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Black List showcases the best overlooked screenplays

Some writers are rookies, some are veterans, but Franklin Leonard's compilation puts them on Hollywood's radar.

December 13, 2010|By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times

One day a year, Franklin Leonard transforms from midlevel studio executive mired in development meetings, script readings and note-taking into Hollywood's most important soothsayer.

An article in the Dec. 13 Calendar section about Franklin Leonard's Black List of the best unproduced screenplays said his hometown was Columbus, Ohio. It's Columbus, Ga.

The 32-year-old native of Columbus, Ohio, is the mastermind and compiler of the Black List, a compendium of the year's best unproduced screenplays. Today marks Leonard's sixth annual metamorphosis, and when he presses "send" on his e-mail — shooting the list around Hollywood and beyond — he may again change the fates of scores of screenwriters looking to crack the big leagues.

"The Black List opened doors and turned my life around," says writer Michael R. Perry, 47, whose trippy script "The Voices," about a man tormented by his talking pets, landed in third place on 2009's list. "My writing career has totally taken off."

The production company Vertigo Entertainment is still in development with "The Voices," trying to land a high-profile actor-director team to champion it. But meanwhile, Perry, a former television writer-producer on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," penned this year's film "Paranormal Activity 2," has signed on for the third installment of the horror series, and is now working on a TV pilot with "Paranormal Activity" director Oren Peli for ABC.

Unlike in the early years, when most if not all of the scripts on the list were undiscovered gems, many of those on the 2010 Black List are spoken for: Of the 10 highest-ranked scripts, six have been purchased by studios. And with Hollywood bigwigs paying more attention, some people have tried to manipulate the system.

Nevertheless, Perry and others say their lives were changed by landing a spot on the list, which Leonard started in 2005 out of desperation. Then a development executive at Leonardo DiCaprio's production company Appian Way, Leonard had been drowning in a sea of bad screenplays. He turned to his counterparts in the industry for a life preserver, and his simple e-mail to 75 Hollywood execs asking for good script suggestions resulted in an avalanche of replies.

He compiled those answers into a dossier he dubbed the Black List — part self-referential title (Leonard is African American) and part ironic nod to the 1940s and '50s Hollywood blacklist of suspected communists and communist sympathizers that on occasion derailed careers. A phenomenon was born.

Today, 300 people participate in compiling the list; those invited to participate contribute an unranked list of up to 10 of their favorite scripts of the year. While the number of participants has ballooned, Leonard says the purpose of the list remains the same: to recognize solid screenplays.

"I hope the additional attention has more to do with the list's increasing ability to predict quality writers," says Leonard, who recently left his development gig at Universal Pictures for a job with Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment. "When we did the first list, no one knew what it was. Three years later when Diablo [Cody] wins [the Academy Award for "Juno"] and Nancy [Oliver] is nominated [for "Lars and the Real Girl"] and writers deliver other great scripts, the list earned some credibility. I believe it's a pretty good source now for buying good material."

One of this year's top 10 scripts, "Margin Call" by J.C. Chandor — which depicts the last 24 hours at now-defunct investment bank Lehman Bros. — has already been produced with Chandor directing. Kevin Spacey and Paul Bettany star, and the movie will debut at the Sundance Film Festival next month. (The rule of the Black List is the film can't be released in theaters in the calendar year for which it's been nominated.)

Fictionalized accounts of historical events occupy half of the top-10 spots this year. At No.1 is a buddy comedy, "College Republicans" by Wes Jones, which centers on a college-aged Karl Rove as he vies for the role of chief college conservative under the guidance of Lee Atwater. Shia LaBeouf and Paul Dano are said to be interested in the two lead roles. Spot No.2 went to "Jackie" by Noah Oppenheim, about the days immediately after President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

"Five scripts address the way in which the power was built and the way in which it has failed," Leonard says.

Also on the list is "Stoker," about a teenage girl who, in the wake of her father's death, must deal with her mysterious uncle; it is the screenwriting debut of actor Wentworth Miller, best known for his role on the Fox TV drama "Prison Break."

Dante Harper's high-profile "All You Need Is Kill," which Warner Bros. bought for seven figures this year, also landed on the top 10. Adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 sci-fi novel centered on an alien invasion, the script is one of Harper's many that have been gaining notice around town.

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