How Franklin Leonard and The Black List Changed Hollywood : Planet Money In 2005, an anonymous list of the best unmade scripts in Hollywood shook up the movie biz. This episode: how a math-loving, movie nerd solved Hollywood's script problem. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Hollywood's Black List

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

OK. So, Franklin, you are a movie producer...

FRANKLIN LEONARD: Yeah.

MALONE: ...Which means you know scripts. What's the opening scene of this story, of your story?

LEONARD: That's honestly a really tough question because it really depends. Look, I think it depends - there's an opening version that's me as a young Black nerd realizing that being on the math team isn't going to do much for his social life and spending Friday and Saturday nights by himself in empty movie theaters watching literally everything that came out from the major studios.

MALONE: That's a good one.

LEONARD: Yeah, that one works.

MALONE: And then, you know, in the movie version, we cross-fade - grown-up version of the nerdy movie kid. It's 2004. He's in Hollywood now, his early 20s. He's trying to get a foot in the movie industry. Franklin Leonard had worked one low-level job, then a slightly better low-level job and now he'd made it to the final round of interviews for an even better low-level job but this time at Leonardo DiCaprio's production company. Leo had just made "The Aviator." He was as big as ever. And Franklin shows up for the final round of this job interview, and it is with Leo himself.

LEONARD: And I remember him asking me what my favorite movie was and completely freezing up. Like, my brain just seized. And...

MALONE: Wait - did you not expect that question? That feels like the obvious question that you're going to get.

LEONARD: I did. I did. And let me just say, anybody who's ever planning on interviewing for anything in Hollywood, have an answer to that ready to go.

MALONE: Yeah. Yeah.

LEONARD: Sometimes, your brain just fails to work.

MALONE: In Franklin's defense, that is an intimidating task. You're a relative nobody standing in front of one of the biggest movie stars in the entire world, and you are supposed to hand him a single movie from, like, the ocean of possibilities, and you can't say "Titanic."

LEONARD: I went home and made a list of my hundred favorite movies and sent it back and said, look, in the moment, brain wasn't working. Here are a hundred answers to that question. If you want me to expand on any one of them, I'm happy to do so. And then I was lucky enough to get the job.

MALONE: He got the job. Franklin Leonard was now a junior executive at Appian Way Productions, a job that boils down to being kind of a nobody in the office sifting through an ocean of terrible movie scripts and finding the perfect gem for the biggest movie star in the world; in other words, a version of sort of the same thing that left him a mumbling mess in his interview in the first place.

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MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone. Every year, 50,000 movie scripts, teleplays and other pieces of writerly stuff get registered with the Writers Guild of America - 50,000 - most of which sucks. But a handful of which will become the movies that change our lives. Today on the show, how a math-loving movie nerd used a spreadsheet and an anonymous Hotmail address to solve one of Hollywood's most fundamental problems - picking winners from a sea of garbage. And he may just have reinvented the power structure of Hollywood along the way.

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MALONE: It's 2005. Franklin Leonard is a junior executive at Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, which sounds glamorous but arguably he is a glorified script reader whose boss' boss is Leonardo DiCaprio. Franklin's job is to help that boss find the next great movie for Leo, which means he is constantly reading movie scripts.

LEONARD: Every junior executive lives in constant fear of the trade story that breaks about some exciting new script that they didn't know about that their boss is like, why didn't you know about this?

MALONE: Franklin is supposed to know about everything, which is tough because there's this famous old saying in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. As in, it's really hard to know what movies are going to work. So if you do find something, any piece of information, that can help you gauge what might work, that information, Franklin is learning, that is Hollywood gold.

LEONARD: One of the things that's drilled into your head is that information is the most valuable thing...

MALONE: Yeah.

LEONARD: ...And that information is to be protected and kept in-house, and exploitation of that information is how we gain power and leverage.

MALONE: Like, get what little information you can manage, and then if it's kind of good, put up a wall as quickly as possible.

