Inside the Black List

What it takes for a screenplay to get on Franklin Leonard’s radar

Last Updated: December 14, 2009 @ 5:32 PM

The Black List is out again. Hollywood’s best un-produced scripts — at least according to the over 300 industry people who contributed to Franklin Leonard’s list.

I’ve worked several screenwriting contests before, but no $25,000 prize can really match the prestige of landing on this list. To make it, you have to be in the development pipeline and cause enough buzz that even execs not connected with the project are talking or are at least aware of it.  

So which stories generate that kind of talk? That’s not an empty question when you’re a screenwriter.

Let’s take a look. (These are my observations, if you want synopsis of each title, click here.)

"The Muppet Man": Hollywood still loves a true story or biography, but they need something to give it a twist. Something visually or cinematically interesting whether its schizophrenia or, in this case, Muppets.
 
"The Social Network": This sounds more like a drunken boast made at an industry party: “I bet you a buck I can write a great script about Facebook.” This one’s by Aaron Sorkin, so I think it’s a case of “don’t try this until you’re an A-list superstar” but maybe execs are looking for writers who can make drama (or comedy) out of a Business Week article. (But I’m having uncomfortable flashbacks to the Peter Gallagher scene in "The Player" where he’s reading off headlines for story ideas)  
 
"The Voices": I’m impressed. There are times I’m not sure the industry can appreciate regular comedy, let alone black comedy. The same industry that just released "Old Dogs" is buzzing about a script with a crazy dude and a severed head. I’ll be even more impressed if somebody pulls the trigger on this one.
 
"Prisoners": Speaking of pulling the trigger. Wow. This is the one that really grabs my attention. Just goes to show you two things. First that a really dramatic logline is your best screenwriting weapon. And second that Hollywood is always trying to capture the recent past and sum it up in cinematic form. 
 
"Cedar Rapids": Proof that the town takes comedy just as seriously as it does drama. There are still plenty of "Paul Blart: Mall Cops," but there’s also this. A scenario that could easily be played dramatically (and probably does at some point).  
 
"Londongrad": Hollywood loves to be topical even if it ruffles some important people. Russian billionaires are major players in town now. I don’t think too many of them would be happy with this project. Inside every exec is a little Orson Welles who dreams of standing up to the Hearst empire.
 
"L.A. Rex": "Training Day" is still hot in the minds of Hollywood. This would be, by my count, the third or fifth time they’ve remade it. Thing is they keep it in the same milieu. Once again it’s cops on L.A. streets. Isn’t it past time to shake the Training Day formula up a little bit by tossing it into different genres? "Training Day" meets "Hancock"? Just throwing that out there.
 
"Desperados": Again I’m impressed. A female driven comedy (although shouldn’t it be "Desperadas"?) Often the talk around town sounds like the He Man Woman Haters Club. Every month you hear about some studio exec declaring that women’s films don’t make any money. So it’s refreshing to hear that an Ilsa Fisher vehicle has got some great mojo behind it.
"The Gunslinger": Sort of a have your cake and eat it to script. You get the fun of shooting down scores of bad guys and the remorse of having to actually do time for it. Hollywood in the 21st century is schizophrenic, let’s face it. They still want the style and unbridled joy of the earlier decades but at the same time dredge up all the crap that those earlier generations covered with a coat of whitewash.
 
"By Way of Helena": A bit of an oddball really. The logline doesn’t do anything great for me. In fact it sets off a few warning bells with its period setting and undefined genre. Is it drama, mystery, supernatural? I guess this one goes to show that a great read goes a long way. 
 
"The Days Before": A few sci-fi fans lamented the lack of fantasy on the top 10 (or 11). Hey, one in the top 10 percent out of 97 is still pretty darn good. And at the end of the day, despite yearnings to be dramatic, artistic, relevant, what Hollywood does better than anyone else is deliver spectacular entertainment. If you’re a CGI animator, I wouldn’t worry too much. You’ll be blowing up the earth or creating an alien capital sometime in the near future. Don’t worry.

Michael Lee is a novel writer, blogger and freelance journalist living in L.A. He's been a judge for the prestigious PAGE Awards and blogs about his two biggest passions, screenwriting and food, at Screenwriting Foxhole and To Cook and Eat in L.A., respectively. Lee is also a co-author of "The Insider's Guide to Screenwriting" and has just published his first novel, "My Frankenstein."