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The Black List Founder Franklin Leonard Clarifies New Paid Service for Screenwriters

Last week, The Black List announced a new paid service for aspiring screenwriters to get their scripts in front of industry professionals. The idea of putting together a database of undiscovered screenplays that professional readers rate and industry professionals can search sounds pretty good. Add to this the fact that algorithms promote scripts to industry professionals based on their preferences à la Netflix or Amazon makes it sound even better. Knowing that over 1,100 industry professionals using the database have been vetted (chosen from over 5,000 applicants) and range from agency assistants to studio presidents may convince several aspiring screenwriters to submit their scripts post haste. The idea of paying for access to these industry professionals, however, may stop several aspiring screenwriters in their tracks – is this just another scheme to make money off the thousands of wannabe screenwriters with no industry access? Thankfully, John August and Craig Mazin put The Black List founder Franklin Leonard in the hot seat during their live podcast recording at the Austin Film Festival last week to find out.

First, let’s hear Franklin Leonard explain in his own words why he decided to launch this new paid service for aspiring screenwriters:


The Black List…aggregated this conversation around writers that people were liking. Wouldn’t it be great if you could do the same thing for writers that weren’t necessarily part of the system yet and put them in a position of power where all of a sudden if their script was really strong, they had one, five, a dozen people pursuing them, and then they could choose among multiple options.

Leonard includes a big “if” in his statement above: “if their script was really strong”. Every aspiring screenwriter considering The Black List’s new paid service needs to sit down with his/her script and be honest: is this script really strong? If it’s not, The Black List won’t help. It will simply cost money.

Leonard himself recognizes this, and when John August brings up the “kneejerk reaction” that many of us have to services that charge aspiring screenwriters for industry access, Leonard explains the reasons for charging the writers and not industry professional members:

  1. To provide the best access to industry professionals for screenwriters, The Black List needs to include as many reputable industry professionals as possible, which requires an incredibly low price point for industry members (i.e. free). Franklin admits that during beta testing, they charged industry members a small fee to get the service up and running and to avoid third party, venture capital funding. Once they dropped the fee, industry membership quadrupled in 48 hours.
  2. The new service needs revenue in order to function. Many would agree that a business model needs revenue to become successful.
  3. The Black List wants to create “a slight disincentive” for aspiring screenwriters to submit their work. Franklin wants writers to believe in their screenplays and be willing to invest a certain amount of money to have it hosted and rated on the new service. He hopes this means the quality of writing will be higher among submissions in general.

Leonard also discusses the algorithm that The Black List has created to identify screenplays that match an industry professional’s preferences and sends emails with recommended screenplays based on a member’s specific preferences. This aspect of the service was not promoted as much during last week’s launch, and potentially makes the service much more valuable, depending on the accuracy of the algorithm and the likelihood that industry professionals will follow up and read the algorithm’s recommended scripts. In other words, The Black List will actively promote screenplays to the industry professionals that are most likely to want to read them.

When I initially heard about this service, I wasn’t crazy about screenwriters paying for access to the industry. In fact, I’m still not crazy about screenwriters paying for access to the industry. However, the more I have thought about the value proposition The Black List offers, the more willing I am to believe that this new service has potential to benefit aspiring screenwriters.

In reality, a tiny fraction of the screenplays submitted to The Black List’s new paid service will lead to notable sales and long-lasting screenwriting careers. Leonard himself points this out specifically during the podcast. Why is this true? Because, as Leonard also notes, there are not very many great screenplays out there.

Which takes me back to the original question all screenwriters should ask themselves before submitting a screenplay to this service: is this script really strong? If you are willing to make an investment in your script by submitting it to The Black List for $25/month plus at least one $50 evaluation, you better make sure you make a good first impression. If you do make a good first impression with a positive evaluation, you need to decide how long to continue to make your investment on the site: two months? three months? six months?

A new screenwriter will be discovered from The Black List’s new paid service eventually, and we will hear about it. Personally, in addition to the inevitable announcement of success, I hope Franklin Leonard and his team at The Black List continue their effort at transparency and will share statistics with aspiring screenwriters not only about their own submissions, but also about the total number of screenplays in the database and how they are ranked. If The Black List is asking aspiring screenwriters to pay for the service on an ongoing basis, The Black List should be willing to share and update its aggregate data to defend its value proposition on an ongoing basis as well.

Listen to Scriptnotes episode 60 to hear the entire interview with Franklin Leonard live at the Austin Film Festival (and keep listening for great screenwriting insights from guest Aline Brosh McKenna).

After learning more about The Black List’s new paid service for screenwriters, do you believe it provides real value to aspiring screenwriters? Let us know in the Comments.

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  • I agree with the article’s author that this new service might be a bit “dangerous”. The service has this sort of gambling like addictive property, where an aspiring writer will think: “Allright, I’ll just put in another 25$ and maybe I’ll get lucky this month.”

    But on the other hand, I do think that the creaters of The Black List make a valid point about asking a small fee. It will make sure that the service isn’t littered with too much low quality material, which might have an adverse effect on the industry’s participation. And to make the service work, they need both industry and aspiring writers to participate.

    I think I would use the service when I feel ready, but as pointed out in the article, I’d think twice before submitting anything so that my chances would be maximal of getting a good response.

    • I totally agree with this comment. You may ‘think’ your script is strong but in reality it may not be, like the article insists, you need to get someone qualified to read it first before jumping in.

  • In my few years spent as a script reader at a Hollywood production company, I can attest that the vast majority of scripts that come through from unknown screenwriters are complete rubbish. In my opinion, screenwriting is as much about who you know as any of the other Hollywood careers. And the screenwriters who have developed their screenwriting craft to the point of being considered by major productions companies usually have also developed their rolodex of contacts at the same time, and wouldn’t need a service like this. These kinds of services seem to feed on the couch potato screenwriter’s dreams of being “discovered” while knowing no one inside of the industry. And there are plenty of services that profit off of this dream.