LEONARD: That's exactly right.

MALONE: Movie scripts are a kind of information, like the fundamental piece of information for a movie. And so Franklin's job is to go out into the world and find undiscovered scripts before anybody else. Finding those scripts, though, amongst the thousands and thousands being written every year...

LEONARD: It's a bit like walking into, like, the largest bookstore in the world. And every book has the exact same cover. There's no cover art. There's no, like, Publishers Weekly. There's no reviews available to you. But your job is to walk into that sort of hyper anonymized bookstore and come out with the best books available.

MALONE: That seems impossible.

LEONARD: Yeah.

MALONE: And Franklin says you can see how a problem emerges quickly. In Hollywood, people deal with this overwhelming amount of information by assuming they should reach for the same shelves of that anonymous bookstore as they always do. They assume they should make the same kinds of movies, written by the same kinds of people, starring the same kinds of people. Yes, we are generally talking about white men people.

LEONARD: You assume because this has been the case for you thus far that a white writer who went to Dartmouth is better than a Black writer who went to Clark Atlanta or Spelman. The conventional wisdom that you assume is wisdom is more often than not convention. And that is especially true in Hollywood, where the convention has been created by people who are in no way, shape or form representative of the audience and consumer that they're trying to sell to.

MALONE: Franklin decided it was going to be part of his job to try and find scripts outside of the conventions while, of course, also keeping an eye open for the next conventional blockbuster, which, yeah, was going to mean lots more reading than normal.

LEONARD: You know, look; I've always been a bit of a grind. But my competitive advantage was my capacity to work. And so every weekend, I would take home a banker's box full of scripts - literally 25, 30 screenplays - and try to read them all.

MALONE: Every Saturday afternoon, there is Franklin, sitting on his couch in his black sweatpants, flipping through page after page after page, hoping he is about to read a life-changing story.

LEONARD: Imagine if Christmas was every Saturday, but every Saturday, you ran downstairs and opened the box that you were most excited about and it was socks. Because there was the possibility of getting everything that you ever wanted.

MALONE: Yeah.

LEONARD: But there is the probability that it's socks.

MALONE: Most Saturdays and Sundays go like this. Franklin tears into his Christmas scripts. Seven hours later, Franklin is sitting in a pile of socks. And the worst thing is when he goes into the office on Monday his boss says, you read anything good? And Franklin has to say no. It was as if he didn't do any work that weekend because most scripts are so bad that Franklin would be in trouble for recommending them. And even if he is lucky enough to find a script that he loves, he's really got to think about whether it is the right kind of thing for Leo's company. Like, there was a script going around that year about a guy dealing with his interpersonal trauma by buying and dating a sex doll.

LEONARD: You know, it's easy to imagine reading that and saying, oh, this is a really well-observed human story. But imagine going into your boss' office and saying, you should read this, and when they ask you what it's about, saying this is what it's about.

MALONE: Leonardo DiCaprio, I think you should play this role where you date a doll. Like, that's a tough sell.

LEONARD: Exactly. That's a tough sell for the most confident among us.

MALONE: Franklin's breaking point came late one night. He remembers he was in the office. It was dark outside. He was supposed to go on vacation. And he just kept thinking about how he was inevitably going to end up drowning in bad scripts on vacation, and all of that work would generate nothing of actual value for his job.

LEONARD: And I remember looking out the window and thinking, I don't know that this is sustainable, and I need to come up with a solution.

MALONE: How is there not a better system for finding good screenplays? Like, if you do the friends-of-friends method, you end up with the friends-of-friends scripts. And if you try this brute force thing, you're going to ruin your weekends and your vacation. Plus, you would need 50 more Franklins to see all of the scripts anyway. And that's when it dawns on Franklin; there are more than 50 Franklins in Hollywood.

LEONARD: Got on my desktop, fired up my calendar and went through and looked at every single person who had a job similar to mine who I had had breakfast, lunch, dinner or drinks with.

