The Black List: How Hollywood's Buzziest Scripts Get Their Juice

Image credit: Mortensen: Macall Polay; Smith: Merrick Morton; Page: Doane Gregory

In 2005, Leonard was a former McKinsey analyst and congressional campaign communications director who'd landed as a development exec at Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, Appian Way. He'd read nothing but garbage for months. Fed up, he sent an e-mail to his pals in Hollywood and asked them to name the 10 best screenplays they'd come across that year. Ninety people responded, and Leonard established a simple ranking system: The script with the most votes would be No. 1. (That year Things We Lost in the Fire took the honor.) Leonard e-mailed the results to the 90 folks who'd voted, and then he went on vacation. He returned home to find that the list had been forwarded back to him 25 times by people who didn't know he'd actually created it in the first place. ''It became a thing very quickly,'' Leonard says. ''I'd love to say that this was all part of the master plan, but I just wanted to read some good scripts.''

After leaving Appian Way, Leonard worked as a development exec for director-producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack. Both died within months of each other this year, and Leonard found a home at Universal. He now submits requests to some 400 industry insiders — from lowly producers' assistants to executive VPs of development — for their honest, anonymous assessments of the best writing of the year. (This year, 260 responded.) But Leonard still generally deflects attention from himself. ''This list isn't about me,'' he says. ''It's about the screenplays, the writers, and, more broadly, the Hollywood community that evaluates the movies.''

The Hollywood community, by the way, does occasionally snipe at Leonard and his list. Some think that the scripts the list highlights are too navel-gazing and quirky. Others insist that it will eventually be hijacked by agents trying to promote their clients — if it hasn't been hijacked already. At the risk of anyone in Hollywood trusting someone, though, most give Leonard the benefit of the doubt. ''Franklin's very ethical,'' says WMA agent Roberts. ''Some people could have been easily corrupted. I believe the list is legitimate.''

The screenwriters, meanwhile, are ecstatic. Even for writers whose screenplays don't end up on the big screen, the list can be life-changing. Josh Zetumer has landed scripts on the list for the past two years. Neither has been filmed yet, but the 27-year-old went from working as an assistant for a neatnik lawyer to a stint scribing dialogue on set for Daniel Craig and Quantum of Solace. ''I was cleaning up after a lawyer's maid,'' he says, ''and suddenly I'm writing dialogue on a cocktail napkin, and it's landing in a Bond movie!'' They don't even write Hollywood endings like that.

Exclusive! See the 10 scripts on the 2008 Black List!

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Originally posted Dec 10, 2008 Published in issue #1026 Dec 19, 2008 Order article reprints
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