'On Point Live' from KPCC: A conversation with The Black List founder Franklin Leonard
Hollywood is like the NBA before integration. In other words, it’s an industry that hasn’t yet figured out how to look far and wide for the best talent.
That’s Franklin Leonard’s bold view of the entertainment industry he loves.
Leonard is founder of The Black List, a company and production studio that searches for the best screenplays that aren’t getting attention from Hollywood execs.
In a web exclusive, Leonard joins Meghna Chakrabarti for a special live event at KPCC’s Public Radio Palooza series in Pasadena, California.
Franklin Leonard, film and television producer, cultural commentator and entrepreneur. Founder and CEO of The Black List. (@franklinleonard)
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: What we wanted to do for tonight, for the Palooza, is engage in a conversation specifically with someone who lives and speaks to this moment that we’re all experiencing. It’s a multi-faceted moment, to say the least, but someone who is also a key part of what makes Southern California unique. And here’s the really important thing, someone who’s actively showing that positive change is possible. So we didn’t want to just to be like, Things are hard, things are bad. We also wanted to say, Things are challenging. What can we do? Whose example can we follow?
And so how’s this, for an example of positive change? I want to fully disclose right now this stat is a little out of date. So we’re going to ask our guests to update it, because it’s from 2017, the one I could find. That of the approximately — at that time — 1,000 screenplays on The Black List. Again, between 2005 to 2017, nearly a third had been produced. And these were movies that would otherwise have not been made. There have been many, I lost count, of Oscar winners and nominees among them.
And again, remember, this is a 2017 number. The films have grossed more than $26 billion. So I would say it’s probably 50% higher by now. So how’s that for a positive change? And it’s all because of our guest tonight, Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List, film and TV producer and contributing editor at Vanity Fair. So, Franklin Leonard, please come out. It’s an honor to have you tonight.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: Thank you for that introduction. No pressure.
CHAKRABARTI: How much higher than $26 billion is it?
LEONARD: You know, I actually don’t know. I don’t think it’s 50% higher. I think because of the pandemic, and sort of the shifts in box office, that it’s not 50% higher, but it’s higher. Yeah. I mean, look, I think the numbers are like 50 Oscar wins, from 270 nominations, four of the last 13 best pictures. 13 of the last 28 screenwriting Oscars. And maybe most notably, especially for my mother, because I came from Harvard Business School, and I never got a grad degree, that movies made from scripts on The Black List make about 90% more in revenue than movies made from scripts not on The Black List, controlling for all other factors.
Which, there’s a caveat. There’s a caveat. I didn’t make those movies. I can’t take credit for the success of those films. And the credit, I think rightly, goes to the people who did. I think what the Black List, and it’s not just me now, it’s an entire team of people, have done is build a really effective metal detector to find those things. And that sort of proves the thesis that like if you start with a great screenplay, that’s sort of your best chance at making a successful movie.
CHAKRABARTI: So before we actually get to The Black List itself, I would love to sort of start with let’s call it one of your founding stories. Okay? And this is one that you had shared actually with Planet Money a while ago. And it was a story about when you were in your early twenties, you were trying to get a foothold in a new job as a junior executive. And you had made it to the final round of interviews for a job at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company. So interview after interview, final round, you show up, and who was doing the interview?
LEONARD: I mean, Leo. You know, it’s his company. He’s going to … sort of make sure that he wants people around.
CHAKRABARTI: What did he ask you?
LEONARD: Well, he asked me what my favorite movie was. And, you know, we all have these moments, I think, when your brain just goes blank. And that was one of mine. And, you know, I think I flubbed out a couple of answers, but Leo is actually a very serious film. Like, there’s a reason why he works with the filmmakers that he works with. And my answer was insufficient. Like, I knew it as it was happening, right? We’ve all been in those moments where you’re like, This is going terribly.
CHAKRABARTI: Can I just say quickly, though, for someone who was in the industry, who wanted to be a bigger part of it, who loved movies, that’s one of the questions where I think it’s like when you’re applying for med school and they always ask you like, Why do you want to be a doctor? Or if you’re like trying to get a job as a journalist, like what do you think is important about the news? Like it actually surprised me that you didn’t have an answer, right?
LEONARD: Yeah, I really do think it’s like just brains short circuiting, right? It happens and it happened. And so what I did was, knowing that it had been a disaster, I went back and I just made a list of all my favorite movies, along with sort of annotations about the reasons why. And fortunately, he forgave me and I got offered the job. But, you know, I guess I’m always making lists is what I’m realizing, is sort of the punch line of the story. But yeah, I mean. Brain short circuit sometimes.
CHAKRABARTI: Let’s go even further back. Could you identify what the first movie was that you ever fell in love with?
LEONARD: I think it was probably Jurassic Park. Like I remember, I think I was of the age, but I was like, it was the right moment, right? Like because not only did I just love the movie, and I still remember hearing the John Williams score for the first time. There also was like contemporaneous with me being just old enough to be left by myself at the movie theater with my friends, as opposed to my parents sort of needing to chaperone me.
And I remember seeing that movie, I think three times on opening weekend when it came out. And I don’t know that it was because of Jurassic Park, or just this newfound feeling of freedom, but I remember that being an indelible moment in sort of my education about movies. And really the realization that there was something special there. But it was another probably ten years until I actually seriously considered working in the film industry.
CHAKRABARTI: But this is the interesting thing about film as a medium, right? Because it strikes, it can be an intellectual experience, but most importantly, it’s an emotional one. Because I would say that the first movie that I remember actually seeing was E.T., funny two Spielberg films we’re talking about here. And the reason why was partially because of the movie. And I just rewatched it with my kids, by the way, and it is still a phenomenal film and it becomes even more so seeing it through kids eyes.
But the other thing that I remember, speaking of the freedom part, is that I remember in the little town that I grew up in, the line was around the block to get into E.T., and that almost never happened where I grew up. And I felt like I was part of something bigger. And I feel like film is uniquely positioned to give us that feeling.
LEONARD: Yeah. I mean, look, the way I think about the theatrical experience in particular is that, you know, there’s a ritual to it, right? Every Friday night, there’s a new bunch of stories that sort of come out, stories about what it means to be human. You know, we all sort of leave our homes, and like go sit in a dark room with a bunch of people we don’t know, and we’re told the story about what it means to be human.
