worst movies based on scripts that have been featured on the esteemed list. From the results, it seems clearer than ever that William Goldman‘s maxim of “nobody knows anything” still applies: scripts near the top have been made into terrible movies, and those in the lower reaches have proven to be among the best (it should also be pointed out that a good script is only the start: as we’ll see, the blueprints can be departed from in ways that prove ultimately disastrous).
The Black List has done a lot of good over the years, but it’s a reminder of the difficulties of the Hollywood development process that its hit-rate remains, even when you exclude many of the unmade scripts (some of which are featured here), around the 50% mark at best in terms of films that turn out halfway decent. You can take a look at our lists below (we did excluded films that only had one mention on the Black List), and weigh in for yourself in the comments section.
10. “Take This Waltz” by Sarah Polley (2012)
Black List Appearance: The 2009 list, with 10 mentions, tied with future Ryan Reynolds vehicle “Buried,” the films that became “Red Riding Hood” and “The Guilt Trip,” and much-derided Gus Van Sant drama “Restless.”
In 2007, cult Canadian actress Sarah Polley made her first venture into directing, aged only 28, with the enormously powerful, mature-beyond-her-years “Away From Her.” “Take This Waltz” was her follow-up, a more personal story that packed an emotional punch of its own, and while there are a few missteps in the execution, the potential of her script was mostly beautifully realized. Polley’s film centers on Margot (Michelle Williams), a Toronto-based writer who’s happily married to cookbook author husband Lou (Seth Rogen), but starts to long for something more passionate, in the form of rickshaw driver Daniel (Luke Kirby). The film’s quirks were enough to turn some off—Williams’ character’s childishness, her murder-riffic banter with Rogen—and here, at least, Polley’s a better writer than director, particularly when it comes to an ill-conceived sex montage towards the end that stops the film dead in its tracks. But for the most part, this is a raw open wound of a movie, focusing on that rare beast, a complex, sometimes unsympathetic, but fascinating central female character, and with an aching pain at its center. The cast (including Sarah Silverman as Rogen’s sister) are all tremendous, and it’s a rare film that treats sex and lust seriously, rather than just as a plot device. The film’s especially fascinating when viewed in the context of Polley’s follow-up, the autobiographical documentary “Stories We Tell.”
9. “Toy’s House” by Chris Galletta (released as “The Kings Of Summer” (2013))
Black List Appearance: The 2009 list, where it picked up fifteen votes, placing it behind the upcoming Ed Zwick film “Pawn Sacrifice,” but ahead of Rashida Jones‘ “Celeste & Jesse Forever.”
Another movie that might not have gotten made without the Black List, “Toy’s House” (which premiered under that title at Sundance, before distributor CBS Films changed the name to “The Kings Of Summer“) was the feature debut of Letterman writer Chris Galletta. After a few years in development, acclaimed shorts director Jordan Vogt-Roberts landed the job, and pretty much knocked it out of the park. The film stars Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias as three small-town teenagers who, tired of being treated as children by their parents, escape to the woods for a summer, building their own house and living how they want to. It’s emphatically a comedy, but one with a seriousness at heart, and refreshingly, it’s an antidote to the “man-child” trope that’s dominated the genre in the last decade: these are child-men, eager to become adults as fast as possible. The film’s loose and even surreal in places, but Vogt-Roberts carefully establishes a tone that lets that in without breaking the reality of proceedings. He also shoots it beautifully, with a dreamy Terrence Malick/David Gordon Green look to proceedings that sets it apart immediately from more conventional laughers. Plus it’s very, very funny: a host of TV favorites like Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Kumail Nanjiani and Hannibal Burress turn up, but it’s “Hannah Montana” star Moises Arias who steals the show as the bonkers, truly original creation Biaggio. Sadly, the distributor couldn’t work out how to sell the film, and it didn’t quite find the theatrical audience it deserved, but this feels like it’ll be a touchstone for aspiring filmmakers who grew up on it in years to come.
8. “Margin Call” by J.C. Chandor (2011)
Black List Appearance: “Margin Call” placed seventh on the 2010 Black List with 31 mentions—one place above the film that became “American Hustle” and two above “Argo,” and just behind “Stoker” and the upcoming “Triple Nine.”
