Back in Black
illustration by Lily Padula
Juno seemed to come out of nowhere. From its 2007 debut to its Best Original Screenplay win at the 2008 Academy Awards, Diablo Cody's screenplay about an acerbic teenager and her unintended pregnancy was an indie flick that swept mainstream theaters. But it wasn't just luck—the film was featured on 2005's inaugural Black List, a selective screenplay list founded by film executive Franklin Leonard.Leonard, who was tired of reading the same stale scripts over and over again, surveyed 100 colleagues on their favorite unproduced scripts—including Juno, The Queen, and Little Miss Sunshine—and built the first Black List, named, as he told the Los Angeles Times in 2009, to "challenge the negative cultural symbolism associated with the color black." (Leonard is African American.)
The list is compiled each year from a survey sent out to 500 development executives in Hollywood that asks for up to 10 of their favorite unproduced scripts. The response rate is usually around 60 percent and about 100 films make the cut (the 2012 list included 78). To qualify, a screenplay must be picked at least six times (a more discerning qualifier than in past years when one, two, or four mentions were enough). Since its inception, more than 200 screenplays from the list have been produced. Though a spot on the list isn't a guarantee of success, awards, or money, it promotes the hell out of a project that may only be known to a small, elite circle. As Leonard told SAGIndie in 2012, the list intends to unearth "emotionally ambitious" and "unconventional" stories and bring them to a wider audience, especially now that these "kinds of stories are increasingly hard to get made."
The Atlantic crunched some numbers to measure the impact of the Black List. Given the number of screenplays registered with the Writers Guild and how many movies are released each year, a screenplay has a 0.3 percent chance of being made. The Atlantic contrasted that percentage with the Black List's track record: More than 40 percent of the screenplays on the 2005 list have been made into feature films, and considering how long development can take, this number may continue to rise as more Black List scripts are produced. And even for the screenplays that go unproduced, the attention of the list can turn into prestige and paying work. As The Atlantic puts it, "For a struggling, undiscovered screenwriter, making it onto the List is like being called up to the majors. It worked for screenwriter Shawn Christensen, who only had two short films to his name before Abduction was Black Listed." Now, Christensen has two produced films under his belt and another in preproduction.
So it's more than just a wish list. It's an insight into the workings of powerful entertainment circles and a harbinger of what we can expect to see in both movie theaters and the pop culture zeitgeist. Take Juno. Despite its faults, it brought us a young woman unashamed of and unapologetic about her sexuality, from a writer who prides herself on writing roles for women who "get to do more than play Adam Sandler's wife." When the list works—meaning, when it delivers on its promise to shine light on "unconventional" projects—we get films that deviate from the norm, particularly those about women. Juno may be the most well-known example, but the list has delivered other Bechdel Test–passing, three-dimensional portrayals of women in the past few years. Moreover, many of these films have been penned by women, such as Lorene Scafaria's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz, Shauna Cross's Whip It, and Maggie Carey's The To Do List. Other Black List projects like Snow White and the Huntsman and The Hunger Games, though not penned by women, have added to the canon of female characters who defy convention.
But for every screenplay featuring a woman who challenges expectations, there are many more that drag us into the tired worlds of space fights and tough guys protecting the weak. Which isn't to say that can't be interesting, but we know from experience (Ellen Ripley from Alien, please pardon me) that these kinds of stories do not usually include accurate, fresh, or robust portrayals of women.
Consider the 2012 Black List gem Draft Day, which received 65 votes. The film, out in 2014, follows the NFL general manager (played by Kevin Costner, natch) and his "opportunity to save football in Cleveland" during the draft pick. And while America no doubt loves its football and its high-stakes, time-pressured situations, underdog sports films are released regularly. But 25 percent of those surveyed on the Black List don't see a problem with that—Draft Day was at the top of this much-discussed list.
