An Interview with Franklin Leonard
Franklin Leonard ’00 is the founder of The Black List, an annual survey of popular unproduced screenplays. Leonard is a former member of the Poetry Board and served as Publisher his senior year. He spoke with Fiction Board member Luke Xu ’20 over the phone in early December. It was snowing. This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.
LX: I'm curious about your opinion on screenplays as a medium. They stand at this really weird intersection — they’re literature and also more than literature. They're words, and riveting to read, but not many people consume them like books, and a lot of people see them as a stepping stone to serve the end goal of creating another work of art, the movie. No other art form seems to work like that. What's your take on this?
FL: It is a very strange form, and it's interesting because The Black List is really the only place where writing is celebrated for itself. When you think about the Best Screenplay award at the Oscars, that is an award given to a writer for how the movie ended up, not how the script was. There's any number of decisions that could turn a good script into a bad movie, right? So I think it is a distinct form in and of itself, but it is also the intermediary form on the way to a movie being made. I also think in the same way that when you look at a building, the architect didn't build the building, but they certainly did draw the blueprints. The screenplay exists in much the same space the blueprint exists in. So oftentimes, the builder and architect work together to create an extraordinary building. But without a good blueprint, odds are the building's not going to be very interesting.
I think that the contributions of writers to film and television industry have been historically severely undervalued and that anyone who wants to build a business model around making profitable films needs to do a better job incorporating the contributions of writers in assessing whether a new movie or a portfolio of movies has a chance for commercial success.
LX: Tell me about your experience at the Advocate. Where did you think your life was going back then? Was Hollywood in the picture?
FL: It was definitely not at all. I got into Harvard thinking I was going to be a Math major. I went to the first class of Math 55, and I realized there was a very big difference between being very good at math in Georgia and being very good at math at Harvard. I ended up concentrating in Social Studies and thought I was going to be working in politics for my career. The Advocate, and the creative writing classes I took, were really just meant to be my liberal arts education. That was something that was supplementing the more political education that I was going to try to get in the Social Studies department.
What I didn't realize at the time was that the Advocate was a pretty significant part of a shift in my own life from being something of a quant person to being something of a creative. And it's sort of fascinating that the work I do with The Black List now is very much a synthesis of those two approaches.
LX: You mentioned that you saw yourself transitioning to being creative at the Advocate. Has the stuff you've picked up at the Advocated translated into your work at Hollywood?
FL: I mean, somewhat. I think that probably the place where there's the most overlap is in the board meetings, where you're sitting and talking about creative work. You’re engaged in conversations about something that is fundamentally subjective, where people, who are coming at that work of art from a near infinite number of points of view, engage in the conversation that's productive yet still valuable from a critical perspective. I think that is by and large a significant part of my daily life in this business. And I think the earliest training that I probably had in my life for those kinds of conversations was at the Advocate.
LX: So I heard you started The Black List as a way of canvassing your colleagues for opinions for quality scripts. But it's grown now into this platform and even community for screenwriters, agents, directors. What's the story behind this evolution?
FL: I mean, it did. When it started, I was working for Leonardo DiCaprio's production company. My job was to find great scripts and pass them up the chain of command. Most of the scripts I was finding were mediocre to bad. So I canvassed my friends and peers and asked them for their favorite scripts. And in exchange, I would share with them the entire list. It went viral very quickly in the industry. It became something of an arbiter of taste for screenplays and screenwriters.
About seven years after the annual list launched, we launched The Black List website. It's a sort of two sided marketplace for any aspiring screenwriter who has written an English language script to have their work evaluated and get discovered by the industry, and vice versa for the industry to discover great new writers. And then we built a community around that includes incubation programs like screenwriter's labs, lot of script readings, and a podcast. We've also begun producing movies as well.
LX: That's pretty new, right? As far the screenplay economy goes.
FL: Yeah, I mean the lab. We've done the lab for the last five years, six years. We've done the live reads for the last five. We had the podcast for about 2 years. It was one of iTunes' best podcasts of 2015, and it looks like we'll be bringing it back in 2020.
LX: One hot topic in Hollywood right now is representation, and I know that's been a big part of your work with The Black List. So how do you see the role of screenplays specifically in pushing the needle in that regard?
FL: I think that the industry — film — has historically pulled the stories of primarily rich white men between the ages of 25 and 45. That is roughly 15% of the American moviegoing audience. There's a lot more money to be made, and frankly a lot better art to be made, by a more competitive environment that is aspiring to make stories that represent the entire population.
Everything starts with the screenplay. In the beginning was the word. So I think it's critically important that the industry does a great job of identifying those writers and screenplays based on the quality of execution, not based on whether it's about a man, whether it's about a white man, whether it's about a straight white man, whether it's about an upper middle class straight white man between the ages of 25 and 45. And [that the industry] does a good job doing the same thing with writers. I think that we're very much on the bleeding edge that making sure the screenwriting profession can be a meritocratic one, and not one that is determined by having gone to the right schools, or knowing the right people, or having the right face associated with the screenplay that you wrote.
LX: It's really awesome that you're doing that sort of work.
FL: Look, I think it's really important to be clear about something though. I think that it's important from a sort of moral standpoint and ethical standpoint to have that diversity in arguably the most dominant cultural form in the history of the world. But I also think that it comes from a capitalistic perspective. I would like the industry to be as financially successful as possible. It can only do that if it is making movies, making television for as much of the audience as possible, something that the industry has failed to do for the life of the industry.
LX: We've seen a lot of movies like that recently—Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians—that are making a lot of money.