And then we’re disgorged back into the world, seeing the world just a little bit differently than we did when we went in, even for the most sort of frivolous movies. And that’s no different than going to church every Sunday, or temple or the mosque or really any other religious sort of ritual. Like, you know, the sermons that I heard from the pulpit when I was a kid in West Central Georgia were stories about what it means to be human. We were learning the same things that we learned there, that we learned in theaters.
And I just think that the theatrical film experience is unique in that regard, in that tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people every weekend around the world are having a shared experience about a story that will inform how they see themselves, how they see other people, and how they see the world around them when they leave, even if that individual effect is imperceptible.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So tell us more about about growing up, because you said it was much later when you wanted to make film your life.
LEONARD: Well, yeah. I mean, I grew up in West Central Georgia. There wasn’t really a direct route from where I grew up, to Hollywood. You know, I was a giant nerd. Like I was obsessed with math, and I was basically Steve Urkel while Steve Urkel was on television. Like, just to be clear about it. And I was captain of my high school math team, etc. And there was a lot of etc. But I was also like, you know, I was on the high school soccer team. I was a decent athlete. It was more realistic that I could have been an astronaut, with my math and sort of, you know, not being out of shape background, than it was I could have gone to Hollywood and done anything.
I was lucky by virtue of being a massive nerd, I went to Harvard for undergrad. I became part of sort of a social network of people that had relationships that were in Hollywood. And even then, as I sort of became more interested in the arts and the business of the arts, I went and ran a congressional campaign in Cincinnati, Ohio, directly after I graduated from college. I was a journalist. I wrote for the Guardian newspapers in Trinidad for six months after my time in Cincinnati, I moved to New York City and was a management consultant at McKinsey Company for two years.
Like I did everything else before getting laid off from that job in November of 2002. And it was at that point when I had six months of severance that I said, let me see what it is that I actually want to do. I took the LSAT. I don’t think I want to go to law school yet. What do I want to do? And I found myself watching movies and reading about the film industry constantly. And you know, I was getting a paycheck without having to go to a job, which was a good position to find myself in.
And I came out to Los Angeles for a month, like I had a round trip ticket. I was just going to check it out during the middle of a New York City snowstorm. That was when I bought the ticket. But a friend of a friend of mine was working at CAA. A friend of mine from college had a friend who was working at CAA as an assistant, and I had a drink with her my first night in Los Angeles. She was like, Oh, there’s somebody hiring at CAA. You should pass along your resume. Passed it along. Interviewed on a Thursday. Got offered the job on a Friday, and started on Monday.
But that’s like, it wasn’t because of merit, per se, that I had that opportunity. It was because I knew the right people. And I think for me, that awareness has colored a lot of the work that I’ve done in the years since.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, I want to say how glorious it is that you’re the kind of person who, in finding himself, decided to take a grueling standardized test to see if that was the goal. Like, I want to see if I want to be a lawyer. Let’s just take the LSAT. I love that. I’m in deep admiration of that.
LEONARD: Like I said, big nerd.
CHAKRABARTI: I did the same thing with the MCAT and I was like, Oh, maybe med school.
LEONARD: See, I wasn’t even that hard core.
CHAKRABARTI: But you’re NASA mention, though it’s more meaningful than just like, hey, I was a big nerd. Right. Because you have said specifically, and this is where the concept of how does an industry find talent, and you’ve made the comparison before between say, like how NACA actually goes about finding who it’s going to hire, versus how Hollywood as an industry seeks out talent. Can you just draw that comparison?
LEONARD: So the NASA reference in particular is usually in reference to the fact that Hollywood is a highly interdependent ecosystem, right? That if someone goes and works at NASA and is really good at their job, they will in all likelihood, if you remove sort of endemic bias and not endemic bias, they will be able to rise and be successful in that ecosystem, because it is a closed shop. Whereas Hollywood, if you are an excellent agent and you work at an agency, and that agency is really good on all of these issues, diversity, meritocracy, all of these things, you still have to do business with the rest of the town that might not be.
And so it’s a lot harder to sort of rise up, even if you’re being judged on your merits, because you’re trying to operate within an ecosystem that is not a meritocracy. Whereas like NASA might be. The analogy that I go to more often when trying to explain sort of Hollywood’s sourcing of talent is sports. That’s a bit of a cliché, but I actually think it’s similar in that, you know, if you look at any sort of mature sport in the world, soccer or basketball, anything, the owners of those teams are going out into the world and trying to find the best talent wherever they are.
If you are a basketball player and you think you’re pretty good and you say, hey, I would like to play for the Lakers someday, the owner of the Lakers doesn’t say, well, move out to L.A., maybe play some pick up ball near the Staples Center and we’ll probably see you. That’s kind of what Hollywood does when it comes to talent. If you’re a screenwriter and you say, hey, I have a pretty good script, a lot of people in the industry will tell you, well, move to L.A., get a job at Starbucks, network until someone pays attention to you.
And then maybe there’ll be an opportunity or submit to the Nicholl Fellowship, the Academy Screenwriting Competition, which is once a year, to place in the top 100 out of 7,000 people. Someone will probably call you. And that’s bad for writers, obviously, because there’s no real route to get in, no matter how good you are. But it’s terrible, really, for the industry because it means we’re not finding, or recruiting the best talent. And it means that we’re making worse movies and television and making less money.
CHAKRABARTI: Making less money. Ultimately, Hollywood is an industry operating within a capitalist system, so that ought to be a pretty profound driver. And yet it’s not. So I’m going to come back to like, why that sort of fundamental truth about not making as much money as you could is via the lack of diversity, is not motivating enough across the industry. So we’ll come back to that.
But when you first started working in the industry, in previous interviews, you’ve talked about encountering frequently some of the unwritten rules of sort of what could and couldn’t be produced. And one of them I once heard you talk about was you encountered this adage that female driven action was never going to work.
Which I mean, now it just seems kind of like, well, why? But like that was kind of an unwritten but ironclad rule that you encountered. Can you tell us about that?
