Franklin Leonard doesn’t have all the answers. But you can see why many would assume he would. His recent masterclass at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star overran as he was swamped by questions from the audience, largely from writers and first-time filmmakers seeking advice on how to get their projects greenlit.
Leonard is the founder of the Black List. A now-renowned annual survey taken in Hollywood to find the best-unproduced screenplays, it aims to shed light on the best stories which aren’t being told and the writers behind them. It also serves as an online platform which allows scriptwriters and industry representatives to connect and allows any writer around the world to upload their script and have it evaluated by professionals.
It all began with an angry email. In 2005 Leonard was working for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, tasked with reading scripts day in and day out. Jaded by how bad most of them were, Leonard decided to send an impromptu anonymous email to all his script-vetting peers in other companies with a simple request – to share their lists of all the best screenplays they’d come across which haven’t been made into movies, and in exchange they’d get the entire list. Leonard’s impulsive email snowballed into a credible and respected metric in Hollywood.
This is an origin story Leonard tells often, when asked to explain the Black List. Yet each time he needs to update the numbers to quantify the growing impact it’s had. As of now, in the 14 years since its inception, there have been approximately 1200 scripts on the list, of which 400 have been produced. They have won 53 Academy Awards, including 4 of the last 10 Best Picture Awards and 10 of the last 22 Screenwriting Awards. Some of the films to have come out of the list over the years include There Will Be Blood, Slumdog Millionaire, Spotlight and The Social Network.
A champion of screenwriters and self-proclaimed activist who’s vocal about issues of diversity in gender and race in cinema, the painfully articulate Leonard spoke to me about his experience on the MAMI India Gold jury, the gender dynamics of writers and his plans to work with the Indian film industry.
What surprised you most about your experience on the India Gold jury?
Surprised is probably the wrong word, but I think I felt silly not realising just how diverse India is. It’s been fascinating to see films from Mumbai and Delhi and Arunachal Pradesh. It’s a huge country with over a billion people and there are so many fascinating subcultures and it’s been a real joy to be exposed to so many different regional realities. It’s frankly sort of embarrassing for me that I didn’t realise just how diverse it is, and to be able to immerse myself in that has just been the coolest thing in the world.
What’s been your relationship with Indian cinema. You mentioned you haven’t seen many Indian films in the past. Do you get many scripts from India on the platform?
We do, though not as many as I’d hope to get which is part of the reason I’m here. Especially given how mature the film industry is here. Two of my closest friends in high school were Indian American. I went to Harvard and there’s a large Indian American community there so I feel like I’ve been adjacent to the diaspora culture for years and have wanted to come to India mainly for that reason and this is like going to the source.
You’ve said you’ve been meeting many Indian film producers here. Is that for a specific purpose?
To educate myself. And hopefully, we’ll be able to find a way to work together that can be mutually beneficial. But there’s a long history of Americans going elsewhere in the world and thinking they know better and making things worse and I don’t want to do that. For me, it’s really more about getting to know people who are making movies in a different context than I’m used to and finding out whether we can work together in a way that makes both of our jobs easier.
When you travel abroad and meet people in other film industries, I imagine people often say ‘please make a Black List for our industry, we really need it’.
Yeah, absolutely, and I think most people do. Reading screenplays at a high volume is a fundamentally inefficient endeavour. So to have been able to come up with this partial solution to that is very appealing to people, but I think it’s incumbent upon me to realise that we can’t just do what we do in the US everywhere. It’s far more interesting for me to really try to dig a little deeper to understand how things work and why they work that way in order to realise how and why we can be successful together.
You once described the job of reading scripts as visiting ‘a members-only non-descript bookstore where all the covers are blank.’ In India it’s that on steroids given how disorganised the industry is and the wide spectrum of sensibilities. Do you have any advice to script readers here?
Yeah, I mean, e-mail me (laughs). Let me learn how you guys do your job and maybe we can figure out a solution together. But no, I think there’s no way out. You have to read it. There are always those rules like ‘if you don’t like it after the first 30 pages you can skip it’ but I was never good at that. I was always like ‘maybe they have a brilliant idea on page 60’, so I gave people the benefit of the doubt. 99% of the time they didn’t deserve it, but you do it still because the one time you miss it, you get fired. The best thing is to try and find ways to partner with people who have the same job as you in ways that don’t present a conflict of interest and can be mutually beneficial. That’s fundamentally what we did with the Black List and it worked.
