Bombast: The Black List
What do (500) Days of Summer, The Men Who Stare at Goats, In Bruges, Safe House, Snow White and the Huntsman, Draft Day, The Judge, Bad Teacher, and 47 Ronin all have in common? If you answered, “They are all poor-to-awful movies,” you would be correct. If you answered, “They all appeared on the Hollywood Black List,” ditto.
Amid the crowded field of meaningless distinctions that we call “awards season,” The Black List is a fair contender for the most meaningless of all, for it confers honors onto movies which don’t yet exist, like a Most Beautiful Baby contest honoring promising zygotes.
Since 2005, The Black List has been released on the second Friday of December—just as the governing bodies of the entertainment industry’s various self-affirmation committees are announcing their “noms” and Las Vegas is placing odds on forerunners. Its architect is Franklin Leonard, who was a 26-year-old development executive at Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions when he conducted a survey of favorite scripts via email in 2004, ultimately compiling a list of what an opening disclaimer is always careful to state is “not a ‘best of’ list,” but, “at best, a ‘most liked’ list.” Per a 2010 history of The Black List in The Los Angeles Times, Leonard invited a group of “film executives and high-level assistants” to submit “an unranked list of up to 10 of their favorite scripts of the year.” That first year, The Black List was culled from the picks of 90 contributors; the most recent credits 250 contributors, down from a high of around 300 in 2009-12. (This, anyway, is what the preambles to the various Black Lists say—elsewhere the website reads “Every December, we survey over 600 production company and film financier executives about their most liked screenplays and aggregate the responses for the industry and the public.”) The given criterion for inclusion states that the script must be “uniquely associated with” the year in question, but “will not be released in theaters during [it].” (In 2011, the wording was changed to read “will not have completed principal photography during this calendar year.”)
The inaugural 2005 list is topped by titles that would eventually make their way into production and be cut and polished into glittering indie gems, including Things We Lost in the Fire (25 mentions), Juno (24), Lars and the Real Girl (15), and Charlie Wilson’s War (13). This first list was a rather slim, quick-to-the-point affair, providing nothing more than the title of the script and the name of the author, agent, and agency attached. For the first and last time, any film that received even a single mention appeared on the list. This changed as The Black List became a larger and larger production: the cutoff was two mentions in 2006, four mentions in 2008, five mentions in 2009, and six mentions in 2011, which is where the number stands today.
Fortuitously for Leonard, who seems to have assayed his pet project into a fully functioning sideline business, The Black List appeared at the cusp of the list-obsessed Web 2.0 era, and was an almost instant success. Its production values took a significant leap forward by 2007, the first year in which brief synopses of the scripts were included. That list was topped by Danny Strong’s Recount (44 mentions), a retelling of the 2000 election runoff made for HBO the following year, and Beau Willimon’s Farragut North (43), a political skullduggery yarn, possibly indicative of second-term Bush II political malaise and blah blah blah, that later became George Clooney’s The Ides of March. In addition to the plot blurbs, there was another new feature to the 2007 Black List: films were designated as either AVAILABLE or UNAVAILABLE, depending on if they had been spoken for. Out of the 128 films on the 2007 list, 35 were listed as AVAILABLE—one of them being a script by Paul Webb titled Selma, which received 29 mentions—while three were already AVAILABLE FOR DISTRIBUTION. Adventureland, a period-piece coming-of-age story that takes place during a young man’s one crazy summer working a theme park job, was UNAVAILABLE, while The Way, Way Back, a coming-of-age story that takes place during a young man’s one crazy summer working a swimming pool job, was still AVAILABLE for the taking. This is another way of saying that a little under a third of the scripts on The Black List were at all likely to have their fates significantly altered by inclusion therein. In the main, then, the list was serving no purpose other than to reconfirm the popularity of projects already well-liked enough to be optioned by “production company and film financier executives.” It is Hollywood reiterating, before the eyes of the world, a consensus that it had already reached, allowing us to feel that we have some privileged vantage on the process.