LEONARD: Yeah. I mean, it was conventional wisdom about what audiences would see. You know, so when you brought to a studio, a female driven action movie, that was ,why are you even bringing this to us? Like we all know this doesn’t work. And what’s remarkable about that is, you know, I sort of started using this turn of phrase like it’s conventional wisdom. It’s all conventional wisdom. But like, you know, Twilight was pretty successful. Um, Hunger Games is pretty successful. And if you go back and look at female driven action, pretty much the entire James Cameron catalog is female driven action. And those movies did pretty well. Yeah, Titanic is a female driven action movie, right?
At the time it was the biggest movie of all time. And so I think that, you know, there’s a lot of things that people think of as ironclad rules of audience behavior that were just based on an assumption that a person made. … I can’t think of a conventional piece of conventional wisdom like that that bends in favor of an underrepresented community. Female driven action doesn’t work. Can’t sell Black stars abroad. By the way, not based on stats at all. If you run the numbers, McKinsey did a study on this last year. Black movies abroad outperform their white counterparts with less marketing money globally.
And that’s not to say there’s not an anti-Black racism abroad. It’s just that, you know, it’s roughly similar to the anti-Black racism that exists in the U.S. and still Black movies overperform. So, you know, as a rule, I try to make sure that the rules that exist are based on something and ideally based on data, especially if they negatively impact folks who have historically been negatively impacted by a lot of other things.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, so the James Cameron canon is so fascinating, right? Because, you know, Sigourney Weaver battling aliens, Linda Hamilton like single handedly cocking a rifle in the Terminator movies. That’s like for me, that’s like an iconic shot. I don’t know why, I’ve seen the movie a couple of times. But like she walked in, she’s ripped. She’s got her black tank top on. She’s injured in one arm and she’s like, I’m still going to blow you away, Terminator. I like female driven action. What can I say?
LEONARD: Everybody does. Those movies were very successful.
CHAKRABARTI: But it’s so important that you bring that up because … there was data, right? That is the data that proves their success. And yet that conventional wisdom seemed to be impervious to that data. So why?
LEONARD: I mean, it’s the big question, right? Look, I think that I’ll put a very fine point on it, and I’ll try to unpack it. Sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia. Run down the list. Now, do I necessarily think that the people who are making these decisions are conscious of it? I don’t know. I really don’t care. And I really don’t care if someone is racist as long as the decisions that they make aren’t when it comes to allocating resources.
Because I can’t control what’s in their brain. But I think we’re in a situation where the people who have the power to make decisions about who gets valued and who gets access to resources so believe that their perception of the world is right, that they assume that even the data is wrong.
LEONARD: And that has some negative externalities.
CHAKRABARTI: So a few years ago I read a study, actually it came out of Stanford, about the changes that go on in the brain that come with extreme status, wealth and success. And the researchers did this experiment where they got college students to come in and volunteer. And they played a game.
And they were told the rules of the game, obviously. And so the first round, like some people won, some people lost, whatever, second round, the students were told the game is rigged. Okay. And you, Franklin, are going to win. So go and play. And of course, that happened. The game was rigged. Franklin won. And they found that as those players who won kept winning, they did surveys afterwards, and the players reported that it was their own skill.
LEONARD: Oh, yeah.
CHAKRABARTI: So I mean, this phenomenon that you’re talking about at the industry scale, the researchers have been able to replicate it, like in the lab. So it’s very real. Like something happens to your perception about the world and your power in it, that produces a warp field between you and reality, I think.
So that’s why we need people and ideas to pierce that field. And here’s the question an audience member has asked, why we’re all here tonight. So what inspired you to make the Black List? And I’d also say, tell us the story of how it came to be.
LEONARD: So I’m working for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company. He hires me after I can’t answer the question, what’s my favorite movie? Still painful to think about. And, you know, my job was to find scripts that Leo could star in, writers who could write movies that Leo would star in or produce. And, you know, going back to the big nerd thing, I knew that my competitive advantage was that I could read more than anybody, right? Like you give me 20 scripts to read over the weekend. I’m taking a banker’s box home, and I’m reading all of them. I’m coming back with pretty good recall of all of them.
But that meant that I was taking home 20, 30 scripts a weekend and trying to read them all. Because I would get sent everything from agents ,because if you get Leo attached, you got a good movie. So even if it’s not great, maybe, Franklin will think it’s great. Take it up to Leo. Maybe he’ll think it’s great. And then we have a good movie. But most of the things that I was reading were not things that I could walk into my boss’s office and say, You should cancel your day and read this, this is a priority. And that was really the job. And so I knew that I needed to find a more efficient way to find the good stuff. I was at the office late one night in November and sort of hatched this idea to email all of the people who I had had breakfast, lunch, dinner or drinks with that year who had a job similar to mine.
I emailed them anonymously and said, You know, basically I’m putting together this list of best screenplays. Could you send me a list of your ten favorite unproduced screenplays that you found out about this year and that you love, that won’t be in theaters by the end of this year. And that was about 75 people, but 18 more of their friends participated. So the first list was a survey of 93 development executives, and I just ran it through a pivot table and exploded a PowerPoint and put a quasi-subversive name on it called The Black List. And it was a list of Hollywood’s most liked unproduced screenplays.
CHAKRABARTI: See, no education’s ever wasted. Pivot table.
LEONARD: I mean, McKinsey’s had a rough run in the press, but I can definitely say there would be no Black List without my experience having, you know, Excel and PowerPoint. But yeah, I mean, that’s really what it was. It was a it was a deck, right, of the scripts that everybody likes. And, you know, I went on vacation shortly thereafter, and I came back to town and it had been forwarded back to me a couple dozen times. And I was sure that I was going to get fired, because surveying people about their favorite screenplays is not necessarily like a brilliant idea.
I just figured there was some unwritten rule that had prevented other people from doing it that I didn’t know, and now I was going to have to go to law school. And so I didn’t tell anybody that I had done it. I was very quiet about the fact that I had done it. And then six months into 2006, I got a call from an agent who was pitching me on a client, and it was a pretty standard call like, Hey, I’ve got Leo’s next movie, you should read it tonight because I already gave it to Brad Pitt’s company, like blah, blah, blah.
