Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A conversation with Franklin Leonard about all things Black List: podcasts, live readings, website

Last month the annual Black List was released, compiling the "most liked" unproduced scripts of the year for the 11th year in a row. The dawn of a new year seemed like a good chance to check in with Black List founder and CEO for an update on all aspects of the Black List empire, including the Live Readings, the Black List Table Reads podcast and the website. 

We also touch on the yearly list, and the fact that for the last two years, the #1 script on that annual survey has been a discovery from the Black List website.

So you've had a busy year! Let's start with the Black List Live Reads - You staged four readings in LA and two in New York, and speaking as an LA attendee, attendance is nearly sold out, if not completely sold out. Are you surprised by how popular they continue to be?

I’m very excited by how popular they’ve come to be, but I can’t honestly say I’m surprised. The first live reading we ever did was Maggie Carey’s The Hand Job (released as The To Do List) at the Austin Film Festival years ago. It was sold out and utterly hilarious. Between that and Jason Reitman’s Live Reads with Film Independent, I knew there was an appetite for them, and when you take the best screenplays the industry hasn’t yet made and you put great actors onstage performing them, it’s a pretty good proposition for a Saturday night.

Has that made it easier to cast the parts and get approval to use particular scripts?

I think it certainly helps, but honestly a tremendous amount of the credit on the casting goes to Lisa Zagoria, our casting director, and Megan Halpern, the Black List’s Events Director.

Are you at the point where people are lobbying you, "Hey I want to be in one of these?"

We have had a few folks reach out and ask to participate and when they do, we certainly make an effort to figure it out (and if anyone wants to participate, by all means, get in touch.)

Funny thing about that question: the idea for the Black List Table Reads podcast actually began because of such a call from Paul Scheer’s reps. I had been listening to How Did This Get Made religiously for weeks when it came in and between that and the regular tweets from folks who wanted the live reads to be streamed online, it seemed like an obvious extension of what we were already doing.

At each Live Read, you take care to remind every one that this is really the writer's night, but there's no way anything like this would be going on if it weren't for you and the Black List staff. Is there an aspect of the Live Reads that you're most proud of?

Probably that it actually is the writer’s night. It’s not really something that happens anywhere else in Hollywood. We – and by we I mean me, the entire Black List team, especially Megan, and everyone else involved in putting them on – really make a point of following the writer’s lead on how they want to see their script executed and making sure that they’re the star of the show on the night.

What would you say are the most difficult aspects of pulling off these live reads are?

In all fairness, I think Megan’s probably the right person to answer this question, but from my point of view, it’s probably the number of moving parts that go into pulling this off. I know you’ve been to a few of these at this point so you know that there’s a lot that could go wrong, and with the exception of a late start at the first and third due to some audio issues, we’ve managed to avoid any major or even minor issues.

After two reads - GIFTED and CARTOON GIRL - that were stolen by some very young actors, we joked that a future live read should have a cast entirely of child actors. In all seriousness, after staging so many successful readings in the last eighteen months, do you have an itch to take a few more risks with the format? Or to pick the kind of script you might not have selected while you were still building the audience?

At the risk of being a bit coy, suffice it to say that the success that we’ve had thus far has made us quite a bit more ambitious for 2016. Rest assured you’ll see some stuff in 2016 that we wouldn’t have thought to attempt in 2015.

Moving on to the Podcast, there have been some changes for season two. Specifically, you're not serializing the table read podcasts anymore. What sort of feedback did you get from season one?

The feedback from season one was universally positive with one great exception. Audiences hated the fact that they’d get thirty minutes into a script and then have to wait a week to find out what happens next. They were loud and clear about that, and we couldn’t help but listen. Honestly, I’m really proud of how we responded, and the feedback on Season 2 reflects the good work that the entire team has done. Being named one of iTunes best podcasts of 2015 and the Guardian’s best podcasts that isn’t Serial is frankly beyond my wildest dreams this early in the process.

Knowing the numbers geek that you are, I'm sure you've poured over all the download data from the first season and tried to learn what you can from it. Who is the audience for the Black List Table Reads? Do you have any sense that a notable percentage of your listeners are coming to you through Earwolf's audience and not necessarily the sort of aspiring writers who are already active in the Screenwriting blogosphere/Twittersphere? Or to put it another way, does it feel like the podcast is reaching an audience that was completely unaware of the yearly Black List up to this point?

This is a tough question for me to answer, because we actually don’t yet have data rich enough for me to analyze, though obviously I’m looking forward to it greatly. Anecdotally, based primarily on the social media response to the podcast, we’re definitely reaching beyond the audience that is aware of and has professional use for the annual Black List or our website. I imagine it would be hard for us to be ranked as highly as we are on the iTunes charts if we weren’t.

