The Communist witch hunts of the 1940s and ’50s that led to the blacklisting of writers, actors, directors, and other entertainment professionals heavily impacted what kinds of films would be made for decades to come. But in 2005, a very different Black List came into existence that would change the film industry in another way and actually seek to help aspiring filmmakers get the work they so eagerly desired.
“Every year there are something like 50,000 screenplays registered with the Writers Guild,” says Black List creator Franklin Leonard in a new Vox video. Leonard previously worked as a script reader for Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, where, he said, “If you are a particularly industrious reader, maybe you’ll read a thousand screenplays a year.” This tremendous gap between work submitted and work being read is part of what inspired Leonard to start the Black List—an email survey where industry insiders can vote on their favorite un-produced screenplays of that year. For over a decade, the resulting list from this survey has been shared online and has had a noticeable impact on which films are then given a chance by production companies.
Scripts like Juno, Lars And The Real Girl, and The Beaver, which would have potentially sat unnoticed for years, started to gain real buzz once they appeared near the top of the Black List. And in an industry where executives are much more likely to go with a “safe bet” like an adaptation of an existing property with a built-in toy line, a little bit of buzz can go a long way for an indie script. That’s not to say that all these scripts are going to be smash hits, but at the very least the Black List refocuses the aim of filmmaking on quality—specifically the quality of a script, the most bare-bones version of a what a good film can be.
You can check out all the previous Black Lists on their website or listen to Leonard’s short-lived podcast Black List Table Reads to actually hear some of those scripts performed aloud by star-studded casts.