What separates the amateur from the professional is a paycheck. That’s about as basic as that can be stated. For the aspiring writer there are a lot of well meaning services out there that want you to believe they can help you reach your goal of being a professional writer, of earning the first paycheck of a new career.
Hard work doesn’t always pay off and I don’t fault anyone for trying any avenue out there, but you should always be wary of ventures where someone is enticing you with ways to bypass ‘industry gate keepers’ and also, really, if a site flashes you with ‘Get Published Now!’ you can assume it’s a bunch of hooey. But, hey it’s tough out there. It’s also good to be hopeful.
There’s a new service for aspiring screenwriters from Franklin Leonard, a Hollywood development executive and creator of The Black List, a list of the top unmade scripts for each year. As the story goes, Leonard would reach out to other executives to see what scripts they had enjoyed reading, but just weren’t getting made. He’d make a tally and at the end of the year he’d distribute what he dubbed The Black List. This list is made up of scripts written by Hollywood writers, meaning, you’ll see ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘Argo’ on The Black List a year or two before they were made.
There’s more to it than that, but the inner workings of how the list is compiled isn’t the point.
Now Franklin Leonard has created an arm to The Black List specifically for amateur writers. Anybody with a script sitting on their laptop can send it to Leonard’s new Black List to get rated and get a few notes from a reader. This new Black List may share a name and a creator with the official Black List, but beyond that they are two very different things.
Here’s my best attempt at a rundown of how this new service works –
The Black List has a pool of professional readers. These readers aren’t community college teachers in isolated anti-coastal states sleeping on stacks of their own yellowed manuscripts, but honest to God professional Hollywood grade readers. These discerning eyeballs have (potentially) read great and amazing scripts before they became great and amazing films. This is an important element to focus on.
Readers are important. Very.
Take your average film festival – those readers that are going through the films and scripts to decide who advances have probably never been involved in making a film on a large scale or have had any actual contact with the Hollywood film industry. Most likely you’re being read by well meaning folk that really want to be involved in film, but not enough to pack up and try their hand at Los Angeles.
There’s nothing wrong with this. I’ve done it. I’ve read for script competitions in Los Angeles while renting couch space and living off my savings. It was a good experience and allowed me to see the inner workings of how scripts and films advance in contests. We truly argued over the merit of each script, some readers hating what others loved and vice versa. The difference between us and (potentially) The Black List readers is that if they love something you wrote it will get in the hands of an agent or producer who might take you on as a writer, thus starting your new career as a screenwriter.
Yes, lots of hopes and dreams going on here.
There are other services out there for aspiring screenwriters to send off their work. Go ahead and Google ‘script coverage’ and see how many readers and (former) producers you get itching to have you send in your script with a check.
Actually, here, let me do it for you — Google. Script Coverage.
Again, these services could be helpful in getting an outsider’s opinion on your script, but what The Black List is offering is far beyond notes to use in your next re-write so you can send off your best draft to Nicholl or Slamdance.
Once you’ve decided to send your script off to The Black List, here’s what you’ll find —
You create a user account on the site then upload a PDF of your script and fill out some general information; title, genre, logline, and any awards or contests your script has won. For $25 a month you can have the script sit on The Black List servers, waiting to be read. Maybe. There is no guarantee, and from what I’ve seen it’s highly unlikely, that a reader will decide to read and rate your script without you first paying for it.
So, now you pay $50 for a read. In 2-3 weeks you will get an email saying that your review has been posted on your script’s page. The script gets rated from 1 – 10 on premise, plot, character, and dialogue and gets an overall score between 1 – 10. The reader will also give you very brief feedback. You will get a quick synopsis, a paragraph of strengths, a paragraph of weaknesses, and a sentence or two on prospects for the script. You can either make these viewable to the public or keep them private. Most writers have chosen to keep them private unless they’ve scored ridiculously well.
A bit about the rating – If you score an 8 or higher, your script gets put on a list of high scoring scripts and this list is then sent to producers and agents that trust the taste of The Black List. Anything below an 8 sits on the site, waiting and hoping for an unpaid read to come along. If none come, you can always pay for another read and hope a second reader rates your script a bit higher to get some interest going your way, but then you’ll also end up paying another $25 on top of that to keep it live on the site for another month while you wait for your feedback.
