Every year, right before Hollywood breaks for the winter holidays, the annual Black List is announced. The list is an annual tradition amongst Hollywood executives. They all vote on their favorite spec scripts of the year and then compile those votes into an annual list. This list gets passed around and becomes every assistant's reading list over the holiday. A reminder from The Black List: "The Black List is not a 'best of' list. It is, at best, a 'most liked' list."
Previous scripts on the Black List include Slumdog Millionaire, Argo, The King’s Speech, Promising Young Woman, and Spotlight. Over a dozen screenwriting Oscars have been given out to previous Black List screenplays.
When I was an assistant, I dreamed of making it on the Black List, and I made it a reality in 2013. At that time, I put my screenplay on the Black List website. It got rated very highly, and eventually, I got an agent and a manager. From there, they sent my screenplay, Shovel Buddies, around to different production companies.
This was all in October 2013, so when voting began in November, the screenplay was fresh in their minds. At the time, it was a coup for me.
It was the beginning of a long journey away from being an assistant and then writing full-time.
But the story didn't end there. And I didn't ride off into the sunset with a wave of success pushing me ahead.
In fact, in some of these tweener years, things got heavy.
How did I get here?
Making the Black List changed my career, but it didn't get me paid right away. I quit my assistant job, but I didn't have a steady income. I wasn't able to devote my entire life to making my boss' calendar fall in line, but I also needed to find a way to make money. I did odd jobs for anyone who asked.
The truth is, I wouldn't see a paid writing gig until November 2014. With real money not coming until June 2015. In the meantime, I did anything I could for money.
Hilariously, a director I had a general with paid me to housesit, and an actor he was friends with once paid me like $1,000 to change all the lightbulbs in his house for him before he came back from vacation. I think he did it because he was generous, not because he was a lunatic. But either way, my rent was secured.
I was working to just make my bills while I waited for the checks to come in. I naively thought a list would change everything. And while it had made me and my script popular, I still had a lot of work to do.
The biggest regret I had at the time was that when I got on the Black List, there was still a lot I had to learn about Hollywood. I figured out most of those lessons the hard way over the years. I showed people drafts too early, wasted too much time on cattle-call pitches, and I had a string of bad luck as well.
I got stuck writing kids' movies because the first script I wrote was about kids, even though it was rated R. There are not many of those movies, so not many opportunities to succeed. And I wasn't able to capitalize on the ones that came across my desk at first.
I did get a movie made. I went to SXSW with Shovel Buddies, and I'm so proud of the film and our hard work. But we released it digitally, and while you can buy it, it felt like it was hard to get people to seek out a movie like that in an era where they're so used to just clicking and streaming.
I changed reps once in 2017. That reinvigorated things, but it was still a slog at times. And luck did not bail me out.
A movie I had set to go was derailed by COVID, and I worked on spec for a few producers who had less power than I was led to believe. Of course, when it came time to pay, they would usually drop the project or just indefinitely hold it.
Eventually, the general meetings slowed down. I was writing more specs, and they would usually find producers or directors, but never get over the hill to being made.
After two brutal years of COVID, where it felt like I couldn't even get executives to read my material, I was in a pretty dark place. At this point, I just wanted to know if things had gotten stale because of my work or something else.
That's when I got another wrench thrown into my wheels.
My manager was going to take some time away from the biz for personal reasons. He needed this, and I knew it was going to be good for him. But I also was getting married, the bills were mounting, and I didn't think I could afford to wait either.
So in April 2022, we decided to split up amicably. That left me without a rep for the first time in almost a decade.
The only thing I did have was an insane idea. I would get back on the Black List and try to start this Hollywood cycle all over again. This time, I would go in older, wiser, and more ready to seize the opportunities that came my way.
So we reached the whole question of this article...
How I got my script on the Black List without reps
Himbo came to me in a fever dream. I wanted to write something that made people pay attention. I wanted a stack-buster screenplay that got people to read the pages, not just the logline.
After two brutal COVID years where I thought I wrote the greatest scripts of my career, only to get no reactions, I wanted to make people react. I wanted to push buttons.
And the one genre that always produced a visceral reaction from me was erotic thrillers.
I had always been into those movies. As a kid obsessed with movies, they were sort of the first window into sexuality for me. They were about desire and danger and always had scary and suspenseful elements that made the story pop.
Criterion was running a Neo-Noir marathon, and the more I watched those movies, the more I saw how they had a lot of crossover with erotic thrillers. But the one thing I think both genres sort of missed was the comedy element.