But this call ended with this person saying, look and don’t tell anybody, but I have it on really good authority this is going to be the number one script on next year’s Black List. Which was amazing because I was not going to do it again. And even if I had been planning to do it again, it’s a survey at the end of the year, right? Like saying I know what’s going to be number one on the Black List is like me saying, I know what the results of the January 6th commission are going to be like. I got no clue. And there are a million different options for the way that things can play out.
So, you know, basically I realized then that this thing that I created must have greater value than I anticipated, because of the speculative notion of a script. Being on the list was enough to make an agent lie about it. Actually being on the list must have real value. So generally in the next year, the L.A. Times, Borys Kit somehow figured out that I was the person that had made it. Wrote a story about it. Sort of outed me as the creator of The Black List. And then shortly thereafter, Juno and Lars and the Real Girl were nominated for Best Original Screenplay, which was significant because they had been the number two and number three script on the first list.
And, you know, Juno obviously won. And that made I think people in the industry sort of sit up and say, wait a second, if you made the scripts on this list, you make money and win awards like we love that. I do, too. And so there’s been a really virtuous cycle, I think, since then. Every year when we put the list out, there was a great deal of attention on it from people throughout the industry and people outside of the industry because, you know, here’s a list of really good scripts to read as opposed to the mediocre, the bad ones that maybe showed up in your inbox from any number of different sources.
CHAKRABARTI: I think the email that you used, the anonymous email for that first solicitation was what? Blacklist2005@Hotmail.com?
LEONARD: I think so, yeah.
CHAKRABARTI: You got to put a NFT on that.
LEONARD: Yeah … it’s not a bad idea actually.
CHAKRABARTI: I’m not actually a fan of NFTs, but.
LEONARD: Yeah, I was like, oh, that’ll get you like $5 now.
CHAKRABARTI: So the audience wants to know, what is your favorite script that has been produced from The Black List, and a favorite that has not yet been produced?
LEONARD: I really don’t like answering this question, for probably obvious reasons. I will say that I have a really soft spot for The King’s Speech. I had a stutter as a kid, and I remember reading that script, before it was on The Black List, the writer David Seidler had no agent, just a manager, and we’re reading it and being like, This is really good. And I remember calling some agents and saying, I don’t know. I know this is like a lot, but I feel like if you do this right, it could win best picture.
I remember the agents sort of turning their nose up at him as a writer, because he was like in his early seventies, I think, at that point. They were like, how many more scripts are you going to write? Like, why would we represent him? So much so that I remember, I feel like at the Toronto Film Festival, when the movie premiered, he didn’t have an agent. And so to see David sort of, you know, he said it in his Oscar acceptance speech, you know, the longest overnight success of all time. That felt really good, you know? And I think I can’t take credit for that movie. Right? Like I recommended it to a bunch of people via a survey that I created.
But I feel a great deal of joy whenever I know that we’ve played some infinitesimally small part in increasing the likelihood that things like that are possible.
CHAKRABARTI: And your favorite that hasn’t yet been produced.
LEONARD: That’s a really interesting question. I mean, we’re producing a few of them now at the company. I don’t feel like I can answer that question in the public forum.
CHAKRABARTI: Fair enough. It is still a secretive industry, actually. That’s one thing that you sort of mentioned in terms of how you put together the first Black List that I just want to underscore, because another … piece of conventional wisdom was that since information is power in this industry, that you shouldn’t share what you think is good, because you could lose it. But obviously, since you got all those responses from your very first email, it turns out that that wasn’t entirely true either.
LEONARD: Well, look, the reason that I’m not saying but my favorite unproduced screenplay is that if you asked me the same question tomorrow, the answer might be different. Right. Like so much of that is mood, which one I may have thought of or someone had mentioned to me the previous day. Right. I don’t know that there’s a static favorites list. I also think that it’s like sort of choosing among your children. Right. But I think it’s weird to sort of say those things publicly.
But yeah, there is an assumption that, like, sharing information is somehow dangerous. The reality is most people in Hollywood share information all the time. You know, the conversation that occurred most often when I was a development executive was, hey, have you read anything good lately? And we’re always looking for good stuff to read. And in an ideal scenario, you or your friends, your professional peers that are part of your sort of tribe, are the folks who have the best taste in reading the best stuff, so they can recommend you that stuff, and vice versa.
So there’s always an information transaction happening, sort of under the surface, in the same way that we share information now via the Internet. That network of information was largely pre-internet, right? There’s a whisper network among people. The annual Black List, and now the Black List website, sort of becomes a more efficient internetized version of that. Because you can gather all that information, put it in the public square, organize it well, and then it is more valuable for you to be a part of a community that is sharing information than it would be for you to say, I’m going to hoard all this information over here. Because you’re not actually getting that much competitive advantage from it.
And then I’ll add that, you know, we’re surveying people from the junior most creative executive at production companies, all the way to studio presidents. And a lot of those folks feel like they don’t actually have any power. So you may be a junior executive and walk into your boss’s office and say, Hey, I read this comedy about a pregnant high school student. And they’re going to say, Yeah, we can’t make that. Like, why are you even recommending that?
And, you know, you may come back and say, I haven’t stopped thinking about this script called Juno, you really should read it. And they’re going to be like, I’ll get to it after I read these other things that are bigger priorities based on the conventional wisdom that we define in the industry as being things that are commercial. But if someone comes to you and says, What were the ten best things you read this year?
And it’s anonymous, you might be willing to share that information. So that if a bunch of people feel the same way, you can walk back into your boss’s office at the end of the year and say, Hey, remember that thing that I said was amazing? 50 other people agree with me that it’s amazing.
So maybe we should seriously consider making the movie about the cryptographer who was gay, and basically treated terribly by the British government and probably won World War II. And maybe we should come back to that. You know, it’s obviously The Imitation Game, which is also a Black List script. So I think that’s where that dynamic comes from. But yeah, it’s a surprising result if you assume that we’re all better off protecting that kind of information. But I think there’s a lot of Bloomberg terminals, you know, stock indexes. It’s the same basic dynamic.