A film like “Margin Call” is the lifeblood of the Black List—a screenplay from a first-timer, about a fairly uncommercial subject matter: in this case, the financial crash. But thanks to its high placement, “Margin Call” got made, and repaid the voters’ faith: it was critically praised, a near-revolutionary hit on VOD, and even picked up an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. Set at a too-big-to-fail fictional investment bank inspired by Goldman Sachs, Lehmann Bros. et al, it follows various employees from low-level risk analysts (Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley) to the CEO (Jeremy Irons) in the 24 hours or so as it becomes clear that a disastrous crash is imminent, as they try to save their own skins. Writer/director J.C. Chandor beautifully sketches out the range of characters, almost none of whom are out-and-out villains, and casts it smartly with an ensemble of talented performers who haven’t necessarily had roles to match their skills—it’s the best that Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Demi Moore have been in a decade or so. Chandor clearly immersed himself in research, because the financial tech-speak is convincingly drawn without being confusing for the layman, and he manages to make it into a gripping thriller as well as a complex human drama, while also shooting the talky film with a certain degree of flair. It might remain the most definitive film about the recent financial crash, and in Chandor, launched a serious talent (he went on to make the very different, and even better “All Is Lost,” and has the equally promising “A Most Violent Year” on the way).
7. “In Bruges” (2008)
Black List Appearance: Picked up seven mentions on the 2006 list, sharing a position with “Superbad” (not that one), the script that, after much time in development, will become this summer’s James Brown biopic “Get On Up.”
The enfant terrible of the British theater scene in the 1990s (he once got headbutted by Sean Connery at the Oliviers, the UK equivalent of the Tonys), it took some time after the success of “The Cripple Of Inishman,” “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” et al for Martin McDonagh to break into the movies. But after the Oscar-winning success of his short “Six Shooter,” he became a hot property, and the result was the terrific “In Bruges.” On the surface, the film seemed to be a late-breaking Tarantino-wannabe in the way that so many had done in the decade before, but anyone who knew McDonagh’s work was expecting something more, and the film really delivered. Sure, the script, which sees hitmen Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell sent by sweary boss Ralph Fiennes into temporary exile in the titular Belgian city after Farrell accidentally kills a child during a job, features some very creative uses of the F and C words, and the occasional blast of ultraviolence. There are quirky characters (Fiennes, who showed himself in a new light as principled family man/crime boss Harry, Jordan Prentice as a drug-addled dwarf movie star), and quotable dialogue (“You’re an inanimate fucking object!”). But it’s also much more soulful than many of the films of its genre, with a purgatorial old-school religious feel perfectly captured by its setting, and a pair of gorgeous performances from Colin Farrell (never better) and Brendan Gleeson. McDonagh couldn’t match it with follow-up “Seven Psychopaths” (though it’s better than many give it credit for), but this is still one of the more notable directorial debuts of recent years.
6. “Juno” (2007)
Black List Appearance: The first list in 2005, where it placed second, with 24 mentions (behind Allan Loeb‘s “Things We Lost In The Fire,” filmed a few years later by Susanne Bier).
A minor mainstream-indie sensation that ended up a Best Picture nominee in one of the strongest years for cinema in recent memory, Jason Reitman‘s film of Diablo Cody‘s breakthrough script attracted a fairly hefty backlash long before it was out of theaters. Seven years divorced from the initial hype, and it stands as an atypically smart, distinctive and moving teen comedy to anyone who doesn’t knee-jerk reject anything that they deem as hipsterish. Focusing on Ellen Page‘s title character, a smartass older-than-her-years teen who’s been unexpectedly knocked up by her pal (Michael Cera), and the potential adoptive parents (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) who look to adopt the upcoming spawn, it’s no wonder that Cody’s script proved popular on paper, with the slang-y dialogue immediately setting it apart from similarly themed projects. But the real power is beyond that. Cody creates a wide-ranging ensemble of real people (those who dismiss the dialogue fail to realize that beyond Juno herself and her best pal, the other characters have wildly different speech patterns), not cartoons, and isn’t afraid to cause them real hurt (Bateman putting the moves on Page is closer to Todd Solondz than John Hughes). And in Reitman, hot off indie-com “Thank You For Smoking,” it found the perfect man to direct. The recent “Labor Day” aside, he has a very assured handle on tone, and knows how to get killer performances from his cast. Page was an immediate breakout, but Bateman, Garner, Cera, J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney all deliver something close to career-best work in the film.