You’ve said before that one of your findings with the platform is men are far more confident sending bad scripts whereas women will only send something they think is truly great. Why do you think that is?
Yeah, it’s been a fascinating education about the reality of gender, where I think women also know they won’t be taken as seriously. They won’t get a second chance if they don’t nail it the first time. So they wait till they have something that’s great. Whereas men are like ‘here you go, this is genius. Where’s my million dollars?’. When they’re told it’s not that great, they get very angry and write angry e-mails to us and complain. And the consequences of that, which are fascinating, is that if you look at the average scores by gender and genre, women have a higher average score of every genre. Not because at the top end they’re better writers necessarily, it’s roughly even. But they just submit fewer terrible scripts.
There’s a lot of debate in the festival circuit of how to encourage more female filmmakers with many festivals saying they won’t blindly program films just because they’re made by women. What do you feel is the solution to having a more gender-balanced line-up?
I think it’s a few things. I think you need to address it at every stage of the pipeline. Starting off with the aspiration to be a filmmaker. Make sure we’re presenting stories and narratives about what it means to be a filmmaker to young women and young boys so they can say ‘I want to do that’ right from the start. And when it comes to film schools, we need to make sure we’re admitting people at a 50/50 rate. The fact is in film school no one’s that good, so it’s irrational to say, ‘we’re just going to hire the best people’, who knows what the best person is when they apply to film school?
And then when they graduate, let’s make sure it’s not harder for a woman to get their movie financed and get their story told as it is for a man. And part of the reason for that is a lot of the convention of what works and what doesn’t in theatres is all convention and no wisdom. People are like ‘yeah this is how it’s always been done, superhero movies will be more successful if they have a man starring in them’. Tell that to Wonder Woman. Tell that to Captain Marvel. The same thing with race, look at Black Panther. You guys could have made that movie 15 years ago but you didn’t because you thought it wouldn’t be successful worldwide.
Women also know they won’t be taken as seriously. They won’t get a second chance if they don’t nail it the first time. So they wait till they have something that’s great. Whereas men are like ‘here you go, this is genius. Where’s my million dollars?’.
Film industries tend to love tick box exercises and metrics that save them having to take the time to do the work and engage with the material. Are you ever afraid the Black List will become some sort of arbitrary measure of good and bad?
Yeah, and it’s the wrong way to use the Black List. It’s obviously weirdly flattering but it’s also terrible business. People are like ‘if it’s on the Black List it must be good’. No there’s no such thing as objectively good or bad in this art form or any art form, it just means that a bunch of people thought it was good but it’s also possible that a bunch of those people have terrible taste. So you should probably read the thing yourself and decide what you think. But it’s always funny when I’m the one who tells them that because they’re always like ‘shouldn’t you be telling me that your thing is God’s answer to everything?’ and it’s like ‘No I’d be lying to you if I did. It has its own flaws and limitations and you should interact with it knowing that’.
Given the nature of your work, do people often assume you have the answers to all problems?
Yes, thank you for asking (laughs). I don’t have all the answers and I think part of being good at anything is admitting I don’t have all the answers. I think the hardest part for me is wishing I could do more but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to solve it all. Most of the time if you’re fighting to change the world, you’re going to lose and you need to be okay with that. We need to focus more on the times you do know something and you do have the answer.
How do you manage to keep the same level of enthusiasm and attention with every script you read?
I think every so often you get to see something or read something that’s amazing and it renews your hope. To use a very bad analogy, it’s like a video game where you have that power bar and every script you read that’s not good, it goes down a little bit but then you read something incredible and it’s like power goes up to 100%. It’s the same thing with watching. If you see 10 terrible movies in a row it makes you feel like you never want to see a movie again, and then you see one great one and then you’re like ‘well I guess I’m going to see 10 more terrible movies again’. It happened to me recently with Parasite. I literally hadn’t seen a great movie in a while and when I was in New York I got invited to a press screening and after that I was like ‘alright okay, let’s do this, let’s go fight for good movies again’. But it takes a great movie to do that for me. You just need to find things that inspire you.