This lack of focus on women's lives tells us that development executives think there's very little profit in women's stories. The belief that women are not interesting enough for box-office or awards-season glory is so deeply ingrained that even female executives (more than half of the list's voters are women) don't necessarily push for women's stories to get made. Of the 78 screenplays on the 2012 list, only 16 seem to star female characters—which means 62 scripts, or almost 80 percent, are focused on and star men.
The 2012 Black List scripts about women mirror several tropes of the past few years' mainstream movies: mean girls (The Outskirts), femmes fatales (Hold on to Me), love triangles (The One That Got Away), and increasingly, women filling more masculine roles during wartime (The Keeping Room). One 2012 bright star—potentially—is Rodham, a screenplay about young Hillary Rodham and her role in the House Judiciary Committee assembled to impeach President Nixon. It is being produced by Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey of Temple Hill—backers of the Twilight franchise—and Richard Arlook of the Arlook Group. While we'll have to wait and see how the story turns out, early reviews are mixed at best. In the post "A Dude to Direct Hillary Clinton Biopic," Melissa Silverstein of the Indiewire blog Women and Hollywood shared her disappointment with the way the Black List hopeful has turned out, especially since the film, penned by a man (Young Il Kim), will also be directed by a man (James Ponsoldt). Silverstein notes that "Hiring a woman for this film would make a statement—a really good statement—that a woman can direct the movie about the early years of the most powerful woman in the world." It's an important point, especially considering the screenplay describes the most powerful woman in the world as resembling "the valedictorian of the 'look-like-shit school of feminism'" in her college days.
Not that a female screenwriter is a cure-all (see: stereotype-laden, rom-com vehicle, and Black List alumna The Back-Up Plan). But we do have data to support the need for more women writers: Women wrote or cowrote only 12 scripts on the 2012 list. Of this number, eight screenplays written by women also featured women in leading roles. Contrast that with 66 screenplays written by men with eight scripts featuring women in leading roles. For parity, at least, we need more women writers—not to mention more perspectives representing disability, queerness, and people of color, groups that are underrepresented on the Black List and in Hollywood in general. Unfortunately, without a catalyst from the Black List, finding women-centered films that deviate from traditional rom-com territory can be damn near impossible.
But it is important not to give the Black List too much credit. As noted, the list has so far given us leagues of good and bad, fair and stereotypical films; for every Juno there is a masculine man on a journey, a reminder that there is no panacea. As moviegoers, our support of small, female-led projects has the power to influence what gets plucked from the Black List. Films about women that have been featured on the Black List have gone on to win awards and make money, which unfortunately seems to be the only way to get these kinds of films made. Another way to harness power is by supporting independent films, which can wind their tenacious way into the mainstream through time, attention, and more money. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have given fans the opportunity to play development executive, putting our dollars (whether scant or copious) and social media networks into action to promote a project that's personally exciting.
There's also the possibility of subverting the Black List altogether. "The Bitch List" (not to be confused with Bitch's Bitch List) was assembled for the first time this year by the Bitch Pack, a collective of creatives and film and media students, to highlight unproduced screenplays that pass the Bechdel Test. While this year's first iteration was peer produced, the list's authors hope to have an industry voting presence beginning next year. It will be interesting to see if it can garner enough attention for development executives to participate.
But even if the suits never get on board, we as consumers should be pushing and promoting films by and about women and taking to social media to discuss and even create our own narratives. We need—and deserve—alternatives to what we see in mainstream films, to see ourselves reflected back in all our varying complexity. We want women as criminals, doctors, unwed mothers, decorators, girlfriends, bikers, fuck ups, and warriors—women with agency, movable and capable of change.
Exciting post-production update: Warner Bros. is partnering with the Black List to award select screenplays $90,000 deals on production, with an aim to increase diversity in film. Check out Shadow & Act's interview with Frank Leonard for more.
Emily U. Hashimoto has a serious pop culture/feminism addiction and is thrilled to nurture it in Bitch. She is working on her first novel, an account of her women's studies trip through Europe, and blogs about feminism, libraries, and nonsense at books-feminism-everythingelse.tumblr.com.
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