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It’s Oscar season. Who decides what movies get made?

The film industry overlooks thousands of deserving screenplays each year, relying on narrow models of what executives think audiences want to see. Alum Franklin Leonard is helping to change that.
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Photo credit: Emma Holly Jones

You might not have heard of Franklin Leonard (NYO 01-03), but it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve seen a movie that made its way to the big screen because of him.

In 2005, Franklin founded the Black List, an annual survey of Hollywood executives’ favorite unproduced screenplays. Since then, more than 400 scripts on the Black List have been produced – with box office results of $26 billion globally. Black List movies have also won more than 50 Academy Awards, including nearly half of the last 22 Oscars for best screenplay.

Franklin’s goals are to identify and celebrate great screenwriting and the writers who do it. “The industry has historically failed to do this without bias and at scale,” he explains.

We sat down with Franklin, who gives an insider view of what he’s doing to promote the work of talented writers, and talks about why it’s important to make movies that do a better job of representing the world in all its diversity.

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Working in the film industry isn’t the most common post-McKinsey career. How did you get involved in it?

I spent a few months working for arts nonprofits in New York at McKinsey after 9/11, and I was spending all the rest of my time either watching movies or reading about the film industry.

Then, towards the end of my time as a BA, I decided to go to California and see what it was like.

My second day there, I had a drink with a friend of mine who was working as an assistant at CAA [Creative Artists Agency]. She told me, "Oh, there's an agent at CAA who I think you would really get along with and she's looking for an assistant right now. You should talk to her." I met with her the next day, and she offered me the job.

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How did you then go on to create the Black List?

In 2005, I was working for Leonard DiCaprio's production company Appian Way. I was a ‘creative executive’, which meant that my job was essentially to consume the world: read every screenplay, every book manuscript, every article. I was looking to identify any sort of intellectual property that could be adapted into a film.

At the time Leo was arguably the biggest star in the world … and also happened to be a white man between the ages of 25 and 40, which has historically been the sweet spot for what the industry considers bankable (though they're wrong in that assumption). So I was seeing everything, because if you had Leo attached to your script, you had a “go” movie. But most of the stuff that I was reading was mediocre to bad.

So, I reverted back to McKinsey thinking in many ways. One of the things I always really admired about the firm was the extent to which information was shared, having a central database of knowledge that could be referred to. The film industry doesn't have that in any capacity, especially in the world of screenwriting – which is fascinating, because it's one place where centralizing that knowledge allows you to more efficiently evaluate material for the industry as a whole.

I wrote an email to 75 peers who had jobs similar to mine and asked them to send me their ten favorite screenplays that hadn't been produced. In exchange, I said I would send them the combined list. I gave it the name "The Black List," which was a conscious inversion of the notion that black as a color connotes something negative, and a tribute to the Communist members of the film industry who lost their livelihoods during the McCarthy era. I sent it out, and it very quickly went viral.

[Today, aspiring screenwriters can share their scripts on the Black List’s online community, which currently hosts over 3,500 scripts for consideration by more than 5,000 film industry professionals, and the announcement of each year’s Black List is a media event.]

Getting a script on the Black List will presumably make film executives feel that it’s a bit less risky to produce. Where do you think the industry is on the curve of breaking down preconceived notions about what's risky to produce and what isn't? Do you think that some executives are catching on to the idea that what has worked in the past isn't necessarily what is going to work now?

I think we're in the very early stages of that transition. The Black List has been a part of that transition in getting the industry to recognize that the conventional wisdom about what works in the marketplace when it comes to what stories can be told and how they're told is more a convention than wisdom. But I think that's just the tip of the iceberg in the transition that's happening.

You're seeing it as it applies to gender, to race, to sexual orientation, to international stories that may not be based in Americana. We’re in very, very early days and I think that the lack of diversity in the film and television culture is reflective of that collective failure.

