Franklin Leonard is anxious about press. “There’s a fundamental vanity to it that makes me really uncomfortable,” he said. “I’m increasingly realizing that it’s a valuable part for getting the message out and building the company.”
The Black List founder would prefer to focus on the work, but these days he has no choice but to pick up the phone. He created the annual survey of the best unproduced screenplays in 2005 and it now commands an online community of roughly a quarter million people. More importantly, it’s become a talent dowsing rod for agents, studio and network presidents, and A-list actors and directors. As a result, he’s now a major influencer leading the charge in the diversification of Hollywood. But for Leonard, who toiled at agencies and studios doing data analysis for nearly a decade, there’s still much work to be done.
“Launching something very necessary into the world that didn’t exist prior is kind of what I’ve always been trying to do,” he said. “I think it’s a very specific experience when you are black in a business that has historically been anti-meritocracy, that benefits white men primarily. So when people talk about the Black List democratizing Hollywood, I tend to think of it more as meritocratizing Hollywood, because if you have a true meritocracy it will lead to a hell of a lot more diversity.”
A Harvard grad in social political theory and a self-described “black math nerd,” Leonard said that while he was pleased that the box-office success of movies like “Black Panther” created greater interest in diverse screenplays, the data points weren’t new. “People forget that ‘Coming to America’ made almost $300 million worldwide in 1988,” he said. “‘Big Momma’s House’ made close to $200 million 19 years ago. And anyone who was paying attention was not surprised that ‘Black Panther’ did the business that it did. Same with ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ These are continuations of a truth about inclusion, not some new trend.”
He credits the surge in interest to an industry that’s under tremendous economic pressure. “With domestic box office largely flat, international box office growing in fits and starts, the cost of making movies and marketing rising, there’s pressure on both the revenue and the cost side,” he said.
Leonard believes this kind of uncertainty leads to more conservative decision making; that comes at a cost as audiences become more savvy. “So you can be conservative, but you can’t be so conservative that what you’re making is just a retread of a previous thing, because audiences are smarter,” he said. “And I think that’s part of why diversity is playing so well right now.”
He singles out Netflix for what he describes as a very specific point of view on diversity and inclusion: It’s good for business. “They’ve released more movies with leads of color in the last six months than any studio has in a decade,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that if you look at their first four aggressive Oscar campaigns — ‘Beasts of No Nation,’ ’13th,’ ‘Mudbound,’ and ‘Roma’ — there’s not a single white male director in sight. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but Netflix doesn’t feel like the kind of company that operates on coincidences.”
However, there is still a lingering trepidation surrounding stories by and about people of color. “It’s a result of an apathy born of racism,” Leonard said. “How can it be that people all around the world want to listen to hip hop, they want to celebrate black athletes, but somehow they don’t want to watch black people in movies. It’s all convention and no wisdom.”
Currently high on the Black List agenda is to disrupt the decision-making mechanism that determines which movies get made. That includes raising money for a Black List film fund that would produce its own projects.
“I think going to other people and handing them scripts that we think they should make, is fine, but it doesn’t address the fundamental flaw in the system, which is who gets to decide what we see,” he said. “I think that we’ve got a pretty good track record for identifying projects that go on to future success, and we just need a substantial amount of money to put that experience to work.”
Leonard, who was raised in Columbus, Ga. (pop. 100K), never envisioned a career in Hollywood. Nearly 15 years ago, he landed a job as a development executive for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way after stints at CAA and John Goldwyn Prods. on the Paramount lot. It was here that he conceived of The Black List.
“I felt like most of the stuff I was reading was mediocre to bad, because most scripts were mediocre to bad,” he said. “I was just so desperate to find some good scripts to read, so I thought of a way to make that happen.”
He took an anonymous survey of 75 peers, requesting that they send him a list of their 10 favorite screenplays yet to be produced. “I didn’t think anything of it, but when I read all the scripts that were recommended, I thought, ‘These are actually really good, my problem is solved,'” he said. “I was on vacation at the time, and when I got back, everyone was talking about the list, and it became obvious to me that they all were facing the same problem.”
The Black List refers to the myriad writers and directors who were banned from work in the 1950s because of their Communist leanings; it also inverts the negative connotations of blackness in Hollywood. However, Leonard said he didn’t put much thought into the nomenclature.
“I had no idea it was going to become a thing,” he said, “It was literally just me kind of fucking around, wanting to make sure that I put a name on this thing I had created, before I left for vacation, so that it looked official.”
Among its early home runs were Diablo Cody’s “Juno” and Nancy Oliver’s “Lars and the Real Girl,” both ranked second and third respectively on the very first edition of the Black List. Cody won the 2008 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the film was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director), while “Lars” earned Oliver a Best Original Screenplay nomination in the same year.