MALONE: If you had eavesdropped on those breakfasts and drinks, Franklin says, you would have heard the junior executives ask each other this same exact question.

LEONARD: Have you read anything good lately?

MALONE: Yes, these junior execs are competitors. And, yes, information is power, and companies would probably not be jazzed about them sharing that information. But, you know, these are low-level producers. They're doing each other favors, and it's all off the record anyway. Who is going to know about this? And so Franklin figures, let's see if anyone's read anything good lately. He opens up an email and he bccs about 75 of his fellow junior execs.

LEONARD: And I said, you know, hey, send me a list of your 10 favorite scripts. In exchange, I will send you the combined responses back.

MALONE: Did you say who you were? Like, I'm a...

LEONARD: No.

MALONE: I am a mysterious junior executive. You didn't say anything else?

LEONARD: I do not believe that I did. I created an anonymous Hotmail address. I believe it was blacklist2005@hotmail.com.

MALONE: Oh, no.

He called it The Black List partly to honor the blacklisted writers during the McCarthy era and partly because he always hated the idea that the word black gets used to mean bad, so this blacklist was going to mean great screenplays. He had no idea if people would respond, but surprisingly, responses started coming back. Maybe these other junior executives felt as stuck as Franklin. Maybe it was just that this information bargain was a good deal; I share 10 scripts, I get a whole list back. There were around 90 responses. And every time somebody mentioned the same script, Franklin treated that like a vote for that script. And he starts logging all of this into a spreadsheet.

LEONARD: Twenty-five people voted for "Things We Lost In The Fire" by Allan Loeb. Twenty-four people mentioned "Juno" by Diablo Cody. Fifteen votes - "Lars And The Real Girl" by Nancy Oliver. Fourteen votes...

MALONE: "Lars And The Real Girl" - that is the script about the guy and the sex doll. If you were a junior executive thinking, this is good, but is this good; I'm not important enough to risk bringing this to my boss, well, The Black List was a way of saying you were right. It was good. And here is a number instead of just your instincts.

LEONARD: Fourteen votes - "Only Living Boy In New York" by Allan Loeb, "Charlie Wilson's War" by Aaron Sorkin.

MALONE: Aaron Sorkin, by the way, a big deal in 2005. This wasn't just about finding undiscovered writers. It was any script that was great and not made.

LEONARD: And a script called "Peacock" by writers named Michael Lander and Ryan Roy.

MALONE: The top 10 of the very first Black List.

LEONARD: Top 10 of the very first Black List.

MALONE: At this point, The Black List was just a spreadsheet that only Franklin could see, and he's about to send it back to all those other junior executives who contributed. And he looks at it for a moment - all of this normally off-the-record insider Hollywood intel now written in a single place. He takes a deep breath, and he hits send. And then he packs up and heads off for vacation in Mexico.

LEONARD: And about a week into vacation, I went to the hotel sort of business center to check my email on, like, the public computer. And this list had been forwarded back to me several dozen times. And everyone's like, oh, my God, where did this thing come from? A lot of the scripts on this list are good. Like, where did this come from? And...

MALONE: What's your thought? Yeah.

LEONARD: It was terrifying. My thought is is that my career in Hollywood has a clock on it, and the doomsday clock has just sped up.

MALONE: This anonymous list of the best unmade screenplays was blowing up. It had gone way beyond the small circle it was initially sent to. It even ended up covered in the industry press. And so Franklin kept his head down. He stayed anonymous. And one day, he gets this call from an agent saying that his client has written this amazing script. It's perfect for Leo. It's like the usual call except then the agent says...

LEONARD: Hey, don't tell anybody, but I have it on good authority that this script is going to be the No. 1 script on next year's Black List. And I immediately thought to myself, well, that's interesting because I made The Black List, and I'm not making another one because I don't want to get run out of town on rails, but I'm fascinated that you think that the speculative notion of your client script getting on the list is a sales tool for you. That must mean that this list that I created has value that I didn't anticipate.