I went to movies constantly all my life, but I never saw anybody who looked like me on screen. What does it mean for a gay kid who lives in India that they're never going to see themselves presented on screen? What does it mean for a woman who's 55 who never gets to see herself on screen except for in very limited roles and not as fully human unless Meryl Streep's playing the part? Fifty percent of the Latin immigrants on U.S. television are presented as being engaged in criminal activity.

That has incredibly deleterious consequences for our culture, not just in the arts, but also in our politics. The world many people see is the world that they're consuming from film and television, which isn't an accurate representation of the world as it is.

The Black List recently signed a deal to produce and finance several films a year. Why did you decide to go in that direction, and is there anything you can share about what you have coming up?

I felt like after fifteen years of success with the annual list and and six years of success with the website, I was finally at a place where we could be trusted to do that, and people would back us. And we're really seeing that to be the case.

We produced our first movie last summer, a small million-dollar comedy that will premiere at the SXSW film festival. We're also producing a movie that was on 2017's Black List by a young writer named Amanda Idoko, a Nigerian American woman from the Bronx who happens to write like one of the Coen brothers. We should be in production in June with Allison Janney and Laura Dern.

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Where do you see the Black List in five years?

I'd like to be in a position where the Black List has influenced the world view on what movies should be made and how, which is that the first priority is to identify great screenplays and then put talented people around them and trust them to realize their artistic potential.

I'd also like to have a significant pile of capital that I can invest in those movies and deliver an exceptional return and a great deal of critical praise for the people that invested in that fund. I'm in the process of expanding and building that fund right now. I think that if we can raise it in significant enough volume, we'll be able to deliver a really remarkable return.

Hopefully, by being a true meritocracy of quality, you'll see a lot more diversity than we've seen in the industry as a whole – which up to now has had pretty substantial affirmative action for, to put a very fine point on it, upper-middle-class, straight white men.

Hundreds of scripts that The Black List has promoted have been turned into feature films. Do you have any particular favorites?

I will always have a soft spot for “The King's Speech” for a few reasons. One, I had a stutter as a kid, so it hit me right in the chest when I read it for the first time. The second reason is that the writer David Seidler was in his late sixties when he wrote it. When I read his script, he didn't even have an agent.

We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at: McKinsey_Website_Accessibility@mckinsey.com
Franklin receives the Evelyn F. Burkey award on Feburary 17. Photo credit: Getty Images / WGA East

I remember reading it and saying, "This is one of the best scripts I've ever read." I called around to a bunch of agents in the industry and said, "Look, I don't go out on these limbs very often, but I feel like if this script gets made well, it can win Best Picture," which in the context of the industry, sounds like irrational hyperbole. [The movie did go on to win the “Best Picture” Academy Award in 2011.]

That story of him not having representation, the script being discovered for its quality on its own terms, the movie getting made and then the industry waking up to the value that this person brought to the table – despite the fact that he wasn't a 35-year-old guy who lived in Silver Lake and looked like George Lucas or Steven Spielberg in the '70s – laid bare for me that, again, my instincts about the industry’s inability to correctly assess value were pretty dead on.

When you look back at the end of your career, what do you want to see?

I would like for people to say that I had some small part in gaining writers the dignity, respect, and compensation that they deserve. I'd like people to say that I had a part in making sure that the movies and television that the industry makes were more accurately representative of the world as it actually is.

And I'd like people to say that I was kind and did business honorably, that I was a person that people wanted to work with by virtue of who I was and that because of the work I chose to do, it made movies and television better, it made more people who could make movies and television better have power to do that, and that we all had more good stuff to watch on Friday and Saturday night when we went to the movie theater or turned on our television.

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Interested in learning more? 

Watch Franklin’s TEDx talk.

On February 17, Franklin received the Evelyn F. Burkey Award, an honor given annually by the board of the Writer's Guild of America, East for contributions to elevating the dignity and respect of the community of screenwriters. You can watch his acceptance speech or read the transcript.

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