March 25, 2022

Film

Franklin Leonard, Hollywood prophet

By Andy Hazel
Image of Franklin Leonard. Image supplied.

Franklin Leonard. Image supplied.

The founder of influential website the Black List divulges how an email accidentally led to a revolution in storytelling that is reshaping filmmaking

If you “follow the money”, as the film All the President’s Men instructed, then any trail in the film industry will lead back to a good story. Every year, hundreds of thousands of hours and millions of dollars are spent on matching filmmakers with the right scripts, and in this world one man, little known to outsiders, is regarded as king. Franklin Leonard’s name and face may be unfamiliar, but over the past 17 years he and his creation, the Black List, have risen in importance and influence. Today, Leonard is one of the few gatekeepers in Hollywood firmly jamming the door open to allow others, especially those underrepresented in the film industry, to follow.

The Black List began, as Leonard describes it, as “an annual survey of predominantly American film executives about the scripts they read in the previous year that they most enthusiastically liked”. Since 2005, Leonard’s creation has become a totemic round-up of scripts that have gone on to win an inordinate number of awards, birth multiple television series, and launch and abet the careers of some of the most successful people in the film industry. As well as acting as a portent of films to come, each list is also a summation of what has been fuelling writers’ minds over the previous year and which recent events might be inspiring a future critical and commercial success, as Alan J. Pakula’s 1977 Academy Award-winner did with the Watergate scandal.

“We don’t ask our readers to evaluate scripts on an objective standard,” Leonard tells me from his new home in Los Angeles, pausing to crease his brow and wait for the sounds of construction to subside. “It’s not about ticking boxes. We ask them, ‘On a scale of one to ten, how likely would you be to recommend this to a peer or superior in the industry?’ If someone wants to tell someone else about the thing they’ve just read, that to me is the best sign of something good. When at least some people love a story, it deserves greater attention. I’ve never believed in an objective standard of art. Part of the beauty of art is the subjectivity.”

The Black List – its name chosen as a nod to the writers who lost their careers during the blacklist of the McCarthy era, and as an inversion of black as a signifier of something bad – began as an email. In 2005, while working as a junior executive at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, Leonard sent out a request to fellow script readers working in film production studios: “Send me a list of your ten favourite scripts. In exchange, I will send you the combined responses back.” The resulting list included Diablo Cody’s Juno, Nancy Oliver’s Lars and the Real Girl and Peter Morgan’s The Queen. This became the first in a series of lists of scripts that, in an astonishing number of cases, have gone on to become critically and commercially successful films.

Previously shortlisted scripts include Best Picture Academy Award winners Slumdog Millionaire, Argo, The King’s Speech and Spotlight. The 2009 Black List included the script for the forthcoming HBO series Londongrad, based on David Scarpa’s screenplay about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. The series went into production earlier this year, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the starring role. The 2010 Black List featured a screenplay by Jesse Armstrong entitled “Murdoch” with the synopsis, “As his family gathers for his birthday party, Rupert Murdoch tries to convince his elder children to alter the family trust so that his two youngest children by his newest wife will have voting rights in the company.”

“Everybody said, ‘Great script. Never going to get made,’” Leonard says with a laugh. “The word was, ‘Jesse Armstrong is a very talented writer, what else do we have that he can work on?’ That’s what happens to a lot of people on the list. He took a lot of those core ideas – the King Lear premise of it, the notion of this media tycoon who suffers no fools and likes to curse – and, eight years later, turned it into Succession.”

One unifying factor among these scripts is that none have a premise that suggests a sure-fire blockbuster hit. The most recent Black List is topped by Daniel Jackson’s “Cauliflower”, a comedy with the synopsis, “Under the cruel guidance of a mysterious coach, an ambitious high school wrestler struggles to become a state champion while battling a bizarre infection in his ear that both makes him dominant in his sport and threatens his sanity.” Others include the Harry Potter–adjacent, time-travel comedy “A Hufflepuff Love Story”, “Yasuke” (“the true story of the first and only African Samurai in feudal Japan”), and Leonard’s personal favourite, “In the End”, in which “terminal patients are given the opportunity to go out with a bang with personalised virtual reality ‘perfect endings’”.

Leonard, who grew up in Columbus, Georgia, spent his childhood expecting to be a mathematician, never considering that a role in the film industry was a possibility. “My parents did a very good job of convincing my siblings and I, whether it was true or not, that we belonged in any room that existed,” he says. “I went to Harvard and I thought I was going to major in math but I realised very quickly that there’s a big difference between being good at math in west-central Georgia and being good at math at Harvard. One of my classmates would go on to win the Fields Medal; another had already been in The New York Times for proving part of Fermat’s Last Theorem. I have a hell of an ego about my math ability,” he laughs, “but that was never going to be me.”

After switching to Social Studies, Leonard worked on a congressional campaign and as The Guardian’s correspondent in Trinidad before accepting a job as a business analyst at McKinsey & Company.

“I saw the potential in media and entertainment to define the ways that we see each other, and how we see ourselves, and the way we see the world and what’s possible in it,” he says. “I was also watching a lot of movies, to be honest. So, I moved out to Los Angeles in 2003 and got a job at CAA [Creative Artists Agency] in the literary department. Everything since then has just been some version of trying to answer the question, ‘Can this be done better in a way that benefits everybody?’”

By the time Leonard arrived in Hollywood, it was no longer the home of personality-driven film production companies prioritising the search for fresh faces and ideas. Increasingly, these companies were subsidiaries of larger corporations and risks needed to be justified to boards and shareholders. With economic pressures and the cost of filmmaking increasing, the push to exploit existing intellectual property was growing, making the path to success for an original, inventive script increasingly difficult. After bringing his data analysis skills to a multitude of production companies, Leonard found a home working alongside Will Smith, where he was allowed to run the Black List while also bringing projects to the man now nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for the film King Richard, the 13th Black List script to be nominated for a Best Screenplay Academy Award.

