Monday, March 13, 2017

"The Black List didn't get me a career so it's a total lie!"

There were 53 active players on the New England Patriots' roster last season. 53 players who got a Super Bowl ring after making it to the biggest game of the season and winning.

How many of them were the subject of stories in sports magazines? How many of them were on the cover of those magazines? How many of them will spend their retirement years living off of high profile sportscaster jobs and endorsement deals?

How many of them go home every night to a supermodel wife?

How many of them can you name right now besides Tom Brady?

So what would you think of a linebacker in his first year on the team who feels like he was cheated because he played for the same Super Bowl-winning team as Tom Brady and is furious that he's not getting endorsement deals left and right? They both won The Big Game - how come HIS contract's not even in the same ballpark as Brady's?

The answer to this is obvious, right?

This is the sort of thing that runs through my mind when I hear someone proclaim that the Black List (both yearly and website) is a sham because it didn't work for THEIR script. "I got on the Black List last year and I STILL haven't been paid for my writing! This is bullshit," they might say. "I got four 8s on the Black List website and was number 4 on the Top Lists and I still didn't get an agent! This whole thing's a grift!"

This post is semi-provoked by a conversation I saw on Twitter last week, but it's a fairly perennial topic in Screenwriter World, so don't take this as an attack on one particular person. Rather I want to say something about an attitude I see cropping up now and then. There's an apparent belief that if you reach a certain achievement, the industry owes you a career. That's not how things like The Black List work and it's not helpful at all to wallow in that delusion.

(Also, everywhere I say "The Black List" feel free to read "Nicholl Fellowship" or "ABC/Disney Fellowship" and so on. In general, what I have to say applies to all of these in some form or fashion.)

In its purest form, the Black List is a survey of industry tastes. It reflects the town, but as with the adage about staring into the abyss, the Black List reflects back at the town. It can elevate great material that thus far, hasn't found the right filmmakers to bring it to life. Perhaps the most important service it provides is shining a spotlight on something a little left of center, validating that writing's brilliance. There are plenty of documented cases of this exposure playing a part in a screenplay going into production, most recently being ARRIVAL. Eric Heisserer's script got a big boost after appearing on the 2013 Black List.

2013. It took three years from the Black List to the big screen - and that's probably pretty fast, on average. I'll put the question to you - if there is a single script from the 2013 Black List that DIDN'T get produced, does that "failure" mean that the Black List "doesn't work?"

It's a pretty silly question, right? Acknowledging that the Black List simply cannot make careers out of every honored writer and films out of every honored screenplay in no way rescinds the credit they are due for the instances when their exposure HAS made a difference. Just because something didn't work for you doesn't always mean there's something shady going down.

The value of the Black List can be found in the correlation between its selections and films that went on to acclaim from the industry's highest honors. 4 of the last 6 Best Picture winners appeared on an annual Black List and 10 of the last 14 Best Screenplay winners did. Does that mean they owe their Oscars to the Black List?

Hell no! But it DOES demonstrate that the annual list identified them as worthy well before they went into production. It gives credibility to their voters's eye for talent. If someone gets on the Black List and assumes they'll be collecting an Academy Award, they're taking the wrong lesson from the experience.

"All I need is to get on the Black List and I'll be set." "All I need is an agent and then I'll be getting jobs left and right." "All I need is a staff writer gig and I'll be working in TV for the rest of my career." - ALL of this is dangerous and wrong-headed thinking. It implies that all you need to do is reach the bottom step of the escalator and the mechanism will carry you to the top.

Motherfucker, those are STAIRS. Or in the rare case they are an escalator, they're moving in the opposite direction.

This industry is a series of ever escalating auditions and as with auditions, the pack of talent gets winnowed down with each progressive move forward. You get six votes that earn you mention on the yearly Black List. That's great. It means your work is going to be read by everyone in town. Now tell me who's responsible for getting you to the next step, whether that's getting an agent or getting a sale?

It ain't the Black List. It's you - YOUR material. When I interviewed Franklin Leonard four years ago, we chatted a bit about the possibility of the Black List being rigged, perhaps by people attempting to stuff the ballot box lobbying. His take was that it didn't happen that often, certainly not consistently enough to be anything other than an outlier. Is it possible? Sure. But if I was someone looking to scam my way onto the Black List, I'd of course realize that no amount of scamming would magically make my writing into, say, Sorkin-level brilliance.

But let's say you're a writer with an okay script that had enough fans to land it on something like the Black List. What does that mean really? Eh, maybe a lot more people read my so-so writing, and so if it's inadequate, my screenplay gets passed on by a higher volume of reps and producers. Perhaps I get a couple meetings, where again, the onus is on me to prove I have the goods and am "ready." If I'm an imposter, it ends there. If I'm that one-in-a-million writer who has it, I keep climbing.

Thinking this is easy is one of the worst traps to fall into. A few years back I had a script that was one of the top scrips on the Black List website. I got a number of reads off of that strength and even queried several reps citing my achievement. I got a lot of, "This is great writing, but this isn't what I'm looking for at the moment." If you're savvy, you can use that to find out what they ARE looking for and remember to query them again if your next script seems like something they want.

A rep who tells you, "This isn't for me" is actually doing you a favor. The goal is not to get A rep, it's to get the RIGHT rep. In my case, I ended up with a young manager who seemed to be the right guy for this kind of script. He got the script in to all the right people who should be looking at it and the result was a lot of meetings, the usual "we really like your work" and then the "We'd love to see the next thing you're working on." Ultimately, it didn't go anywhere, and I'm not bitter about that because it wasn't necessarily the most mainstream idea. Later, my rep left the business, and after I got over that shock, I realized, "If their heart wasn't in it, it's better that I find someone who is playing this game to win."

Celebrate rejection like you would celebrate the end of a relationship with someone who it'd be a complete mistake to marry. Would I love to hear that Steven Spielberg wants to direct my next script? Sure, just like how when I was a teenager, I'd have loved to have dated Katie Holmes. Of course now I look at it and realize Katie and I would have never made it work and that relationship would have been a mistake for both of us. I'm glad we both dodged that bullet, and it's a lot healthier than sending her letters every week saying, "Why won't you love meeeeeeeee?????!"

(Okay, that took a weird turn.)

Both Black List arms can boost your career - but they can't boost EVERY career and the onus is still on the writer to take responsibility for what needs to happen once the eyes of the town are upon you. You can blame the List for the false hope you cultivated, or you can go back to the computer and start your next (and hopefully better) script. Which of those two options is more likely to actually accomplish something?

It's American Idol and the Black List is like the end of Hollywood Week. That's where the show would be left with 36 semi-finalists. That's some great company that includes Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Does every AI semi-finalist have a career like Kelly or Carrie? Would you expect them to?

But they still wouldn't be multi-million dollar successes without AI. Likewise, the Black List gives you the stage and the mic. Now the town will see if you can sing.


  1. The stairs/escalator analogy was pure brilliance not only for this, but for life.

  2. Amen to this, Mr Bitter -- you're dead right. Stuff like the Black List are the tools, you gotta do the work yourself.

  3. So much truth in this piece. It applies to a lot of fields in life, too