For Screenwriters, Making 'Black List' May Be A Blessing

A few years ago, film executive Franklin Leonard puts together the Black List — the best unproduced screenplays of the year. Hits like Juno and 500 Days of Summer were discovered on Leonard's list. Leonard tells NPR he puts it together because so many good scripts get lost in the pile of the thousands that are written.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Being blacklisted in Hollywood means a whole different thing these days. Being on it can be one of the best things for a budding young screenwriter.

The Black List was started a few years ago. It features the best unproduced screenplays of the year. A film executive named Franklin Leonard puts it together. Three years ago, screenplays for the films "Juno" and "500 Days of Summer" were discovered on his list. And Leonard puts it together, he says, because so many good scripts get lost in the pile of the thousands that are written. And in Leonard's case, he can only read a fraction of them.

Mr. FRANKLIN LEONARD (Film Executive): A fair estimate is somewhere between 10 to 15 a week. So you're probably reading between 500 to 1,000 screenplays in a given year.

RAZ: And maybe none of those will be optioned, right?

Mr. LEONARD: That's entirely possible, yes.

RAZ: Let's talk about some of the films that made the list this year, and I want to start by asking about this one. This is my personal favorite. Do we need to bleep this out? We'll call it "Romancing Jane Austen." It's really the F-word there, instead of the R-word that I just used.

This seems like a Bill & Ted's-style adventure of two guys who go back in time, and they have to convince Jane Austen to have relations with one of them. Can you tell me the story?

Mr. LEONARD: It's the story of several young men, frustrated by the unreasonable expectations that Jane Austen's novels have created in modern romance, find themselves back in time, and the only way to return to their modern day is by seducing Jane Austen.

RAZ: And that - has that been optioned? Is that going to be made?

Mr. LEONARD: To my knowledge, it remains a currently available script. But I believe it has producers attached.

RAZ: Take note. Take note. Let me ask you about another one that made the Black List. This is called "College Republicans."

Mr. LEONARD: Yes, this year's number one script.

RAZ: It's about Karl Rove running a dirty campaign for the National College Republican chairman, and he's doing this under the guidance of Lee Atwater.

Mr. LEONARD: That's correct.

RAZ: And is this supposed to be true? Is this a true story?

Mr. LEONARD: I think it's based on true events. You know, I don't know the extent to which every event in the screenplay actually happened. I suspect that there's a great deal of fictionalization that goes into the writing of it.

But it's a really remarkable screenplay. And I think what's most compelling about it is it takes these two figures of recent American history and tells the story of how they became who they are in the context of a buddy road comedy.

RAZ: There's another film based on a week in the life of Jackie Kennedy.

Mr. LEONARD: That's right.

RAZ: And this is right after her husband's assassination. What do you know about that screenplay?

Mr. LEONARD: Quite a bit, actually. It's written by a writer named Noah Oppenheim...

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEONARD: ...who happens to be a friend of mine as well. And it's essentially - and one might describe it as "The Queen" treatment of Jackie Kennedy, which is to say that it follows a brief period of her life, in this case the seven days immediately following the assassination of her husband, and it chronicles the ways in which she created the myth of Camelot.

RAZ: Another cool script, one called "Safe House." This is about a man in Rio de Janeiro who helps a rogue ex-CIA agent escape assassins. It sounds pretty cool. It sounds like it could make a good film.

Mr. LEONARD: Yeah, it's a very strong script, and it's actually - I believe it's in pre-production at Universal Pictures right now...

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEONARD: ...with I believe Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds...

RAZ: So this is a big name. So this - and I guess I should point out that there are screenwriters who make your list that are big names. I mean, Aaron Sorkin was on your list last year. He was already a big name.

Mr. LEONARD: That's correct. You know, much has been made about the fact that Aaron Sorkin was on last year's list at number two with the screenplay for "The Social Network." But what little has been said about the fact that the number one screenplay that year was a speculative biopic of Jim Henson written by a young Australian named Christopher Weekes, who at the time of the list's release was still living in Australia.

I think there's something very special about a place where a writer with sort of no renown like Christopher Weekes actually ends up in the number one spot over someone like Aaron Sorkin...

RAZ: What happened? What happened to that film? Is it being made?

Mr. LEONARD: It's not being made. You know, there are some serious rights questions around, you know, telling the life story of someone and especially using, you know, his characters that he created in the telling of that life story.

I don't know the current status, but I believe that Christopher Weekes is now working with the Henson family to develop a biopic of Jim Henson.

RAZ: So Franklin, you work for Will Smith's production company, actually.

Mr. LEONARD: Correct.

RAZ: Do you go up to Will Smith and say: Look, here are 75 films. These 40, nobody has optioned them. Do you go to him and say: We've got to consider these?

Mr. LEONARD: Well, look, I mean, that's some small part of the reading that I'm going to be doing over the holidays is looking for the material that is still available, that fits with, you know, who we are as a production company. And if I find something that I think might work, I'll definitely do that.

RAZ: There's got to be some butt-kicking in that screenplay, I would gather, right?

Mr. LEONARD: No, we're not all butt-kicking at Overbrook. But, you know, a little butt-kicking on the screen never hurt anybody.

RAZ: You could do like a ballet in butt-kicking thing.

Mr. LEONARD: The sort of "Black Swan" meets "The Wrestler"?

RAZ: Yeah, something like that.

Mr. LEONARD: We might consider that. I'll have to give that some thought.

RAZ: Yeah, and if you make that, remember me.

Mr. LEONARD: You've got it. If we do "Black Swan" meets "The Wrestler," you will have a ticket to the premiere.

RAZ: That's Franklin Leonard. He is the author of "The Black List." That's the list of the undiscovered screenplays from Hollywood. Franklin is also the vice president of creative affairs at Overbrook Entertainment. He joined us from NPR West in Southern California.

Franklin Leonard, thank you so much.

Mr. LEONARD: Thank you for having me.

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