March 11, 2019
SXSW 2019

"A Public Figure is a Pre-Sold Property": Advice and Insight From The Black List's Franklin Leonard

Getting on The Black List is a life-changing experience. Let's see what the CEO has to say about its future. 

The Black List started in 2005 as an annual survey of Hollywood executives' unproduced feature film scripts. Since then, founder and CEO Franklin Leonard has expanded The Black List to an actual community where writers can make their scripts available to readers and buyers.

While getting on The Black List is a huge boon to any script,  it’s far from the final hurdle one needs to clear to get produced, or seen. But it’s something of a rocket booster, jump start.

Since 2005, over 400 Black List scripts have been produced into feature films. 

At SXSW, Black List founder Franklin Leonard conducted a Q&A where he broke down The Black List, as well as thoughts on where the industry was going and what writers and creatives can do to get their content produced today.

The value of true-life stories and the importance of securing rights

As you know, we're all about the biopics recently. They're dominating both Hollywood and The Black List. Leonard agreed that The Black List has a ton of true-life stories and biopics, etc. His explanation as to why? “One reason: having marketing value in advance is valuable to sell. A public figure is a pre-sold property.”

It makes sense. Surely the rights to a major comic book are even more valuable because audiences already have an interest in them and less marketing needs to be done to create said interest. Unless your idea comes from the public domain, the rights can be hard to secure. 

Why are sequels, remakes, and adaptations so popular? “They are valuable for selling the movie to the gatekeepers.”

Leonard used an analogy that if someone has a pile of 10 scripts to read but one is about a subject they’re already interested in, guess which one gets read first? The same applies to the audience. This is why the pre-existing brand matters. A public figure has some brand in place already. In the instance of a very public figure, the rights may not even be an issue.

Leonard explains: “If you’re writing a script about a super public figure and every element of your story can be sourced from multiple places, then you don’t need the rights.” He added however that “the rights aways help.”But he also pointed out that “even if you can’t get the movie made, [the spec] can still serve as a good sample.”

His example? There was a biopic of Hillary Rodham Clinton going around and it was an excellent script and made the number two spot on The Black List. It essentially began the writer's career. He was staffed on shows and was hired to write other movies. He "built from there.” But the Hillary Clinton movie was never made, and, likely due to rights issues, never will be.

How will self-distribution effect filmmakers and the market in general?

We've been tracking self-distribution since the rise of this website. In Leonard’s mind, the Industry “is having a big referendum” when it comes to forms of distribution. There are new platforms that have emerged and changed the model, while at the same time the idea of self-distribution looms threatening to change it further.

But how does this affect writers and directors? Leonard states: “[It] shouldn’t affect how writers are writing. Choose a good story and tell it well. It doesn’t matter how it’s distributed...There are just more ways you can have a movie made and put out.”

It’s sound advice. Focusing on the story and not on the end result (platform wise) puts you in a position to do your best work. There is a lot of noise out there about what types of platforms are best for what.

At the end of the day, should that alter your goal of writing the best possible script? Of course not. But sometimes it’s easy for us to the lose sight of the basics, maybe because writing the best possible script sounds a lot easier than it is.

The other question in Leonard’s mind? “How do you make money self-distributing? How can you get compensated? That’s the challenge of the next 5-10 years.”

While we have certain ideas about how to make money with self-distribution, including international pre-sales, anyone can go out and make a film, and even post it, but will it get seen? 

The value of investing resources in making shorts

Here at No Film School, we see short films as your gateway into the industry. In Franklin Leonard’s mind, there is “No business model around shorts and not much of an outlet for it. Film schools encourage students to make their final project a feature.”

However, Leonard felt there are two ways to make a short that has great value:“...make something that gets people excited about you, or as a preface to a feature you want to get made, as an ad for the feature.”

The short works very well as a sizzle to entice producers and investors. It's also a calling card for your own capabilities as a director. It can be a great sample that helps carry your name around Hollywood and gets your foot in the door to take bigger meetings. 

What The Black List Looks For

Ever since The Black List debuted, undiscovered writers have been looking for a way to break onto the list. Writers and filmmakers want to know how to crack The Black List. Leonard broke down how a script gets an 8 or above score: “Is the script good enough that someone would be willing to risk their reputation to recommend it? Meaning walk into the head of a major agency’s office put it on their desk and say “you need to read this tonight?”

This is the pressure facing the script readers, so it must, in turn, be the goal and pressure facing the writer. You need to be excellent to stand next to excellence. There's pressure here to get all that going. One way to get a script noticed, or to get funding (according to Leonard) is to think about casting. “If you want your script to get made, have parts actors are excited to play."

Wrapping up Insights and Advice from Franklin Leonard

Leonard has been expanding the reach of The Black List for years. Moving forward, they will look to help produce films that they champion but can’t convince a company to get behind. As the industry changes and platforms emerge, much of Leonard’s core belief remains the same; write great scripts and tell great stories. And maybe The Black List will produce them too

The rest will take care of itself.     

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