A lot of these situations were darkly funny. There was mistaken identity and sex, and violence, but no one really wanted you to laugh.
'Blood Simple'Credit: Criterion
As I did my research on the genres, I came to a rewatch of Blood Simple, a movie I had not seen since college. The Coens are some of my favorite filmmakers of all time. And I think that movie has such a good, tight structure. I wound up writing the beats of that movie out onto a notecard while watching it. It seemed simple enough. It was a simple plot that felt complicated because of the characters inside it.
I sat and thought about what I would do with those beats. I knew the Coens had played with a similar idea in The Big Lebowski, which takes the general plot of The Big Sleep and infuses their own characters and situations around it.
Why not try it with Blood Simple?
I took the general idea of jilted lovers plotting to kill one another, moved the setting to Scottsdale, Arizona, and started to fill in the blanks. Instead of the bar in that movie, I wanted to use a male strip club called Hot Dawgs.
This was my voice channeling the things I loved about these kinds of movies and the things I hated about Hollywood. Over the last decade, I felt like Hollywood put me through the wringer and sort of pimped me out for their own pleasure. This was a movie about a dumb stripper fighting back. And that made it personal for me.
I created my own characters, backstories, and stakes, and I pulled in a few tropes of the erotic thriller as well. Lots of sex scenes. Plus, a lot of heart.
After I finished the first draft, I paid for some screenplay coverage.
I think I used the Black List three times, until I got 7s on it and knew it wasn't the worst screenplay ever. And I knew it got better from their notes. It was a surreal experience. Once I got their notes, I refined them more and more. I had a few close personal friends go over the script with me.
When I thought it was in a good place, I began to send it out to people.
I first tried new managers, but to be honest, I got zilch from query letters.
Instead of focusing on having someone else sell me, I sold myself.
I got a list of everyone I had ever gone on a general with. I went through my calendar for the last decade and just used IMDb Pro to see where those people worked now and what movies they'd done. Then I slowly sent the relevant ones emails. I offered to Zoom or buy them a coffee and catch them up on what I'd been working on.
Some blew me off, some just asked me to send the latest thing I had been working on, and then a handful agreed to meet. We went out, had laughs, caught up. When the conversation inevitably came around to tell them what I had been working on... I gave them my pitch.
Himbo was a movie I believed in. It was a commercial erotic thriller that mixed sex, violence, and comedy. It was inspired by the Coen brothers and by my journey in Hollywood, and my dream to be somebody.
If I got the person to hear that pitch, they always read the script. While they never bought it, many of them passed it along to another person because they liked it so much.
In that way, I was behaving as my own rep. Except that I was putting a human element into every pitch. People met or Zoomed and we just chatted. I was doing my own water bottle tour of Hollywood almost a decade after my first.
Eventually, people who I didn't even send the script reached out. I got pitches on other projects and sort of let Himbo just live out there. About three weeks ago, an exec reached out to tell me they were voting for me on The Black List. That was the first time it crossed my mind that it was a possibility.
And then on Monday, after a fit of some nerves, my name appeared on the list.
So how did I do it? Well, I think the "hack" is that I generally used all the info I had before. I used the relationships I had made over a decade to get into the rooms and talk to the people who mattered. That's it. You just have to meet a ton of people, like them, and get them to like you—and most importantly, love your screenplay.
I was certainly aided by having reps beforehand for a lot of those early meetings, but most of the people I network with now I met at parties or social events in Los Angeles. I met them through mutual friends or Twitter.
I offered to buy coffees, and no one let me pay when I arrived. And I also just came in with a humble heart, saving the pitch and work stuff for the end, because I actually did want to know what they had been up to as well. We all have our own Himbo stories, and the more I heard them, the more I hoped this screenplay would resonate.
I also used a script that felt like a noisy and interesting pastiche of the things I loved and the things that make me who I am. And I think other people could see themselves in it too. Blindly struggling for a little relevance in a town that tends to suck the life out of you if you don't find a good group of friends to keep you humble and uplifted at the same time.
While not everything happened the same way as it did the first time around, I used the lessons I talked about here to make a personal push for myself. I got read, which was what I wanted all along. And in getting read, I was able to get people talking.
We will see if this little script goes anywhere. I never expect anything to get made. But I am happy it was read, enjoyed, and doors have opened again. I'm walking through them now knowing how hard it is to get paid and sustain a career. I'm not sure I have the energy to do this all over again in another 10 years.
But I think I have gained enough knowledge to use this to my advantage moving forward.
And I hope anything I wrote here helps you too.
Please let me know if you have more questions in the comments.