The 2008 list at least retained some ability to surprise, topped as it was by The Beaver, and including space for such beguiling items as Untitled Channing Tatum Project and a project called Keiko, described as follows: “A white teenage girl, who was adopted and raised in Japan by Japanese parents, travels to America to find her long lost father, comedian Dana Carvey.” (The script is credited to one Elizabeth Wright Shapiro, which is presumably a pseudonym for “Dana Carvey.”) By 2009, however, The Black List had well and truly arrived in its new post as an early-warning awards predictor, featuring a little-script-that-could called The Social Network by an unheard-of barista moonlighting as a screenwriter named Aaron Sorkin in the number two slot. In 2010, Margin Call, by the director of plodding, blown-up miniseries melodrama J.C. Chandor, hauled in 31 votes, just above Eric Warren Singer’s American Bullshit (retitled, inevitably, as American Hustle) and Argo. Today The Black List website boasts of its clairvoyance in recognizing “3 of last 6” Best Picture Academy Award winners, its anointed films being responsible for 37 Oscar wins (and 196 nom nom noms) and $23.22 billion in global box office. It also offers paid memberships for aspiring screenwriters to be evaluated by Black List professionals (Leonard recommends purchasing multiple evaluations per script), presumably so that they may learn the black arts whereby Black List–ready scripts are created.
The King’s Speech
It isn’t too difficult to guess what kind of work a Black List tutelage encourages. A palpable shift occurs in the tenor of Black List material in the immediate aftermath of The Social Network and The King’s Speech (which received a measly seven mentions) cleaning up at the 83rd Academy Awards. The “Based on a True Story” biopic, always a popular prestige form, begins to runs rampant. Browsing various Black Lists, I find scripts about Jim Henson (The Muppet Man), Jackie Kennedy Onassis (Jackie), Jimi Hendrix (Jimi), Atari founder Nolan Bushnell (A Fistful of Quarters), Bobby Fischer (Pawn Sacrifice), F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (The Beautiful and the Damned), John Lennon (Nowhere Boy), John McEnroe (Superbrat), Carl Sagan (The Golden Record), Lewis Carroll (Queen of Hearts), and Bill Watterson (The Boy and His Tiger). In 2012 alone we have screenplays about Theodore Geisel before his Cat in the Hat fame (Seuss), the future Hillary Clinton during Watergate (Rodham), Sam Peckinpah in Colombia (If They Move… Kill ’Em!), Marlon Brando auditioning for his Streetcar role (Hey, Stella!), Senator Joe McCarthy’s rise to infamy (McCarthy), and Hearst and Pulitzer’s circulation wars (Titans of Park Row). The following year, there were two ranking movies that feature Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers as a character (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and I’m Proud of You), and another two that concern the making of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (The Mayor of Shark City and The Shark Is Not Working).
These sorts of movies are popular for the same reason that fat tomes of historical fiction by the likes of James Clavell, James A. Michener, and Leon Uris used to be the only fiction that you’d find in houses otherwise devoid of books: there is a significant segment of the American public that thinks this business of making characters and stories up out of thin air is a little suspicious and possibly effeminate. Backers gravitate towards True Story film properties because, like superhero movies, franchise reboots, and genre work, they utilize recognizable icons and known quantities—though, unlike all of those examples, true-life stories of famous people triumphing over honest-to-God hardships are widely and erroneously considered to belong to a higher category of morally improving works. It’s a known fact that people feel favorably inclined towards Fred Rogers and Bill Watterson and their creations, therefore, presumably, people will respond favorably to seeing these men (they are, almost invariably, men) as characters in a movie; of course they will be flawed and prickly and all-too-human, as current fashion would reject, say, The Glenn Miller Story (1954) as “sentimental.” The films that will come of these screenplays also tend to perform well with awards tribunals, particularly in those hard-to-quantify acting categories. We all know what Fred Rogers (or Carl Sagan, or Hillary Clinton) look and sound like, ergo a performer who can manage to approximate the vocal cadence and mannerism of any of the above can be said beyond a shadow of a doubt to have given a good performance. By this logic, mimicry is the highest attainment of acting, and Frank Caliendo is our modern Olivier.
And so the beat goes on, and yesterday’s Black List grads become today’s awards contenders. In 2011, The Imitation Game, on the life and times of World War II cryptographer Alan Turing, cleaned up with a whopping 133 votes. (This makes it, by one measure, the greatest script in Black List history.) In weeks and months to come The Imitation Game will duke it out for honors with Selma, Whiplash (Class of 2012), Foxcatcher (Class of 2008, when it was already tagged “Media Rights Capital. Grandview Pictures, Bennett Miller producing”), and Clint Eastwood’s disconcertingly excellent American Sniper (Class of 2013), from Jason Hall’s adaptation of the autobiography of the late Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle. (Presumably not the same “Chris Kyle” whose script, Serena, landed on the 2010 Black List.)
It’s still a little early for the 2013 batch to have ripened, though as it does we may expect more of the same. In that year’s dossier, which begins with a quotation from Nelson Mandela (subject of 2007 Black List honoree The Human Factor, later filmed by Eastwood as Invictus), I find two instances of the phrase “terminally ill” among the synopses of the top four scripts, along with seven instances of “true story,” “true events,” “true-life,” or some variation thereof, and at least three times as many instances where it might have been used or is essentially implied.