“I’m sympathetic to the position that a lot of green-light people find themselves in,” he continues. “Every decision that you make is a bet on whether something will work or not. And if your entire career you’ve been told that certain things work and certain things don’t, you’re going to make decisions that align with that conventional wisdom. The problem comes when the conventional wisdom is more convention than wisdom.”

A 2017 study by Harvard Business School found that films made from Black List scripts make 90 per cent more in revenue than movies made from scripts not on the Black List. Though Leonard, still showing his mathematical prowess, is quick to qualify its findings. “Who knows if that’s true though. They’re just probabilistic assessments.”

Though he has recently made headlines in the US for a polite Twitter stoush with Ben Stiller over whether Hollywood is a meritocracy, and his TED Talk, “How I accidentally changed the way movies get made”, has been viewed nearly two million times, Leonard is much happier maintaining a low profile. Interviews, he says, “are useful for getting the message out”, even if that message is sometimes misunderstood.

“I don’t think of the Black List as democratising Hollywood,” he says. “I think of it as meritocratising Hollywood. A true meritocracy will lead to a lot more diversity.”

The Black List now also encompasses a website that hosts myriad other projects, including a script-evaluation service targeted at novice screenwriters, screenwriting workshops, partnerships with advocacy organisations such as Women in Film and a host of ways to connect writers with people who can realise their scripts. Many people have attempted to do this before, but Leonard’s edge is that he is approaching it with hard data.

In a recent New York Times column entitled “Hollywood’s Anti-Black Bias Costs It $10 Billion a Year”, Leonard summarised a report published by his former employer, McKinsey & Company, that found America’s film industry is the country’s least diverse business sector. “Black content is undervalued, underdistributed and underfunded,” he wrote. “It also found that Black talent has been systematically shut out of creator, producer, director and writer positions.”

“And that’s just Black people,” he tells me. “That doesn’t count the historical discrimination against women, the Latinx community, the queer community … There’s a lot of money being left on the table and it’s been left on the table for a very long time.”

“If McKinsey came out with a study tomorrow and said, ‘There is $10 billion on the table for the film and television industry if they start making iPhone covers’, there would be a lot of iPhone covers made the following year. We’re not seeing as much shift in the green-light power of members from diverse communities in the industry. These are all large public companies with corporate boards. How long are shareholders and those boards willing to settle for subpar financial outcomes in order to preserve this historical status quo?”

Leonard is a rare example of someone who arrived in Hollywood and created a role for themselves. Between the sporadic interruptions of construction, Leonard leans forward, dreadlocks swinging, to tell me that the real value of what he’s learned isn’t what makes a good story, which he still can’t put his finger on, but how he can specifically show that investing in and green-lighting stories by women and writers with ethnically diverse backgrounds is a sound financial investment.

“Throughout the early part of my career I was told female-driven action movies don’t work,” he says. “The Hunger Games was passed on by every major studio. Twilight was at Paramount for years and couldn’t get made until Summit [a smaller studio] picked it up. I was told, ‘You can’t make movies with Black people and expect them to be successful’. Despite the fact that Will Smith has been one of the biggest and most bankable box-office stars in the world. I mean, Coming to America made hundreds of millions of dollars, in 1988,” he says, visibly exasperated. “Nobody paying attention should have been surprised by Black Panther or Get Out or Crazy Rich Asians. These successes are part of a continuation of a truth about inclusion, not some new trend.”

“I have a fundamental belief that there is extraordinary talent everywhere in the world and that it’s not talent that is cloistered in any given community, it’s opportunity that is,” he says. “And if you solve the opportunity problem, a lot more people will be able to show how talented they are, and everybody will get much better content and make more money.”

One of the most notable shifts during Leonard’s time in Hollywood is the rise of streaming services turned production companies, such as Netflix, HBO and Disney+. Could diverse programming be found through algorithms that bypass ingrained biases?

“What’s interesting about a company like Netflix is that so many of their diverse projects end up being wildly popular, and so I think you’re going to see more diversity from them,” he says. “Squid Game, obviously, set the world on fire, but a lot of people think that Netflix or Amazon or Apple is evaluating material by taking a script, running it through a machine and giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down, and that hasn’t been my sense of things. In the case of Squid Game, for example, they can see, ‘20 per cent more viewers watched that today than yesterday. Something’s happening. Let’s put that on the front page for everybody who is likely to like something like that’. My sense is that you need a human, preferably lots of humans, preferably a diverse group of humans, all weighing in on this stuff, to decide what to make, then you’re able to use data in support of those decisions, but not driving them.”

Now home to thousands of scripts, the Black List’s number of contributing script readers has grown from under 80 to closer to 400. But Leonard is adamant that there was no grand design to change the film industry at the outset of his career.

“When I was kid, I was obsessed with baseball statistics,” he says. “Every year I got the Bill James Almanac for Christmas. I was obsessed with the idea that, with all this information, there had to be a better way. And I’ve always had that approach to things, so whether it was, ‘How do we target voters?’ for the campaign that I was working on, or at McKinsey, people paid us to run analysis and figure out if there is a better way. What is of me that is in the Black List is that obsession with building a tool that can be used by everybody in whatever way they need to use it, to make things a little bit more efficient, a little bit more effective, and result in better movies and television that, selfishly, I can then watch on my couch.”

Andy Hazel

Andy Hazel is a Melbourne-based writer and The Saturday Paper’s editorial assistant.

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