Despite those initial successes for women writers, Leonard acknowledges that it remains the most underrepresented community in the Black List database. “We’re currently at about a 65/35 split between men and women in terms of submissions and want to push those numbers up closer to 55/45 or 60/40,” he said, the reason being that the number of women writers submitting their screenplays is much lower than the number of men, although the list has seen a steady increase in women’s submissions over time.
Leonard said that his first eight years in Hollywood, which also included stretches at Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella’s Mirage Enterprises, Universal Pictures, and Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, “provided me with an extraordinary education in how movies got made.”
During that period, he booked his first credit with David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” As a development director at Universal, we worked on projects that included “It’s Complicated,” “Couples Retreat,” “Devil,” and the fifth installment of the “Fast and Furious” franchise, “Fast Five.”
Through it all, he continued to build the Black List. Overbrook would mark his final stint as an employee before he decided to make the Black List a full-time, for-profit venture. The company has built its business model around fees charged to screenwriters to host their scripts on the company’s website, as well as for screenplay evaluation services. Prices come in two tiers, for Guild and non-Guild writers, ranging from $30-$75. Leonard said he wants the rates to accommodate the shallow wallets of the average aspiring screenwriter.
He also accrued corporate sponsorships, with Warby Parker and Autograph Collection (a brand of Marriott) as the company’s two largest partners. Still, it’s a nimble operation in which six employees assemble in one room of a WeWork in Hollywood. “We would rather place our money on optimizing for impact, not profit or performance,” he said.
So far, that has yielded a promising track record: Four of the last dozen Oscar Best Picture winners began as Black List scripts; ditto 40 percent of the last 24 screenwriting Oscar nominations. “Ultimately, we want to be in a position to be able to tell the gatekeepers what scripts we believe they should make, while also being confident in letting them know that if they don’t make them, we will,” Leonard said.
To that end, the company’s recently debuted its first official feature film production as executive producers, “Come as You Are,” at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Written by Erik Linthorst and directed by newcomer Richard Wong, the film stars Grant Rosenmeyer, Gabourey Sidibe, and Hayden Szeto. It is currently without distribution.
Leonard said he wants to keep the Black List autonomous. And he’s not worried about competition. “We’d be more likely to work with an organization that holds writers in the same esteem that the Black List does,” he said, singling out the the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. “We offer every semi-finalists in the Nicholl Fellowship a month of free hosting on the Black List website because by their selection for the fellowship, they are already identified as being particularly strong.”
He recently joined the Academy’s associate membership branch, but that hasn’t kept him from expressing his opinions on last year’s Oscar race. He’s on the record about controversial Best Picture nominee “Green Book,” calling it another in a historically long line of Hollywood-backed racial reconciliation fantasy films.
“That for me was the most puzzling move by the Academy this year,” he said. “There were several really strong movies last year, and particularly strong for movies about black people. And so many great movies about black people made by black filmmakers. Yet ‘Green Book’ was the film that voters chose to celebrate as the best film of the year? Very disappointing.”
Leonard hopes the future of the Black List impacts diversity problems beyond skin color. He cited a recent USC Annenberg study, “Gender Inequality in Popular Films,” which revealed that girls between the ages of 13 and 19 are just as likely to be sexualized on screen as women 21 to 29.
“With statistics like that, we really shouldn’t then be surprised that Roy Moore almost got elected senator from Alabama,” Leonard said. “And on the rare occasion that Latin immigrants are shown on television, 50% of the time they’re engaged in criminal activity, so we shouldn’t be shocked that people are chanting ‘build the wall.’ It’s not like they just came up with the idea that Mexicans are criminals. We have to understand that this fiction comes from the fiction that Hollywood creates, and I want to do something about that.”
Still, Leonard remains optimistic about the industry’s future, citing the successes of high-profile black content creators like Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe, and Issa Rae, as well as the box-office returns of films like “Crazy Rich Asians,” as making a way for others to follow.
“Now more than ever before, producers of content have the option to work within traditional systems, or in non-traditional systems and still make money,” he said. “So if you’re a decision maker at a studio, for example, you’re going to have to decide on whether you want to be where the defining work of our time is being created, or risk becoming less relevant.”
Needless to say, he sees a lot of work on the horizon to be done. “I do think it’s good that executives are running scared right now because no one really knows what the future holds, and these industry wide tectonic shifts we’re experiencing mean that someone who didn’t have power yesterday is going to have power tomorrow,” he said. “So we as an industry need to realize that we can’t rest on our laurels and completely buy into this notion of Hollywood being a bastion of progressive ideals. We have to live those ideals. which I understand is no easy feat. But to bring it all back to the work that we do, it all starts with the screenplay. So that’s sort of where I’ve built my home.”