5. “The Wolf Of Wall Street” by Terence Winter (2013)
Black List Appearance: This made the list all the way back in 2007, with six votes. That might seem low, but it must have been some comfort that it tied with Simon Beaufoy‘s script for “Slumdog Millionaire,” which won an Oscar a year later.
With one of the longer gestation periods on this list—Warner Bros. picked up the movie initially before dropping it, and Ridley Scott and Michael Mann were both linked before Martin Scorsese, who’d originally been attached, returned—it’s impressive that “The Wolf Of Wall Street” got made at all. But the film was a real passion project for star/producer Leonardo DiCaprio, and it finally made it to theaters on Christmas Day last year, to rave reviews, much moral hand-wringing, huge box-office and a brace of Oscar nominations. A much more raucous take on the financial world than the sober, realistic “Margin Call,” the script (from “Boardwalk Empire” showrunner/writer Winter) followed real-life scumbag Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), who goes from flogging penny stocks to enormous wealth and success to prison, putting half of Colombia up his nose in the process. The film’s POV proved confusing to less imaginative critics (perhaps because it was a more wildly comic film than anything Scorsese had made since “After Hours“), but to most, the satirical tone of events is obvious, with Winter and the director luring you into the material appeal of Belfort’s lifestyle while reminding you, fairly continuously, of what a terrible human being he is. Though he’s past 70, Scorsese directs with the flair of someone a third of his age, and though the ensemble is a miracle of casting, DiCaprio carries the whole thing on his shoulders, delivering by a huge distance his greatest performance.
4. “Never Let Me Go” by Alex Garland (2010)
Black List Appearance: This appeared on the 2007 Black List (the first to get substantial attention in the industry), with seven votes, the same number as post-apocalyptic blockbuster “The Book Of Eli.“
Confession: even I didn’t like “Never Let Me Go” at first. Mark Romanek‘s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro‘s best-seller isn’t a film that you immediately warm to—the music video veteran simply isn’t that kind of filmmaker. But it’s one that implanted itself in my brain, and the brains of many who saw it, and its deep melancholy has lingered long past other films released around the same time. Penned by “Sunshine“/”28 Days Later“/”Dredd” writer Alex Garland from the acclaimed novel by “The Remains Of The Day” author, it’s about Kathy, Ruth and Tommy (played in their younger years by Isobel Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe, who appear to be themselves eerily talented clones of their older counterparts), children at a strange school in the English countryside. As they grew older (and turn into Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield), they realize that they’re clones, created so they can donate organs for transplants. It’s a film of desperate, wrenching sadness, thanks in part to the three perfectly naive performances by Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield, and Romanek’s chilly style gives it a very English repression that’s true to the source material while being capable of bursting open a torrent of emotion. Garland’s a very good writer who can’t always stick the landing (see: “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine”), but he really excelled himself with this script, and Romanek absolutely nailed the execution.
3. “Looper” by Rian Johnson (2012)
Black List Appearance: 2010, with ten votes, one behind the script for “The Butler,” and tied with “One Day” and a will-never-get-made biopic of Rupert Murdoch by “Veep” writer Jesse Armstrong.
Writer/director Rian Johnson has the kind of immediately distinctive screenwriting voice that the Black List has appreciated—his second film, the underrated “Brothers Bloom,” cropped up on the second Black List in 2006. “Looper” was more ambitious and bigger-budget than either that or his breakthrough “Brick,” but thankfully just as well written and executed, proving to be a bit of a sleeper mainstream hit back in the fall of 2012. A fiendishly complex (but simply-described) setup involved, in the shortest possible description, Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s drug-addled low-level mob hitman trying to track down his future self (Bruce Willis), who’d been sent back in time to be murdered. It’s an immediately strong concept, and Johnson places it in a distinctive future world that, for once, isn’t completely indebted to “Blade Runner” or something similar, and there are sci-fi action thrills to be had, but more fascinating is the way that the film changes gears entirely in its second half, becoming a closed-location thriller involving Emily Blunt‘s tough single-mother and her psychic son (Pierce Gagnon). Deftly hopping between genres, mixing genre with character drama, and building a truly compelling world, Johnson takes myriad influences and comes out the other end with something truly new. It’s four years since his last script started doing the rounds: we’re more than overdue for a new one by now.