CHAKRABARTI: Have you all had the same feeling that I have had just now, in hearing Franklin talk about some of these movies? Like he’s just describing them and you automatically know which ones they are, right? Because they’re that good. And that is the hallmark of the Black List. In identifying these good scripts that deserve a chance. But then like, but how do you identify what is good? Like that always, it seems to me, like such a subjective thing. And yet it’s not entirely subjective because there’s some common agreement that’s pulling these scripts to the top of the list.
LEONARD: I think it is subjective, like on a fundamental basis, right? Like I think that there’s no objective standard of of art and I sort of reject any sort of thinking that is born of that assumption. Right? Like one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. And both of those people are entitled to those opinions. I think that I often, in answering the question, like, how do you know if something’s good screenplay wise? I actually just straight up steal from Chris Rock.
He did a Q&A once and someone asked him, like, you know, how do you know if you’re reading a script, that it’s something that you’re going to engage with? And I’ll never forget this sort of thing where he’s like, look, if I’m reading a script and I’m hungry and my wife offers to make me a sandwich, and I decide to have the sandwich, I’m not coming back to your script.
And I think the same rules apply when we’re watching movies or television, right? Like if we’re watching a movie, and we want popcorn and we decide to leave the theater to go get popcorn, probably not a great movie. But if you’re sitting there and you’re like, Yeah, I’m hungry, but that can wait. It’s probably pretty good, right? Like, I remember getting a little hungry, like halfway through Parasite. I wasn’t leaving the theater. I will eat in an hour. It’s true for TV, if starting going to our phones.
Like you want to address the audience’s attention and make them not think about anything else. That’s what’s good. And that varies person to person. It varies somewhat culturally, I think. It is in large part, it can be determined by the exposure to media and storytelling that we’ve had over the course of our lives. And it’s very, very powerful. It affects, again, like how we see ourselves, how we see each other, how we see the world. And, you know, that power has to be respected.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I mean, it varies from person to person, but then again, there are some things that resonate with, more broadly. Are those the scripts that tend to rise on the list?
LEONARD: I think the things that tend to rise on the list are things that are wildly ambitious. They’re usually not things that we’ve seen before. They are wildly ambitious from like a narrative and an emotional standpoint. Like it is usually a story that is trying to connect with a viewer or reader. At a human level. And ideally you’re doing both right. Ideally, you’re hitting people in their head and their heart. But I don’t think you can be, at least for me, again, it’s subjective.
I don’t think you can make great art without eliciting an emotional reaction. But I just think that for me, that’s part of the definition. But for other people, those things are different. You know, I think that there’s some things like a beginning, middle and an end. Like most great stories have that. Do they all? I can’t say. I’m not an expert, but most do. And I think, you know, people talk about the three act structure. That’s what it is. It’s a beginning, a middle and an end.
CHAKRABARTI: So you’ve talked about in the past, one of the things that The Black List is trying to do is to push back against Hollywood’s sort of self admiring notion that it’s already a meritocracy. So why Hollywood thinks that, we’ll come to that in a second here. But I did want to engage with you a little bit about even the concept of a meritocracy. Because, you know, that concept has actually come under heavy criticism in this country, like in education, in other industries, etc.
There are many people out there who say that, like America has never been, nor shall ever be, a true meritocracy, because it’s impossible to be such, given the nation’s history. So what I’m saying is, like the word itself is no longer exclusively something that inspires admiration anymore. And I’m wondering if you still believe that trying to pursue a true meritocracy in Hollywood is what you want to do?
LEONARD: Well, I think the pursuit is what matters, not the realization, because inevitably the pursuit is … never going to quite get there. But the goal is to make it more and more like a meritocracy. And I think that the reality is that America’s never been a meritocracy and probably won’t be one in my lifetime, and Hollywood certainly hasn’t either. The industry likes to position itself as such.
If you were here for long enough, your opportunities will emerge and you’ll be able to take advantage of them. The only color that matters is green. It’s just not true. Right. And you can look at the numbers, and it’s self-evident. I think 92% of studio movies over the last ten years were directed by men. Very few people believe that men are inherently better directors than women. I don’t believe that. Good luck making that case, that there’s something intrinsic about being a man that makes you a better film director. Now, if that’s true, if gender is not a determinant, how do we get to 92 and eight as the distribution?
There’s a misallocation of resources happening there. There are barriers that are being put in front of women that are not being put in front of men. So maybe it’s a meritocracy among the guys, and among the white guys who come from upper middle class backgrounds, if we’re being very precise about it. But it is not a meritocracy across the board.
And my theory has always been … and I think the closest thing that we probably have to a meritocracy in this world is sports. And because it’s just two people competing in the same thing, you know, on the same field with the same ball, with the same ten foot hoop, you know, going back to my days loving the movie Hoosiers. To the extent that we can create that dynamic, we’ll see a lot more diversity, too. The problem is not that, you know, women and people of color need affirmative action to be successful. It’s that they need to remove the affirmative action that’s been gifted to the folks that they’re trying to compete with, so that they can compete on open playing field. And if you do, we’re all going to make more money. We’re all going to have better movies, and it’s going be really exciting.
CHAKRABARTI: But the depth of the belief that Hollywood is already a meritocracy is pretty profound. Because I actually will credit my senior editor, Dorey, who alerted me to this about —
LEONARD: I know what’s coming.
CHAKRABARTI: … On Twitter. @FranklinLeonard tweets in response to the casting of a short film called The Rightway. The casting featured Hopper Penn, son of Sean Penn, actor Brian D’Arcy James, and it was directed by Steven Spielberg’s daughter.
LEONARD: And I think the original book was written by Stephen King’s son.
CHAKRABARTI: So then you say in your tweet, Hollywood’s a meritocracy, right? Ironic question mark. And Ben Stiller chimed in. Ben Stiller says @FranklinLeonard, people working, creating. Everyone has their own path. Wishing them all the best. And it goes on. He says, I would bet they’ve all faced different challenges, different than those with no access to the industry. Showbiz, as we all know, is pretty rough and ultimately is a meritocracy. There was a long back and forth on this. I have them all here, but go to Twitter and you’ll see it.
LEONARD: You can just Google my name and Ben Stiller’s, it comes up pretty quickly because it got covered by a lot of publications.