MALONE: And you instantly knew that that person was a schmuck and full of shit.

LEONARD: It was a good object lesson in not trusting agents.

MALONE: 2006 rolls around. Franklin does it again, another anonymous email, send me your favorite unmade screenplays - "Superbad," "There Will Be Blood," "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly." It's making Franklin's job easier. It is also getting more and more buzz, but he does not want people to know he's behind it. It is still a major breach of this Hollywood code.

LEONARD: Early in 2007, I'm driving to the office, and I get a phone call from my boss at Leo's company at the time.

MALONE: Uh-oh.

LEONARD: And the conversation is, hey, we just got a phone call from the LA Times.

MALONE: Franklin still isn't entirely sure how it happened, but the LA Times had figured out that Franklin was behind The Black List. And they'd called his company seeking comment. And now his company was calling him saying we did not know about this Black List thing, Franklin.

LEONARD: And, you know, we're not happy to be getting a phone call from the LA Times about something that we don't know about, which, in retrospect, fair, right? And a couple months later, I was no longer working at Leo's company.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Maybe The Black List got Franklin fired. Maybe it was a management change happening at the same time. Maybe it was both, he says. Either way, Franklin was about to find out if being publicly known in Hollywood as the founder of the good kind of blacklist was going to get him the bad kind of blacklisted after the break.

After being outed as The Black List founder and then let go by Leonardo DiCaprio's company, Franklin Leonard did manage to get a job interview with some really famous director producers, the people who made "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Tootsie," "The English Patient." And in the middle of this interview with those director producers, one of them leans in and asks Franklin...

LEONARD: I just want to be clear, you're the guy that created The Black List, right?

MALONE: And Franklin is like, uh, yeah.

LEONARD: And I remember him just being very excited. And I will remember that for the rest of my life because I remember thinking to myself I made something that the guy who made "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "The English Patient" is excited about and thinks is a good thing.

MALONE: Franklin got that job, then got a job as an executive at Universal Studios, then became a vice president at Will Smith's production company. And as his career was rising, so were the movies off of The Black List. People in Hollywood started making movies from the list. And then there's this amazing moment that happens just three years after the first Black List came out.

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MALONE: It's the 2008 Oscars, and two writers from the very first Black List's top 10 had been nominated for best original screenplay, the writer of that weird but great sex doll dramedy, "Lars And The Real Girl," and an even more unusual candidate, a writer named Diablo Cody.

(SOUNDBITE OF 80TH ACADEMY AWARDS CEREMONY)

HARRISON FORD: And the Oscar goes to Diablo Cody for "Juno."

(CHEERING)

MALONE: The best screenplay had gone to this true Hollywood outsider. Not only was a woman winning in this male-dominated category, "Juno" was her first script. It was a follow-up to a memoir about working as a stripper and she was living in Minnesota when she wrote "Juno." When Franklin Leonard started The Black List, Diablo Cody was exactly the kind of writer he was hoping the world could discover.

(SOUNDBITE OF 80TH ACADEMY AWARDS CEREMONY)

DIABLO CODY: What is happening? I want to thank my son Novak (ph) who knew I could do this before I did. And most of all, I want to thank my family for loving me exactly the way I am.

MALONE: To be clear, Franklin doesn't know whether The Black List got "Juno" made, but it has absolutely been the reason other movies got made - "Argo," "The Imitation Game" - and the list has proved this ridiculously good predictor of future Oscar winners.

LEONARD: I fundamentally don't believe that we can claim credit for an artist's work, and the credit for the work goes to them. But I do think that it's remarkable that we've created an infrastructure that in 15 years, you know, has identified four of the last 12 best pictures, 10 of the last 24 screenwriting Oscars in script form before they were made. I think the total is 60 Oscar wins from 280 nominations.

MALONE: And this is not magic, says Franklin. The Black List is simply doing something Hollywood had failed to do - turn the subjective - is this screenplay good? - into a kind of objective measurement. And Hollywood executives are pretty good at running numbers but on stuff like past performance based on genre or actor or director.