2. “The Social Network” by Aaron Sorkin (2010)
Black List Appearance: 2009, with a whopping 42 mentions, second only that year to the currently-in-development “Muppet Man” biopic of Jim Henson, and just ahead of oddball then-future Ryan Reynolds vehicle “The Voices.”
So we’re kind of ambivalent about the Black List overall, but occasionally it gets things absolutely right, as it did with this Aaron Sorkin entry. The idea behind “The Social Network” may have been topical, but it still wasn’t the sexiest of topics (snore, Facebook, snore, startup geeks, snore, legal proceedings) and yet couched in Sorkin’s snappy dialogue and with his uncanny power for getting to the human heart of potentially alienating stories, the script is nearly as entertaining on paper as the finished film is. Sorkin himself had been Black Listed before, with “Charlie Wilson’s War” getting 13 mentions in 2005 before being made into the 2007 Tom Hanks movie, and of course had serious prestige built up as an in-demand TV writer (and one more than usually adept at political intrigue and workplace drama) but parts of “The West Wing” aside, this script may have been his finest hour to that point. Of course, Sorkin shares some of the credit with the writer of the book, Ben Mezrich, but does claim that while he did attach himself based on Mezrich’s proposal, the actual book was being written at the same time as the script and so much of the screenplay was shaped in isolation from it. Whatever the case, the only potential issue with the script was its talkiness, necessitating a director who’d have a feel for its intelligence but also be able to make it look more cinematic. Thankfully, a certain David Fincher was free.
1. “The Wrestler” by Robert Siegel (2008)
Black List Appearance: 5 mentions on the 2007 list, tied with Diablo Cody‘s “Jennifer’s Body,” Christopher McQuarrie‘s “Valkyrie,” future comedy hit “Zombieland” and an early draft of “World War Z” by J. Michael Straczynski.
A tough pick for the top slot, but as all-encompassing as the love for “The Social Network” is, we went for more of an underdog: a smaller, character-based drama that was relatively lowly ranked on the Black List the year it featured. The first major screenplay credit from Robert Siegel, the former editor-in-chief of satirical favorite The Onion (whose only previous credit was from the disastrous and long-delayed “Onion Movie,” shot in 2003 and finally buried on DVD in 2008), it’s, on paper, a fairly standard sports movie, about former pro-wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), now reduced to working at a supermarket deli counter, before being drawn back to the sport for a big rematch against his former nemesis, The Ayatollah, despite the wishes of his stripper friend (Marisa Tomei), and estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). It’s pretty much the stuff of a “Rocky” sequel, but it’s all about the execution. Siegel’s script (and a career-defining performance from Rourke) really get under the skin of Randy, making an archetype into something distinctive, and beautifully sad. The other performers match Rourke’s commitment, and the whole thing is beautifully directed in an atypically low-key, Dardennes-aping style by Darren Aronofsky, the film one of his finest to date. Maybe it’s just our thing for dumb pig-headed heroism in the face of certain doom, but we can’t think of many recent film moments more moving than Randy climbing the ropes for the last time.
Other Black List graduates worth a damn to varying degrees include: “Things We Lost In The Fire,” “Lars And The Real Girl,” “Hanna,” “The Queen,” “Stop-Loss,” “Black Snake Moan,” “Charlie Bartlett,” “Babel,” “State Of Play,” “500 Days Of Summer,” “A Mighty Heart,” “The Fighter,” “Superbad,” “The Messenger,” “3:10 To Yuma, “”Brothers Bloom,” “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” “Adventureland,” “Recount,” “The Ides Of March,” “The Road,” “Source Code,” “Orphan,” “Doubt,” “The Wackness,” “50/50,” “Up In The Air,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Easy A,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Debt,” “Prisoners,” “The King’s Speech,” “Due Date,” “The Last Stand,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Stoker,” “American Hustle,” “Argo,” “Chronicle,” “The Hunger Games,” “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Django Unchained.”
10. “This Side Of The Truth” by Matt Robinson (2009) (released as “The Invention Of Lying”)
Black List Appearance: Seventeen votes in 2007, behind Jim Rash & Nat Faxon‘s “The Way Way Back,” ahead of “Charlie Countryman.” Boy, that was a questionable year.