Are there plans for any episodes that might be drawn from the Black List website as opposed to the yearly list?

To date, all but one of the scripts for the podcast have been taken from the site, and that one exception was our debut script BALLS OUT. We chose that one because it was the first ever script to make the jump from the internet to the annual Black List (which was symbolic of what we wanted to do with the podcast) and because it fit well with the Earwolf/Wolfpop brand and talent relationships.

What sort of criteria do you look for when selecting something for the podcast?

Very simply, we’re looking for scripts that have the highest ratings on the site with a particular eye toward high ratings for dialogue, for probably obvious reasons.

Regarding the website, is there any sense that the "new toy" aspect might have worn off in terms of it being a useful scouting tool for reps and producers? It's been a long time since your last data drop.

It has been a long time since a massive data drop but look for that to be remedied in the first half of 2016.

Short answer: no, I don’t worry much about new toy dynamics with the Black List, because we continue to deliver on the promise of enabling great storytelling by changing the way things have been done historically.

After three years, do you have a bigger picture of the kinds of success stories the site can facilitate? Are unknowns still able to get traction there?

In the last year alone, five films have been produced based on screenplays discovered via the website including NIGHTINGALE, which was nominated for two Emmys and a Golden Globe, and ZINZANA, an Arabic language genre film that played the London Film Festival and Fantastic Fest based on a English language screenplay by a husband and wife from my home state of Georgia.

Possibly the most remarkable thing though – and this I was only made aware of days after the 2015 list came out so maybe we can make some news here – the last two #1 scripts on the Black List have come from writers discovered by their representatives because of the Black List website.

Kristina Lauren Anderson based on CATHERINE THE GREAT (which topped the 2014 Black List after a strong showing on the site) and FOREVER JIAYING (which will be movie number seven in this season of the podcast). Isaac Adamson based on a script that preceded BUBBLES, which topped the 2015 list.

As we go into 2016, what place does the site have in the industry?

I think we’re still in the very early stages of being a hyper-efficient marketplace where writers of great work can have their work discovered by people who can do something with it, and folks looking for good material can find exactly what they’re looking for much more efficiently than anywhere else.

Do you have any data on how many industry pros are coming to the site on their own, versus only arriving there in response to an alert email?

We don’t have numbers on the percentage of industry members who arrive to the site because of alert emails, and I’m not sure I’d trust those numbers even if we did have them because folks could receive an email, login without clicking the link, and then go in search of a script mentioned in the email (I know I do sometimes.)

I think the best indicator of industry pro activity on the site might be the number of unique downloads we’ve seen over the life of the site, more than 42,000, and the average number of downloads scripts receive with high scores of 10, 9, 8, and 7: 61.4, 35.9, 15.5, and 2.8 respectively.

Is it harder to get noticed on the site now than it was in late 2012, early 2013?

Probably, but only because more writers (and I suspect more experienced writers) are using the site than did in the early days before there were success stories like the ones we now have. I think you see this in the numbers as well. The average number of downloads for scripts with a high score of 7 has gone down since our first annual report while the average number of downloads for a script with a high score of 8 has gone up slightly (3.3%) and the number of downloads for a script with a high score of 9 has gone up dramatically (43%)

After over a decade of seeing stories of all kind land on the list alongside each other, were there any scripts on there this year that completely surprised you? (And here I'm speaking of an idea that seemed so original that you can't believe it had never been done before, not in a "How did THAT get on the List" sort of way.)

I think I’m still surprised when two scripts about the same subject matter make the list. This year it was the making of The Godfather. Two years ago it was the making of Jaws.

It’s also quite strange to see my “write an inflection-point biopic about someone who folks between the ages of 25-45 feel some sort of nostalgia” advice continue to be quite so on the mark.

The Black List brand encompasses so much now, as this interview demonstrates. Is there ever a point where you worry about taking on too much? You and your staff make it look easy, but the lack of competition suggests it's not at all effortless to manage a yearly list, multiple live readings, a podcast, and your Screenwriting Workshops.

We have a team of five (plus our readers):

· Me
· Dino Sijamic, my co-founder and CTO
· Terry Huang, our Director of Product and Data
· Megan Halpern, our Director of Events
· Kate Hagen, our Director of Community 

And special mention goes to Scott Myers, whose blog Go Into the Story is the official screenwriting blog of the Black List and is frankly required reading in my mind.

Suffice it to say that we’re enormously proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish thus far, but we’re just getting started.

What have you learned from that success that could make a good life lesson for anyone who aspires to build something that covers as much scope as The Black List does?

Impact optimization is always more fulfilling than profit optimization, which in my experience is true in most aspects of life worth exploring.

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