LEONARD: But they've never attempted to assess, wait, how good is this screenplay? And given that the screenplay is exceptional, what economic value does that have? And how does that affect our economic decision about putting it into a marketplace at said budget? And even when they do think about that, they severely undervalue the value of a good screenplay.

MALONE: There is this Harvard Business School study that looked at Black List scripts that got turned into movies and found that those scripts earn about 90% more than similar movies not from The Black List. And this makes complete sense to Franklin. Like, a million things have to go right for a movie to work. And if you want to maximize your odds, you should make sure that the very first thing goes right. Make sure that you're starting from an impeccably good script by a talented writer, which brings us to what Franklin is doing today. He's still running The Black List. There's way more voters now, no more anonymous emails. But Franklin started to think that if The Black List was this way of finding needles in a haystack, it's really just looking at one haystack - the scripts that are already circulating in Hollywood, which, to some degree, means the best scripts by people in LA or with connections to LA.

LEONARD: Your ability to move to Los Angeles is not at all related to your ability to write a good screenplay.

MALONE: Right. Franklin got obsessed with the scripts that even The Black List wasn't turning up. So he and a computer engineer partner have now launched a Black List-like platform. Anybody anywhere in the world can post a script and get it in front of the kinds of people who vote on The Black List. You have to pay a small fee. That is how The Black List, the company, makes money right now. But if your script is good, it'll start getting passed around. If you think back to that giant anonymized bookstore, this website is like the anonymized Amazon warehouse, except the system is set up so that somebody is looking at and reviewing just about every single screenplay that comes in. So if there is a gem in an unconventional corner, this system should find it.

LEONARD: The Black List is a meritocracy initiative. And if Hollywood had a more pure meritocracy, you would see greater diversity. And we have the numbers to actually back it up because we've done over 150,000 screenplay evaluations at this point.

MALONE: One hundred and fifty thousand?

LEONARD: Over the course of the last seven years, yeah, we've seen 75 - roughly 75,000 scripts and done roughly 150,000 screenplay evaluations. The number may actually be higher at this point.

MALONE: That is so many screenplays.

LEONARD: But we - if you look at the distribution of scores by gender, by race, by any number of things, it's virtually identical, which, again, I think we all know instinctively.

MALONE: Franklin says at least 12 movies have been picked up off that website. And now there are also Black List-produced films. That nerdy kid in the movie theater, he is now producing his own movies. And he talks about those movies like a dad showing you his wallet pictures.

LEONARD: Our first film premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival. It's called "Come As You Are," you know, certified fresh, 98 on Rotten Tomatoes, starring Gabby Sidibe and Janeane Garofalo and a bunch of other actors. Our second film is a script from the annual Black List three years ago by a young writer named Amanda Idoko, who's a Nigerian American woman from the Bronx who writes like one of the Coen brothers.

MALONE: You're producing. So...

LEONARD: Yeah, we're producing.

MALONE: Do you want to put a list out of all the amazing movies that your company could be producing? You could build a little wall around that and, like - and not let other people know about these things.

LEONARD: We could but the reality is we continue to make this information about what the best scripts are public. People continue not to make them. And then when somebody gets around to it, they make money and win Oscars. And so our basic approach is going to be to tell everyone in Hollywood, hey, this is really good. You should make it. And if you don't, we will, and you will regret it.

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MALONE: Have you hacked your workplace, upended a power structure, know somebody who's won a bunch of Oscars? We'd love to talk to Oscar winners. You can email us. We are planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Twitter, Facebook Instagram and TikTok. We are @planetmoney.

We're also looking for a new intern for the fall. To apply, you just need to head to npr.org/internships. Today's episode was produced by James Sneed and Darian Woods, edited by Bryant Urstadt, Karen Duffin and Robert Smith. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show. I'm Kenny Malone. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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