The film that became “The Invention Of Lying,” originally titled “This Side Of The Truth,” is a fascinating case study: there are probably worse films on this list, but none that squandered the promise of its source material in the same way. Initially penned by first-timer Matthew Robinson (later joined by Ricky Gervais, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with him), the comedy had an undoubtedly irresistible high-concept: it’s set in a world where no one’s capable of lying, and focuses on an ordinary man (Gervais) who suddenly finds himself able to tell untruths. At the height of his fame, Gervais was able to attract a phenomenal cast—Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Louis C.K., Christopher Guest, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Jason Bateman, and cameos from Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman. On the page, it’s funny (with pretty much one joke, but a pretty good joke), and even subversive in its treatment of religion, and its creation of a world without subtext, enough so that you can see why people were excited about it as a prospect. But Robinson and Gervais are clearly writers rather than directors: it’s about as ineptly-helmed a comedy as we can remember, with a flat, deeply ugly look, aimless performances for the most part, and crude editing that buries many of the jokes. In the right hands, this could have been something, if not special, then highly enjoyable, but Robinson and Gervais were, at that point, simply not equipped with the directorial skills to pull it off, sadly. Robinson seems to be recovering, though: his web series “The Power Inside” won fans, feature “May The Best Man Win” got good reviews at SXSW, and he’s writing for hotly-tipped NBC series “Black Box.”
9. “A.C.O.D.” by Ben Karlin and Stu Zicherman (2013)
Black List Appearance: Six votes on the 2008 Black List, tied with Cameron Diaz vehicle “Bad Teacher,” Emma Stone breakthrough “Easy A,” and the upcoming thriller “Child 44.”
There was plenty of reason to look forward to “A.C.O.D” (standing for, as was the original subtitle, “Adult Children of Divorce”). Co-written by “Daily Show” bigwig and “Colbert Report” creator Ben Karlin and Stu Zicherman (who directed the finished film), it seemed to be a smart comedy dealing with a serious issue (being a child of divorce), and assembled a cast of absolute winners—Richard Jenkins, Catherine O’Hara, Jane Lynch, Clark Duke, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Amy Poehler, Adam Pally, Ken Howard and, in a much-deserved lead role, Adam Scott. Who wouldn’t want to see that? Well, not many people, as it turns out: the finished product, which eventually premiered at Sundance five years after the Black List appearance, didn’t translate to the screen. Put simply, despite the wealth of comic talent on display, the movie simply wasn’t very funny, and just sort of sits there, feeling and looking like a comedy (especially as it’s not very well shot), but rarely really acting like one. The plotting creaks like a 1970s stage farce, and the characters are unlikable enough that even with a cast this beloved, it’s difficult to want to spend too much time with any of them. And the end result doesn’t even shed much light on the subject matter, either. There are probably worse films here, but this makes the final ten if only for squandering such an A-grade cast on such D-grade material.
8. “London Boulevard” by William Monahan (2010)
Black List Appearance: 2008, with six votes, the same number as “A.C.O.D.” That is, at least, two more than already-legendary disaster “47 Ronin” managed.
A British gangster thriller nodding through its title to Billy Wilder, marking the directorial debut of the man who won an Oscar for his profane, hugely enjoyable screenplay for “The Departed” had to be a pretty strong proposition, right? Wrong. Despite a strong cast (Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ben Chaplin, Stephen Graham, Anna Friel, David Thewlis, Eddie Marsan and Ray Winstone), “London Boulevard” is a badly-directed mess that seemingly never works out what kind of movie it wants to be. The looseness and tonal playfulness of director William Monahan‘s script for “The Departed” carries over, but when not in the hands of a master like Scorsese, the story (about ex-con Farrell falling in love with reclusive movie star Knightley, and taking on Winstone’s very Winstone-esque crime boss) just feels tangential and thin, too in love with its quirky side-characters, and not enough with its central ones (Farrell and Knightley both feel under-developed). It may have been that the problem lay in part with Ken Bruen‘s novel, but even then, Monahan doesn’t remotely have the same feel for the London underworld as he had for Boston (or even for Jerusalem in “Kingdom of Heaven“), and it’s incoherently edited. There’s the occasional thing to like—it looks nice, thanks to Ken Loach‘s go-to DoP Chris Menges, and David Thewlis’ performance is thoroughly entertaining. But otherwise, it’s something that makes us wary, rather than excited, about Monahan’s upcoming follow-up “Mojave.”