Let’s say you score a 7 and keep it on The Black List site. There is no guarantee that anything will happen with it, that it will get an unpaid read and another, possibly higher, rating. Although I have seen uploaded scripts on the site that have multiple reads, I don’t know how many of those are paid reads and if the extra attention got them contact from agents, producers, or executives — the only real rating.
What else can your rating do, you may ask.
Every script that has been uploaded to the site and given a score goes into creating the overall average rating for The Black List. Right now the average score of an uploaded script on The Black List is 6.73.
This is interesting to note because if 8 is considered worthy of sending off to potential decision makers, anyone keeping a script on the site with a score below that is potentially wasting money and lowering the overall power of The Black List as a booster of careers. If the bulk of what is being offered has been deemed not of professional grade, soon enough the professionals will lose interest in it as a service for tracking and finding new talent.
As an example, here are two reviews I received for a script I’ve had up for a few weeks. It’s a strange and rambling character study, but I wanted to get some true Hollywood feedback on it.
The first review is quite positive, and it’s clear the reader understood what the script was going for.
Locations: San Francisco
Genre: Comedy, Dramatic Comedy, Mystery & Suspense, Erotic Thriller
A middle-aged, unemployed husband struggles to find his passion for work as the rest of the business world refuses to recognize his unorthodox genius. But when he happens into an elusive society where great minds can have casual sex at will to keep focused on their innovations, his relationship to his wife, his peers, and the world at large changes drastically.
The idea itself–disposable sex outside of love or attachment in order to further human understanding and development and keep great minds on track to new discoveries–is brilliant. Deering is a great protagonist: both lovable and despicable in the loudest ways. The script, while far from perfect and even from finished, leaves its mark in bright red paint as a work that affects the reader, for better or for worse. And, it’s an erotic thriller that accomplishes the near unthinkable: it’s able to be sexy and critical of sex culture at the same time.
It fires all its ammunition towards making bold statements about American adult life, but in good faith, the script cannot be given a higher score because its mess of disjointed plotlines, alienating beliefs, and overall lack of cohesion in thematic vision. Even with the fantastical premise withstanding, at certain points it’s tough to figure out whether the story is happening or being imagined, and perhaps that’s because much of the story just doesn’t make sense. The Mina/Camper plotline is confusing and, as their bickering goes on too long, detracts from the A-story. The script is satisfying and irreverent in welcome ways at its best, but other times, it steps too far and comes across as demeaning and misogynistic. There are some great lines of dialogue, but taken as a whole, this draft seems more like a faulty vessel to deliver those lines than a tight ship in its own right.
The script would be tough to adapt in its current form, but with strong revisions in plot and structure, this could be a hell of a dark cult comedy for adventurous viewers.
Demeaning and misogynistic? Overall lack of cohesion in thematic vision? Eh. I can take it. But even with that, a pretty good review by a reader who obvious got what I was going for. That’s really all I hope for.
Now, here’s the second review I got for the same script.
Locations: Palo Alto, San Francisco
Genre: Erotic Thriller
An out-of-work floorer turned ad exec finds himself at the Antioch Coupling Institute, which uses sex as a means to improve human achievement in the workplace.
Deering’s drive and ambition is summed up nicely when he says “When I die I won’t be thinking about the good times about my family. Only my mark on this world,” but at the end he chooses not to make a mark on the world. Mina’s relationship with Justine creates great tension, and is relatable because Justine is supplying the capital. The montage of Deering doing errands before the backyard party is very funny. Deering’s statements about money during his bar date with Alan also give good insight into his strong beliefs. The tension is great, starting when Camper’s new members come in, and particularly when the Young Man violates the woman, but this comes too late in the script. The bigger issue is Mina’s idea of morality in regards to Antioch, which should be made the focal point of the plot.
The opening scenes are confusing: we don’t know why Deering is becoming an ad exec, and why he seems so estranged from Christie. Deering even hits on the receptionist after Christie leaves. The idea of people from different industries coming together is clever, but the sexual acts alienate the reader, making us hate Deering for cheating on his wife. We never understand Deering’s need to go to the institute: beyond his lack of ideas, it doesn’t seem necessary for him to do this, and once he does, cheating on Christie doesn’t faze him. Deering is alternately referred to as “Deering” and “Danny” in dialogue, which is confusing, and we dislike him even more when he says, “Tiger Woods was a kid. Still found a way to make his folks wealthy.” Deering doesn’t just dislike Christie, he seems to hate her when he talks to Ames crudely about little children. Mina just happens to show up at the tennis court. Deering is a hypocrite, saying to Christie “What don’t you understand about being married?” Finally, none of the characters change: Deering says the same pitch as the beginning, and goes back to being a floorer. Mina never learns anything. Christie barely reacts when Deering shows her his Antioch video.