FL: Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, I mean the list goes on and on and on. Yeah, I mean look. There's a lot of money to be made by making content for the entire audience. And I very much hope that the industry will wake up to that reality.
LX: Regarding your interest in helping elevate writers and scripts arise—was this something you'd always been interested in, or did it arise over the course of your career?
FL: You have to understand. I don't know that I would've recognized this instinct when I was at Harvard. I was trying to explain The Black List to a friend, one of my blockmates, and I walked him through what The Black List does for writers and the writing community, and his response was, "You're basically like Puffy to the writing community's Biggie." And I was like, "Not really, but kind of."
I think I've always on some level been a hypeman, or had an instinct towards being a hypeman, and what I mean by that is, when I find people who are talented I want everyone to know about them. And I take great pride and joy in being the person who introduces people to people who are incredibly talented and not getting the credit they deserve.
So I think that's probably part of the draw for me with the Advocate. I hosted a lot of these variety show events where it was just like poets and musicians and whatever. And it was really designed around, "Hey everybody. Here's some really dope people doing some really dope things. You should be aware of this and check them out, and tell your friends." I was doing that in college. I did it a lot when I was in New York City as a management consultant at McKinsey, separate from my job there. And then obviously that's the work of The Black List. So I think that there is a common thread, but it's not one I recognized until much later.
LX: You talked a bit earlier about how a lot of decisions can turn a good script into a bad movie and vice versa. What do you think makes a screenplay a good screenplay versus a producible screenplay?
FL: A good screenplay is just a good story well told. I'm often asked, "How do you know when you're reading a good screenplay?" I think it's very much like the Supreme Court's definition of pornography: "You know it when you see it."
For me, when I start reading, am I interested in what happens next consistently? And am I a little sad when it's over, because I'd like to spend more time in that world, with those characters? I think if you accomplish those things, you've written a good screenplay.
Now, a producible screenplay is an entirely different thing. I think what's interesting about The Black List is that it's celebrating scripts for the quality of the script, not necessarily the producibility or the profitability of the script.
LX: I remember back in the early days of The Black List, it had more of a reputation that was very artsy, indie, original, not the biggest moneymakers, right?
FL: Yeah, it's funny. That hasn't changed, right? The process by which The Black List is determined every year has been the same—this will be the 15th year—the entire time. I'm just surveying my peers in the business about their favorite unproduced scripts. Now early on, there was sort of the reputation that The Black List was this indie, undercover thing. And then, the backlash to that has been that The Black List is actually just writers who are already well known.
Fact is, neither of those things were true. The Black List was always, very simply, a survey of people's most liked screenplays, wherever they came from, whether they were from Aaron Sorkin, who was the number 4 writer on the first list, or from a writer no one had ever heard from before, like Diablo Cody who was number 2 on that list with Juno. And so, you know, you have people who are like, “The Black List is over cause it's no longer underground.” They're just as wrong as people who are saying, “The Black List is amazing because it'll only discover these unheard of things.”
LX: That's pretty killer.
FL: I've always believed, like I said, that good writing makes a good movie, or is usually the best chance at a good movie. But to have it verified by Harvard business school is always a welcome thing.
LX: Do you see this as going in a different thrust than the big trend in Hollywood right now, which is sequels, trends, franchises, and things in that galaxy? Is there a divide or conflict here?
A: I don't. Because I think sequels, remakes, adaptations, reboots—they can all be brilliantly executed. In many ways, most of the stories that are told in our media, in our reboots of things, are essential stories that have been told for the entirety of human history. Georges Polti says there are 36 dramatic situations. You know, The Lion King is just Hamlet. A lot of these things are just reduxes of things that have been done before, just with new avatars.
Personally, I'm very much omnivorous in my cultural consumption. I'll be there for Black Panther 2 the weekend it comes out, and I'll probably beg for premiere tickets. But I'll also be there for the next Michael Haneke movie. And I expect greatness of both. So I actually think that the conflict comes when it's very difficult to put a Michael Haneke movie into a movie theatre because every theatre is playing Black Panther 2, and I think that's more of a business issue than it is necessarily a cultural issue. It doesn't mean that there shouldn't be movies like Black Panther 2, just like it doesn't mean there shouldn't be like Michael Haneke's next films.
LX: Do you have a favorite movie?
FL: Being There, Dr. Strangelove, Do the Right Thing, City of God. I'd probably put Parasite into that Top 10 list right now, which is just unbelievably good if you haven't seen it yet, I encourage everyone to go see it.
Did you notice my hypeman thing coming up again? But I do strongly recommend it.
LX: Do you have any advice for any young Advocate kids aspiring to go into production or screenwriting or Hollywood?
FL: The thing about working in Hollywood, as opposed to what a lot of your peers will do when they leave Harvard, is that there's not a clear path. The early rungs of that path are not terribly well compensated. So my advice first and foremost: be sure it's something that you want to do because you will endure, not actual slings and arrows, but they'll feel like it at the time.
Figure out what it is you love about this thing. Do you love horror movies? Do you love musicals? Do you love writing? Do you love directing? Do you love producing? Do you love being a critic? Go all in on that thing, and try to find your community of people who share that worldview, that interest with you.
I think that there's a tendency coming from Harvard, getting into Harvard, trying to be the best, and be all things to all people. I think that the best advice one could ever have, presuming any artistic career as a profession, is that your most valuable thing you're always gonna have is knowledge of your own mind, and knowledge of who you are, and the ability to be yourself and be really good at being yourself in whatever sort of cultural space that you're in. And then, you know, work your ass off.