7. “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” by Rawson Marshall Thurber (2008)
Black List Appearance: 2005, with 2 mentions
So the first year of the Black List was, as we’ve mentioned, a very mixed bag, but sight unseen had you been forced to take a punt on any of the projects that year, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” wouldn’t have seemed like a bad bet. Based on the first novel from Pulitzer-prizewinner Michael Chabon, whose “Wonder Boys” had been adapted into a critically if not commercially successful film in 2000, ‘Pittsburgh’ was also a definite passion project for its writer/director, Rawson Marshall Thurber who had just had a huge studio hit as writer/director of the endearing “Dodgeball.” Indeed, the story goes that he made that film in the hopes that it would buy him the goodwill to get ‘Pittsburgh’ financed. What’s so puzzling then, is how Thurber’s script (with the blessing of Chabon himself it should be noted) should deviate in such detrimental ways for the source material, notably conflating two characters (one gay, one straight) into one bisexual character, and promoting one female character (played eventually by Sienna Miller) at the expense of another (Mena Suvari). The result somehow takes the fresh spin on a coming-of-age tale that had featured in the book and renders it instead as a rote love-triangle-with-Daddy-issues, and it didn’t help that in approach and casting (Peter Sarsgaard doing smarmy; the rather uncharismatic Jon Foster) it seemed overly similar to films like “Garden State” and “The Informers” (which was released the same month). Ultimately it’s a hollow, boring movie that, despite the director’s passion, seems to totally misunderstand what was good about the book. “Dodgeball” may have been Thurber’s “one for them,” but it’s infinitely superior on every level.
6. “Red Riding Hood” by David Leslie Johnson (2011)
Black List Appearance: 2009, with 10 mentions
Proving once again that the Black List is a crap shoot in terms of quality, this four-course helping of terrible was on the same list, with the same number of mentions, as Sarah Polley’s “Take this Waltz” (see “Best”) That said, David Johnson’s script must’ve seemed like such a no-brainer that we half suspect a few people gave it the thumbs up off the logline alone: a gothic retelling of the Red Riding Hood story with added love triangle, aimed squarely at the then-ravenous teen girl market whose hormones had goosed “Twilight,” released the year before, to phenomenon status. Not to mention that the writer had already had a modest Black List success, with horror film “Orphan,” which was also released in 2009. The film got picked up and snagged an impossibly perfect cast—Amanda Seyfried, Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons as the photogenic, lovelorn central trio with Gary Oldman, Julie Christie, Lukas Haas and Virginia Madsen in support. They even got “Twilight” alum Billy Burke to come along for the ride, and netted original “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke. But at some point somebody has to have actually read the script, right? Because the end product is just awful, and script-deep awful too, with a mess of contrived, uninteresting plotting, lumpen erratic characterization and jaw-droppingly inane dialogue. Perhaps this is one case where the fact that the script was Black Listed and not immediately snapped up for production, despite all its ostensible marketability, should have set off some warning bells?
5. “Seven Pounds” by Grant Nieporte (2008)
Black List Appearance: Thirteen votes on the second list in 2006, ahead of films like “Hanna,” “The Changeling” and “500 Days Of Summer.”
Notable mainly as the last film that Will Smith made before an informal exile of nearly four years, and further proof that the actor in melodrama mode is generally something to be avoided, “Seven Pounds” was the first, and so far only, feature screenplay credit for former “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” writer Grant Nieporte. The high-ranking of the script on the Black List, and that Smith snapped it up to not only star, but also produce, seems to be an attest to the film’s high concept, rather than its quality: at least in the way that “Pursuit Of Happyness” director Gabriele Muccino executed it, it’s a maudlin, crass weepie whose central twist is cheap and, in places, unintentionally funny. Smith plays a mysterious man who’s investigating/interrogating/bugging/falling-in-love-with (in the case of Rosario Dawson‘s terminally ill greeting card printer) seven strangers for initially unclear reasons. As it turns out, Smith killed seven people, including his fiancee, in a car crash, and is planning to atone for it by killing himself (with a jellyfish! A jellyfish!) and donating his organs to them. The script operates only in tones of black and white (the people Smith interacts with are either saintly, or, once, entirely undeserving of his help), stripping the set-up of any potentially interesting ambiguities, and Muccino gives proceedings such a sappy, manipulative tone that it becomes difficult to feel anything. Some of the performances are decent enough—Smith’s committed, while Dawson and Barry Pepper do some good work—but we’re inclined to agree with A.O. Scott in the New York Times, who said that the film “may be among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made.”