CHAKRABARTI: All the way to The View, in fact. But what I wanted to ask you about is what did that exchange reveal to you?
LEONARD: I mean, I don’t know that it revealed much in the sense that, like, it doesn’t surprise me that people do sort of hew so closely to this notion of meritocracy, because I think it’s a natural human instinct to want to believe that your success is due to your merit, as opposed to some unfair advantage that you had.
And I think, for example, it’s really important for me, myself, if I’m going to sort of talk about these things, to acknowledge the advantages that I’ve had. Right. My father is a doctor who was in the military for 25 years. My mom was a teacher. Their 44th wedding anniversary will be next year. I never really wanted for anything. I was a big nerd who got into Harvard and then, as a result, had all of this other access.
Well, yes, I’m also the grandson of enslaved peoples, but I’m not a Black woman, not a Black transwoman, not a Black transwoman with a disability. I’ve had it comparatively easy, and it’s important that I acknowledge that, and it doesn’t take away from what I’ve accomplished within that ecosystem. But it’s important.
And so the point that I was making to Ben when I initially responded to him was, yes, I agree. I’m rooting for everybody to make amazing stuff because I hate going outside and I would like to watch good movies and television on my TV without having to leave my house. Right? Like, selfishly, please make everything amazing. I don’t care who you are. I also think it’s important that we acknowledge what people’s paths are.
Because if I was me, you know, in 2022 in West Central Georgia, wanting to work in film, and I saw those people and said, Wow, maybe I’m not good enough, because I didn’t get my short film in Deadline. The context matters. Of course, this short film was in Deadline. It is the progeny of the greats Sean Penn, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King. I don’t take anything away from them as filmmakers.
One of the funny things about that interaction was there were a lot of people who then were like, you know, Ben, your parents were in the industry. You didn’t get where you came from on merit. Your movies are terrible. And I remember thinking, no, that’s not true. Like, I will countenance no Dodgeball slander on my time. The movie is hilarious. Zoolander, like Ben Stiller has hits. And you cannot take that away from him.
But it doesn’t take away from him to acknowledge that his parents were also legends as well. I just think it’s really important that we be honest about these conversations, because I think if we’re not, we run the risk of not creating a system that is more meritocratic. Which, again, prevents us from having more good stuff for me to watch when I don’t want to leave the house.
CHAKRABARTI: You were also specifically in that exchange talking about the total lack of diversity behind the camera. Because Stiller said something about like, you know, Hollywood being what it is, if you can’t make it here, you’re not going to make it. So it’s inherently meritocratic. But you added that it’s not just access, it’s undervaluation, active discrimination. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. The Hollywood film C-suite is the least diverse sector in American business. Less diverse than Trump’s Cabinet.
LEONARD: Yeah. Shout out to Elaine Chao, Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson. Yeah, I think that’s actually just the film side, and I guess that’s not true since they resigned. The very end of the administration, not true. But for most of the administration it was true. Again, like the people who are making the decisions about what movies and stories get made are not at all representative of the audiences that see them. And as a consequence, there is a misalignment between the stuff that we make and the stuff that audiences want.
And we are not making as much money as we could, and not making as good movies and television as we could, because of that sort of market failure. And, you know, McKinsey put a study out last year that I had sort of been involved in initiating, that found that just the Black community, just anti-Black bias, the industry, if they could address that, they’d be making $10 billion per year, just by addressing that. That’s just Black folks. That’s not Latinx folks, not women, the queer community, etc.
Like there’s mid ten figures on the table annually to be had. If we just get it right. And my perspective is okay, and the people who are running these things have been running them for a long time. How much longer are we going to let them run things and not make as much money as they can? And maybe shareholders are cool with that. Maybe corporate boards are cool with making less money than they could. We’ll see.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’ve got lots of good questions here coming in. Here’s one. How does your work tackle white supremacy and white fragility? Do you gain hope from your work?
LEONARD: I mean, I think it’s interesting. I don’t wake up every morning and say, Let’s go to the lab and fight white supremacy and white fragility. I’m going to work every day in saying how do we build the machine that makes Hollywood function more efficiently and meritocratically? The consequence of that is that we have to unwind white supremacy and white fragility. But that’s not the primary goal.
And we do that by making sure that people who are talented have opportunities that fit their merit, no matter what their background is. And that includes white people. We’re not an organization that only works with underrepresented communities. It just so happens that by advocating for people with talent who have historically not been a part of the system, we probably advocate for those folks a little bit more on average than others do. But again, the goal is to identify and celebrate great writing and great writers, wherever they are, whoever they are, wherever they come from.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, so on that note, another question from the audience. When it comes to trans and non-binary stories, how important is it to make sure the writers are trans and non-binary, and what steps are being taken?
LEONARD: I don’t believe that you need to be a member of an identity group to create art about that identity group. I have no problem with a white writer telling a Black story, if the white writer does the work to get it right. People always say, Oh, well, write what you know, right? I say, write what you’ve made the effort to learn. And if you are trans or non-binary, you’ve learned a lot about what it means to be trans and non-binary, and a heck of a lot more than your average person who is not.
Same [as] I growing up as a Black man in the Deep South … I know I have a lot of knowledge that I’ve just picked up along the way. That gives me a head start on your average white writer that doesn’t have that experience. I think it’s okay for writers to tell stories that are not of their specific demographic. … What if I want to write a story about a white guy? What if I want to write a story that includes a Chinese woman? I have to make the effort to get it right.
And if I don’t, people should launch me into the sun. Because guess what? That’s what happens when you make art and put it into the public square. You are inviting a debate about the merits of your thing. And if you can’t handle that debate, don’t get on the stage. Like that’s the conversation that you’re inviting. Now, that said, again, I think we have to get back to the question of who’s making the decisions about who gets the resources to make the thing.
And if it’s harder for a trans or non-binary artist to get the resources to make the thing vis-a-vis a non trans or non-binary artist, then we have a problem. I think that’s particularly a problem in a high resource and high cap, like a capital intensive artform like film and television. And I think the same thing is probably true in the book world when it comes to actually getting your book widely distributed and getting marketing money behind it. I think that’s really where the crux of the thing is, more than can artists tell stories about people other than exactly who they are?