Other than having been released on Monday morning, the 2014 list doesn’t upend well-established precedent. It is topped by a script about Catherine the Great and a historical drama about the O.J. Simpson trial, and there were origin stories and rise-to-power biopics for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Lyndon Baines Johnson, 60 Minutes co-host Mike Wallace, and McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. Beloved-from-childhood figures Shel Silverstein and “Oz” creator L. Frank Baum also get the treatment, while the historical fictions include a whodunit in which a little-person P.I. investigates sinister goings-on around the filming of The Wizard of Oz, and a re-creation of the torrid affair between Ingrid Bergman and war photographer Robert Capa.
Elsewhere, the popularity of the CIA does not seem to have been greatly affected by recent U.S. torture revelations, as they figure in not less than four screenplays. Women are also “in,” so long as they are placed in a futuristic/postapocalyptic context. A script called Erin’s Voice seems to be a feature-length version of the Twin Peaks plotline in which David Lynch’s Agent Gordon Cole is only able to hear the voice of Mädchen Amick’s waitress Shelly Johnson. Other trends emerge: alas, the days of overreaching wordplay titles like Toy’s House (“When 14-year-old Joe Toy and his buddies tire of their parents overbearing ways…”) and Winter’s Discontent (“When Herb Winter’s wife of 40 years dies…”) are behind us, and the once-mighty gerund is limited to a single screenplay (Seducing Ingrid Bergman). Now, in addition to the proper-name title, it would appear that we have entered the heyday of the “The” title: The Munchkin, The Babysitter, The Wall, The Cascade, The Defection, The Founder, The Search, The Shower, The Bringing, The Takeaway—which makes it look as if movies are now being packaged like generic products at the supermarket in Repo Man. Plot synopses have been pared down to meet the log-line gold-standard of being easily graspable by the brain-damaged: “The investigation of a murder on a moon colony”…“A girl tracks down the man responsible for her father’s death and avenges him.” Two of the more elaborate titles on the 2014 list are among the only scripts that I can imagine myself seeing were they to eventually be filmed. One, called Manchester-by-the-Sea, was written by Kenneth Lonergan. Another, called I Am Ryan Reynolds, purports to be “An inside look at the marriage, career, and mental state of 2010’s Sexiest Man Alive.”
We are told that the name “The Black List” is, per Los Angeles Times writer Nicole Sperling, a reference to Leonard’s African American heritage, though it also just happens to invoke the political purge that permanently sundered friendships and irrevocably changed lives in the movie colony, almost invariably for the worse in the case of those on the side that was politically out-of-favor. (The McCarthy/HUAC connection is strengthened by the fact that The Black List singles out the achievements of screenwriters, for screenwriting was the one “faceless” occupation which Hollywood artisans tarred with the Commie brush could still practice.) The presentation of the list—the 2009 cover is designed as a communiqué stamped “CONFIDENTIAL” with the text “redacted”—is designed to reinforce the impression of forbidden knowledge, to suggest we the public are being allowed a privileged glimpse at some sort of samizdat that was smuggled out of Brentwood, at risk of life and liberty, in a renegade agent’s colon.
This is, to be clear, pure and utter hogwash. Whatever claim The Black List may have had to being a platform to draw attention to the work of outsiders for maybe 16 seconds in 2005, today it’s about as inside as you can get. Admittedly, it’s poor sport to disparage “movies” before they are movies per se—that is, before they have had the opportunity to actually cohere on-set or play for an audience. Von Sternberg made a film about Catherine the Great, and it’s not half bad, so hope must spring eternal for the 2016 movie The Empress to be directed by Tom Hooper or whomever. The Black List, however, encourages just such premature evaluation, pushing the process of self-fulfilling prophecy through which distinction in filmmaking is determined back to the very moment of conception. Far from shining light on overlooked and undiscovered properties, The Black List establishes a space in which projects meeting certain unspoken requirements can begin to be competitively bred and acquire a pedigree before they have, in most cases, taken their first toddling steps before the camera. In doing so, it has set itself up as a kind of boarding school for prestige projects, one more item on the resume that can offer a leg up during awards season. Posed as a renegade antidote to The System, it has no purpose other than to perpetuate it and its cynicism, and to reward maximum calculation.
It is with this in mind that I announce that my script for The Cartoonist, about Charles Schulz’s coming-of-age in Minnesota, and his unrequited love for the real-life Little Red-Haired Girl, is now up on the auction block. Direct all inquiries to my agent.