4. “A Couple Of Dicks” by Mark and Robb Cullen (2010) (released as “Cop Out”)
Black List Appearance: Twelve votes on the 2008 list, a couple of votes behind “The Descendants,” and ahead of Will Ferrell vehicle “Everything Must Go” and UFO horror “The Fourth Kind.”
Some of these scripts had questionable starting points, some were botched in the execution, but the really toxic ones, like “Cop Out,” had both. On the page, “A Couple Of Dicks,” as it was originally titled, seemed fairly unexceptional, a pretty dire throwback to 80s/90s buddy action comedy with little to set it apart except how generic it was. But it’s hard to think of a more chaotic way that it could have come to the screen than directed by Kevin Smith, and starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, who play long-time cop partners suspended from the job, who set out to retrieve a stolen baseball card that Willis was hoping to use to pay for his daughter’s wedding. Even Smith’s fans would probably acknowledge that he’s a better writer than he is director, so it’s truly puzzling that he would come on to make a film like this, let alone with a script as dull, old-fashioned and crudely unfunny as this one. Smith apparently was drawn to the project because he wanted to work with Willis, so it’s a sad irony that the two had an immediate personality clash, with Smith later claiming that Willis was a nightmare, and unnamed production sources defending Willis, indicating that the filmmaker was stoned throughout production. Both accusations make sense from the finished product: Willis is clearly and obviously unengaged (and displays almost no chemistry with Morgan), but so too is Smith, whose filmmaking is workmanlike at best, and slack at worst. The combination of dick jokes, uninspired pop culture references and punched-in-the-dick slapstick feels like it could have come from the “Epic Movie” creators, rather than the guy behind “Clerks,” so it’s no surprise that Smith’s enthusiasm for his profession petered out pretty swiftly after this was released.
3. “Lions For Lambs” by Matthew Michael Carnahan (2007)
Black List Appearance: Six mentions in 2006, the same year as the script for “Rendition,” making it something of a golden age for hamfisted screenplays about the war on terror featuring Meryl Streep in supporting roles, and the same year that Carnahan’s screenplay for the remake of “State Of Play” (rewritten by several others before it reached the screen) came second.
“Lions For Lambs,” aka “Explaining: The Motion Picture,” had everything right on paper, combining legendary stars Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and, in a rare dramatic role, Tom Cruise, with up-and-comers Andrew Garfield (in his first major Hollywood part), Michael Peña and Derek Luke. Instead, it’s a talky, preachy bore that even “Newsroom“-era Aaron Sorkin would probably describe as “a bit much.” There are three principal threads: of liberal professor Dr. Malley (Redford) trying to buck an apathetic student (Garfield) into action, of two of Malley’s former students (Luke and Pena), now fighting in Afghanistan, and of a journalist (Streep) interviewing a hawkish Republican senator (Cruise) about his new military plan for the region. Carnahan, the brother of “The Grey” director Joe, is a bright guy who’s written some decent scripts (his “The Kingdom,” released the same year, is pretty good), but not on this evidence: this is mostly dull and smug dialogue, that belies that Carnahan initially conceived it as a stage play by feeling like something produced in a student playwriting class about how, like, war is bad and stuff. The performers have all done far better work elsewhere, and Redford, who even at his best (“Quiz Show“) can be a touch dry as a filmmaker, is patently the wrong choice for this material. One can’t fault the intentions of him and Carnahan in making the film, but you can have plenty of problems with the execution.
2. “ATM” by Chris Sparling (2012)
Black List Appearance: Six votes on the 2010 Black List, tied with already-forgotten Greta Gerwig rom-com “Lola Versus” and Disney flop “Prom.”