CHAKRABARTI: … Honestly, this has been a very fast hour, so we’re going to talk a little bit about sort of the the present and future of the industry, COVID and post COVID, because we’ve got some questions coming in. Wow. A lot of good questions coming in about that. But before we leave the big issue of meritocracy and diversity in Hollywood as an industry, I just want to talk about the Oscars for one second.
Because another place where efforts towards diversity have been very visible in the industry is at the Oscars with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. But I have to say, I’m quite skeptical of the Academy Awards, to be perfectly honest, because, yes, it’s a celebration of the best of Hollywood, but it’s also rigged, right? Because there’s so much money and marketing essentially that goes into the whole process behind the nominees, picking nominees, etc.
So I can’t help but be a little skeptical about it. But what I wonder is … that was a very effective, very public campaign, drawing attention to a lack of diversity among sort of the best of the best, the elite that are getting recognition from the industry. But those folks who are at least got nominated are already at that level, by virtue of having been nominated. I’m wondering if that campaign or that effort had any positive effect for people, sort of further down the food chain in the industry?
LEONARD: Yeah, I think so. #OscarsSoWhite and shout out to April Reign who sort of created that hashtag, and really did change the face of The Academy in so doing. You know, I thought it, first of all, was brilliant. But, you know, it definitely had the effect of The Academy, which is sort of, you know, if you think of the process of making movies and sort of Hollywood, like people trying to break in would be sort of this side, and like the widest part of it. And like, the Oscars is like this big, like all the way on the other side.
But it is Hollywood’s biggest night and the eyes of the world definitely are on the industry that night. And so it’s a really good focal point to pivot the conversation around. And I do think that, like, it changes at that level. Can have the potential to change things downstream because, you know, it still matters, right? You get nominated for an Oscar, guess how they’re marketing your next movie. From Academy Award nominated, whatever, so-and-so. So it does have some help.
And if you’re able to sort of get more people, more diverse people into those positions that they should have been in, based on the merit of their work in the first place, study after study shows that, like, women tend to hire more women. People of color tend to hire more people of color. You’ll have a downstream effect. I think that, you know, the events of two years ago and George Floyd’s murder had a lot more to do with the industry saying, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I don’t think that we’ve seen nearly enough change yet, but I do think that was probably a more substantive accelerant downstream than maybe #OscarsSoWhite was. But I think that all of these things have to be working in concert to actually unwind a lot of these systemic issues that exist.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, it’s not just one thing. So lots of people interested in the industry now and where it might go. First and foremost, do you think that movie theaters are going to survive? And if so, how is that going to happen post-pandemic?
LEONARD: I mean, look, I think a lot of that is dependent on the extent to which people feel comfortable sitting in a dark room with a bunch of people who may be sick. Like, we were all doing it before. But now the context of that has changed. And so I think that’s the big unanswered question that I don’t know that anybody can answer. Is how is that going to shift and evolve?
Box office seems to be surging back for a certain kind of movie. If you look at the numbers on Maverick, and Minions, on Thor, like things are doing pretty well. I think estimates that I’ve read suggest that, you know, 2022 box office might be off anywhere from 19% to 29% off of 2019, which is interesting, but also not terribly surprising. Like we are all still in a pandemic and it’s not unreasonable for a person to say, I don’t know if this movie is worth getting COVID. So I think those are sort of moving targets.
I think the streaming revolution, I think a lot of people were like, well, now that everybody’s used to watching streaming at home, they’re never going to go back to theaters again. I think that was very much exaggerated, as well. I think people are going back to theaters. I mean, people want to have that experience again. When will they feel comfortable doing so? I don’t know. I think if anything, though, it has opened up more consumption at home on streaming, and then the theatrical will return, you know, in a trickle over time. But that’s good. It means more people are watching more things in aggregate.
CHAKRABARTI: More people are watching more things. And so, you know, there’s always the prediction of therefore, there will be, you know, the decline of Hollywood. Because things are being made perhaps outside more outside of Hollywood. What impact is streaming going to have on the theatrical experience? You just addressed that. But we also have a question here. Has content saturation actually made it better to expose people to different kind of stories, or stories about different people?
LEONARD: I mean, yeah, I think in a few reasons, right? So in a world where you had three networks, and movie theaters and that was the primary way you distributed stories, like there’s very little shelf life. There’s very little shelf space, rather. So you’re only making a few things. And the people that sort of controlled who got those things made tended to make things about them.
But in a world where you have hundreds of television shows, you know, the cost of producing movies goes down just because of technology. You will have more things from more people, and it is more likely that the good things, no matter where they come from, can sort of break out. Squid Game is sort of like the best, most recent example. Netflix made this Korean television show that they thought would do very well in Korea. They put it on the platform globally. And a week later, Cardi B is tweeting about squid game. Not part of Netflix Original expectation, probably not in their wildest dreams did they think that it would become what it became.
And it did so because of merit. But it wasn’t like I saw a Squid Game, not because there was a bunch of ads telling me, Hey, you should watch this. Came up in a tile one night when I was watching Netflix and couldn’t get to sleep. That looks interesting. Let me start watching it. And I was tweeting about it 2 hours later. So I think that dynamic, I find it promising. Because it means that not only can anybody around the world make something, and put it out and make it available.
But now, no matter where you are in the world, you have access to that amazing stuff from everywhere. When I was a kid, the only movies that I was really going to be able to watch for the things that were in the movie theater … or what was at Blockbuster.
Kids, now, if you have an internet connection, you have the entire Criterion Collection available to you in your home. You can watch, you know, Korean television shows. You know, I was watching this Danish political thriller, Borgen, about the first female prime minister. Like, that was not available to all of us then. And I think that creates a more competitive space, even though it’s obviously perverted by people’s investment in marketing money.
CHAKRABARTI: So we’re turning back to you. Because the pandemic, of course, as a shaping influence, has come up here a couple of times. You were leading an organization. You’re an entrepreneur in the middle of this world changing event. I’m just wondering, What was that experience like for you? And what did you learn about what you were good at? Or maybe even some missteps as organizational leaders?
