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:
- 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.
- The new service needs revenue in order to function. Many would agree that a business model needs revenue to become successful.
- 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.