Writer Chris Sparling was briefly staking out a claim for being the king of contained space thrillers: he placed on the 2009 list with “Buried,” the movie entirely set within Ryan Reynolds‘ coffin, and the following year was back with “ATM.,” a film whose sole purpose seems to be to make “Buried” look like a masterpiece in comparison. Dumber than a bag of particularly dumb hammers, the film sees co-workers Brian Geraghty, Alice Eve and Josh Peck trapped in an ATM kiosk by a hooded killer tormenting them (and the occasional day player who wanders onto set in order to be bludgeoned) for no reason in particular. The actors have all done good work elsewhere, but are stuck with bickering, unlikable characters who behave like morons, and the constraints that Sparling has stuck himself with are so anti-dramatic that you wonder why he bothered. It’s rarely tense, totally implausible, and in the end, deeply unsatisfying, delivering no explanation for the film’s events, and in a way that, rather than scaring you about the randomness of it all, simply makes you want to drive a car through the screen. And director David Brooks shoots the whole thing fairly indifferently, like he’d rather be doing a D-grade slasher film but had to settle for this. Sparling, fortunately, is yet to complete his trilogy with something like “Vending Machine” or “Newspaper Kiosk,” but we live in fear of him trying.
1. “Abduction” by Shawn Christensen (2011)
Black List Appearance: 2010, with 7 mentions, same as “Crazy Stupid Love” and the “Snabba Cash” remake script “Easy Money,” placing it above “Serena” which is to come later this year starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
The Black List we’d all like to believe in is one in which the little-guy script has a chance, the deeply personal, unusual or offbeat idea that no one has the balls to finance straight off the bat, but that enough people are charmed or intrigued by to warrant them showing it some goodwill. The fact that a script like “Abduction” can end up on it, is proof that that’s not the Black List we have. So gracelessly generic it could have been written by a decently-programmed algorithm, its seven mentions feel more like seven bookmarks made by listless execs who just know that sooner or later there’ll be a young actor who’ll need a starring mid-budgeted vehicle that can test their marketability outside whatever franchise or Disney show they’ve made their name on. And this time it worked like gangbusters, sparking a mini bidding war and eventually selling for $1m to be developed into the 2011 Taylor Lautner vehicle—good news for writer Shawn Christensen (frontman of indie rock band stellastarr*) who, to be fair to him, showed a much more promising side to his filmmaking talents writing and directing 2012 short “Curfew” which won an Oscar. To be even fairer to him, it’s possible that in hands other than John Singleton’s (we’ll never stop asking what happened there) and with a lead less lunkish than Lautner, the teen-Bourne-style story of a boy who discovers his parents are not his parents and he’s a spy baby or something, might not have been quite as turgid as it turned out. After all, terrible third acts and clunky, exposition-heavy dialogue are script issues, but uninspired direction and wooden acting can’t be blamed on the screenplay alone. Even the ringers of the supporting cast—Alfred Molina, Jason Isaacs, Sigourney Weaver and Maria Bello—all seem to be phoning it in. Still, at best, this supposedly “hot” script is the generic calm at the centre of a perfect storm of dreadful.
Other Black List graduates that are poor-to-terrible: “The Way Way Back,’ “The To-Do List,” “The Other Boleyn Girl,” “Fanboys,” “Horrible Bosses,” “Snow White & The Huntsman,” “Brothers Solomon,” “Dan In Real Life,” “Factory Girl,” “Meet Dave,” “We Are Marshall,” “Rendition,” “The Changeling” and “Invictus” (Clint Eastwood should maybe stop doing his shopping from it), “The Men Who Stare At Goats,” “Love And Other Impossible Pursuits,” “All About Steve,” “The Devil’s Double,” “The Bucket List,” “Charlie Countryman,” “Salt,” “The Book Of Eli,” “The Divide,” “Jennifer’s Body,” “Blitz,” “Blindness,” “Dear John,” “Dirty Girl,” “Clash Of The Titans,” “How To Lose Friends And Influence People,” “The Oranges,” “Butter,” “Out Of The Furnace,” “No Strings Attached,” “Broken City,” “Nowhere Boy,” “The Fourth Kind,” “Bachelorette,” “What’s Your Number,” “Hitchcock,” “47 Ronin,” “Cedar Rapids,” “The Watch,” “The Sitter,” “Buried,” “Restless,” “Arthur,” “That’s My Boy,” “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” “Safe House,” “Better Living Through Chemistry,” “That Awkward Moment,” “Gangster Squad,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “Fun Size,” “One Day,” “The Impossible,” Oz The Great & Powerful” and “Bad Words.”