LEONARD: I think it was clarifying for me in a lot of ways, just about what was important. You know, I think that when the pandemic started in March of 2020, you know, my team had been working from home already. We had an office for like a year, but no one really felt like they wanted to drive to an office every day. So I was like, Great, we can all work from home. I don’t care if the work gets done. We’re good.
So we had some training to do that, but I did find myself just very hyper-aware of like wanting to make sure they were okay, you know? And so I think I saw a shift in my own approach to management from, Work hard, win. Even though I’ve always been like a, Look if the work is done, I don’t care where you are, when you’re working. Like that’s not me.
But it definitely shifted a little bit more to, Let’s do good work, and let’s do good work with good people, and do it in a way that is sustainable. It just became a much bigger priority. I think every element of that, I was like, Ah, is this the right team? If we’re partnering with somebody, are these the right partners? Because life’s too short, and everything is stressful enough, and it’s only gotten worse. I don’t want to add any of the things that can be avoided as stress, not only to me, but to my team.
CHAKRABARTI: So I love this next question. You said you don’t like to take credit for the successes of the movies from The Black List. So how do you understand your impact and what are you most proud of?
LEONARD: … On one side of the scale, we are trying to be a metal detector, an industrial sized metal detector in an infinite field of haystacks, for anybody who works in the film, television or now theater business. On the writer side of things and the other side of that equation, we want to be a common application to all of those people. But it’s ridiculous in 2022, where the internet exists that you should have to move to Los Angeles to prove that you’re a good writer. It is ridiculous.
In 2022, when the internet exists, that if you are a good writer, that you should have to send 50 emails to a bunch of different managers and agents saying, Hey, I’m a good writer, you should pay attention to me. We can do that. We can do that in an automated manner. And so to the extent, that’s the way I see us. … I’ve been noodling with this analogy. If you imagine a scenario where a plate gets tilted, and everything’s sort of sliding to one side, because that plate is tilted. And as a consequence, the meal was falling on the floor. The food isn’t as good. Everything is getting mixed up.
What I hope that we’re doing is sort of stabilizing that plate, so that it’s flat and everybody has an opportunity and the meal can be enjoyed as it should be. Not a great analogy. Like I said, I’m working on it, but I want to create a dynamic where everybody that is talented has opportunities that fit that talent.
And in order to do that, you have to create an ecosystem where that can be true. And we are far from perfect, but we’re doing some things that are really exciting in terms of putting real money. One thing I want to mention, you know, we just announced this partnership with UPS, of all companies. And two writers are going to get $100,000 each to finance the production of short films based on their feature film or feature script so that hopefully they can use that short film to get the feature made. And that’s incredible.
And when you think about a company like UPS, not one I would have expected to want to support writers from historically underrepresented communities, and see the vision in supporting them in making this thing. But they got it immediately, right?
… And the funny thing is that was really inspired by my now wife’s journey getting her movie made. She found a script on The Black List website, optioned it, got $100,000 from Refinery29 to make a short film. That’s what got it financed. And you know, it was in theaters three weeks ago, on July 1st, Mr. Malcolm’s List. … We have to create those opportunities because if we don’t, we’re going to be stuck with worse movies and worse financial outcomes. And no one wants that, I think.
CHAKRABARTI: So you’re also doing work in theater now? Which is interesting. Because, I suppose, does a similar premise exist that there’s another place that can deserve a Black List like treatment to bring merit worthy plays to the stage?
LEONARD: I mean, once we launched The Black List website for film and television, what I kept hearing from people in the theater world was the same dynamics are at play. There are great writers out there that are not getting the attention they deserve, and we can create a more efficient system. And … I was reluctant to do it. Because I didn’t want to like be like, hey, I’m from Hollywood and I’m here to save you. A lot of people behave that way. It’s a bad look.
And so we did a listening tour of folks in the theater space to try to understand how it works. We can make adjustments as necessary, and those adjustments are still in progress. But the other reality is there are a lot of theater writers working in film and television. And so why would I, if I had an infrastructure that would allow for us to identify those folks, and tell the film and television people about it, Why would I limit that ecosystem to only people that are writing in film and TV?
If there are people who will read your theater play and then consider you for a job on the TV or film space? So that was really the thrust behind the launch. You know, I think there are probably fewer playwrights than there are aspiring screenwriters, in that sense. And so the numbers have been lower. But it’s exciting.
CHAKRABARTI: So last thing here, because I mean, we could talk more, but our chairs are more comfortable than yours. So I am aware of that. You know, movies, television, theater, books, those genre in particular to me are the empathy engines. They are a way for us to share the experience of empathy for others. And, you know, earlier you said that the movies were providing the same experience that you had going to church as a young boy.
And so the stories that we tell, that we choose to tell, are powerful. And that’s why I’m so grateful for the work that you’re doing, and everyone at the Black List is doing. Because there are many more stories that deserve to be told. … And we need empathy more than ever, I think. But as moviegoers all, I’m just going to end with the practical set of questions here. What should we see this summer? What should we not see?
LEONARD: You should definitely see Mr. Malcolm’s List directed by Emma Holly Jones. I believe it is in theaters for one more week and then it will be on streaming. Don’t take my word for it. Take Owen Gleiberman’s rave in Variety. It’s a Variety critic’s pick. 82% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a very good movie. My wife directed the hell out of it. See what you wan. See the things that when you see them, the poster or the trailer make you say, oh, my God, I want to see that.
And then take the time to see all the trailers and all the poster for all the things that are out there and go read, you know critics whose tastes seems to be similar to yours. And watch the things that they recommend, even if you haven’t heard of it. Like, I don’t care. I just want people to be able to watch as much good stuff as possible, however they define good, right?
Like if you’re into big dumb action movies like, Have at it. One of my proudest achievements as a as a film professional was being the junior executive on Fast and Furious 5. Because Fast and Furious 5 is an extremely good action movie. And it made a lot of people happy. It gave a lot of people joy. … I just think that we as a culture, I think we as an industry, pooh pooh that as an end game and an end goal. And especially right now, I think we all need that.
So see what you want. When you love something, tell other people that you loved it. Tell people why you loved it, and then ask them what they love. I think that’s probably the best way to find good stuff. It’s literally how I built The Black List.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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