The script is an X-rated erotic film, but because there is a lack of high stakes and character growth, it can’t be categorized as a thriller. It has extremely limited potential for attracting an audience due to the lack of plot and graphic nature.
Not so great and pretty clear that the reader did not get where the script was coming from. In the genre section they didn’t even mark it as a ‘dark comedy,’ so whatever humor filled darkness was in the script they took as serious. Not their fault, my writing was not clear for them and they just didn’t care for the story or my writing. Like the first reader said, the script is based on ‘alienating beliefs’ so I’m not too surprised or bothered by this set of notes.
What’s interesting is that once I got this review and was about to take the script down to save me another $25 for the next month of hosting (while not damaging the overall rating of uploaded scripts) I received this email —
As you know, evaluating screenplays is a subjective business. Two reasonable, well-informed people can disagree about a piece of material without either necessarily being wrong. So, it seems, is the case with your script.
We noticed that you received two recent paid evaluations that diverged somewhat significantly in their overall ratings. As a way for everyone (you, us, and our members) to get a better sense of where your script stands, we wanted to offer you an additional read for $25 (50% of the total cost).
Simply click below to purchase and immediately route your script to a new reader.
The Black List
It’s clear there’s a bot or algorithm at play that compares the ratings for each script and it triggered this email being sent to me. You can look at this two ways. One, the bastards want more of my money, or two, they understand the contrast of my two reviews and are offering a helping hand, a way for me to get a true idea what readers thought of my work. It’s actually greatly appreciated.
What I like about The Black List service is that it is merit based. Those that give the ratings are used to, and expect, a certain level of quality and if you bring something to them that does not reach that level they will let you know as objectively as possible.
The hope is this – a writer holed up in North Dakota or Minnesota can have their work read by a professional for a reasonable fee, and if the writing is at a professional level, they will be ushered off to Los Angeles, Hollywood, to begin their screenwriting career.
I was talking to Justin Sloan, another aspiring writer who has uploaded his share of scripts to the site, and I asked him bout The Black List. He summed it up a lot better than I ever could —
“You know what sucks about The Black List? It’s a reality check — I don’t want to know the reality of not quite being there yet! But it is good, makes me realize my **** stinks just like everyone else and I need to get better somehow.”
This hope I mentioned, it only matters if that is the writer’s goal, to work in the Hollywood system, but if it’s not, then you don’t really care about The Black List anyway.
To read far more intelligent discussion of The Black List follow these links –
Franklin Leonard talks to Screen Rant
The Hollywood Reporter on The Black List
Franklin Leonard talks with John August & Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes
8 thoughts on “Can the new Black List start a career?”
Although it’s still a longshot — just like everything else in this business — I personally know a writer who’s career was launched as a result of him using this service. There are at least two others that I know of who’ve had similar, legitimate success. Pretty incredible for something so new.
Also, I really enjoyed the quote from Justin Sloan. It’s a good thing when you realize how hare you’ll have to work to get good enough to make a career out of this game. Without that target, I’m pretty sure it’s hopeless.
I’ve heard of a few writers finding success on the site, which is awesome. It’s an interesting model. I’m looking forward to watching how it establishes itself in the world.
I agree with Justin too — it sucks to be told you’re not good enough, but it’s also an important lesson to learn.
The good news is that there are steps we can take. Join a writers group with people better than you (I just did and I’m blown away!). Attend writers conferences to keep networking/ keep the motivation alive. Write, write, write.
Yeah, so many options. I think moving to LA is important as well. But, the main deal is to write, write, write.
I’m thinking about trying the Black List. It’s nice to read such a good explanation about it. But still, I have my doubts about how professional a reader can be if he’ll read and rate a whole script for 50 bucks. 🙂 And it all comes down to that, doesn’t it. Also, I’m not sure whether my script is ready to “unleash” it upon the world. :s
Every reader, no matter their professional status, is going to be different. From my experience the Black List was worth the $50, or really, the $75 it costs. The next time I do it I’ll make sure that I feel the script is 100% ready. Good luck!
Thanks, you too!