    Also, when you look at the Blacklist from years past, most of the screenwriters are already represented by agencies like CAA, ICM, and WME. They aren’t the undiscovered types….Those screenwriters did not need the Blacklist’s help to be seen by industry professionals. They have high powered agents to get their scripts in front of the right people. The Blacklist was just fun to look at. I don’t think it warranted having a paid service attached to it.

  • Its kind of like the American Idol for writers, you know all those contestants who go on thinking they are shit hot but in reality are completely delusional in addition to being tone deaf. Amazon I think was a very good experiment that revealed just how many bad ideas / scripts there are flooding the market right now.

    At the end of the day though I don’t see this as any different to paying a few hundred for a ‘legit’ script service to read and give notes on your work. Like many other business models this will be funded by around 95% of those that will never benefit from it – but the rewards if you’re one of those in the 5% that gets ‘found’… ;-)

  • I`m very skeptical that the intial 25 + 50 bucks thing will keep morons out of the loop, I´ve seen people here in Germany who auctioned on film roles on Ebay to “star” in shitty movies of an untalented nobody – these people paid thousands of euros to get in. Others pay small fortunes on “modelling schools”, these mere hunchbacks delude themselves believing this may make them super models. In contrast to this, Blacklist`s 75-125 bucks look like bargain. Applying Pareto`s ratio, I guess around 80% of the screenplays will be utter crap, the rest may be so-so and maybe 1% get more or less “successfull” – but then, this is great for the 1% :)

  • I think people are better off spending their money on education and development as a writer, and on their script. There are just Too Many scripts out there that are not good enough. An Aspiring Writer friend of mine spent $600 last year submitting his script to various contests/festivals etc, but balked at $300 for a screenwriting class to help on his rewrite. I myself prefer one on one mentorship. Why do so many people think writing a screenplay is easy…no one picks up a violin and expects to be playing professionally after one year.

    Suggested places for Classes or Mentorship or free online articles on Screenwriting…
    - http://www.3rdward.com
    - http://www.writeyourscreenplay.com/
    - http://scriptshadow.blogspot.com/

  • I agree with all of the above.

    Not a fan of this move. The excuses/justification for the charges are empty. As for the argument that charging people will deter wannabes and downright bad writers this is garbage in my experience. If they truly wanted to deter people that weren’t serious about the craft they would have to charge more. A lot more.

    The problem is, 99% of bad writers don’t know they’re bad because they either have a massive ego and refuse to listen to criticism or they are just too dumb/talentless for it to make any difference. I’ve had several people over the years hire my services for story consulting and they never learn. I got to the point where I had to just say “no, sorry I can’t help you”. They’re still out there trying, writing garbage and spending a fortune on screenplay contests and script doctors. Sounds harsh but these folks are completely delusional.

  • Daniel Mimura on 11.2.12 @ 4:18AM

    I agree with pretty much every comment above. Ditto ditto ditto.

    The more I think about it, the more I’m against it. I feel like its a bad paradigm to get started…that an amateur has to pay his or her way in. Contests are already pretty pricey. On one hand, it sounds like, oh, yeah, well, when you look at the cost of those contests, this isn’t too expensive to add to that, its financially in the same ballpark…but conceptually, it’s different. Those are contests…this is paying merely for the access…

  • HanibalChin on 11.4.12 @ 5:51AM

    Ok…I am going to be dead honest here. The black list was a great intervention made by its founder in its heyday in 2007 / 2008. Now that it has a name and a reputation, it is clearly taking its notorierity and leveraging it to make it into yet another money sucking machine that preys on artists and writers desperate to break in. Don’t forget that the founder is at the core a business man much like the rest of the industry heads and the list is a culmination of scripts that are the most popular and not necessrily the most interesting or creative or visionary for that matter. Scripts are based on ratings conducted by a mysterious and unknown contingency of individuals (could they all be junior studio execs with no clue as to what constitutes a good script?) and despite its reputation, the black list now has absorbed the model that perpetuates in the industry where at the end of the day popular and safe still trumps edgy and interesting. The list now serves more as a sounding board for professionals already in the industry to test out each others prized scripts and is no longer a launch pad for new and up and coming writers. Much like the Syd Field school of screenwriting, the blacklist imbues us to adhere to hollywood’s formulas for success rather than promote unique and or original forms of screenwriting. Can anyone recall a good script ever written by Syd Field anyway? Buyer beware, rumor has it that the so called script reads are done by scornful and bitter readers who would like to squash any script that is not already in circulation among the agencies and studios already and that deviates from the vein of popular or marketable property. Yet another barb wired fence for those trying to break in. My advice would be to find a good writing partner or writing group with whom you share similar film tastes and knows you personally and that will help cultivate your own vision of the cinematic form…you will be much better off and less bitter and scornful. At the end of the day, writing like all good art forms is subjective. Unfortunately, the black list tries to set up an objective platform to analyze your script and posit it against other scripts based on metrics and numbers and popularity ratings, to basically put your script into a dead pool of popular bias. It’s not to say that good scripts don’t exist on the Black list, there are definitely good scripts that rise to the top, but many of those are already well known and doing the rounds already. Is a Tarantino script really considered Black list material? In ending, I would like to say good luck to all of those in pursuit of a screenwriting career, it is a tough road filled with lots of dead ends, frustration and closed doors and unfortunately the black list is one of those doors that now leaves very little room to get in. Best to knock elsewhere and keep your change for coffee to help you cultivate your next masterpiece.

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