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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Black List Ruminations

by Margaux Froley-Outhred

What does the Black List mean to you? If your first reaction is a cringe-inducing reminder of the Communist witch-hunt in Hollywood led by Joe McCarthy in the 50s - big history kudo points to you but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about today's Black List, an annual list put together by an industry insider who polled about 150 executives and high level assistants to find out which scripts they liked the most in 2007. It is noted that this isn’t necessarily a “Best of” list, but rather a “Most Liked” list. (Make of that differentiation what you will.)

Are you a first time reader of the Black List who pores over every script mentioned, trying to suck some of that writer’s mojo from the page? Or are you a seasoned cynic who thinks, really? That script? CAA must behind that hype.

For me, the annual Black List is my personal List of Despair. Every year it’s a fresh ulcer, digging a hole in my stomach. It’s the voice of my mother asking me why I want to be a screenwriter when so few actually succeed? It’s a List of How I’ve Failed For Yet Another Year to Make it in this Town. It’s a list of those writers who have somehow penetrated the ranks of executives and assistants and gotten noticed for a script that stands out from the pack.

From a development standpoint (i.e., the List’s origins), it makes sense. Development execs and their assistants have to trudge through so many bad scripts that suck their lives and weekends away. When the rare script arrives that is actually a good read, it’s understandable that they get excited and that rare script would get mentioned on this list. However, what also happens in the development world is that a good script gets mentioned on a tracking board of several similar minded and leveled execs. And then what happens? Hype. Once a script is deemed “ A great read!” “ Original voice”, who would dare challenge such opinions? The scales are tipped and a script or writer becomes commonly known as “great”. If an executive is told how great a script is once, often it will be read with that opinion in mind. Go with the flow becomes not just a suggestion, but a way of life. And if you’re an executive and your boss hears about a great writer, you bet that executive is scared to get caught without a meeting in the books with that writer.

Once the script is hyped, it’s a matter of hours or maybe days for word to get around town how “great”/ “original” this new script is. This is where agents and managers earn their money creating buzz. And buzz they do. These executives and assistants aren’t doing their jobs if they aren’t on top of the daily buzz. And then come the generals.

The writer is sent out to these companies to continue the buzz train, and if they can carry an engaging story, or tell tales of their time as a stripper, then, they are given the next level of buzz on the tracking boards and around town. “Oh, he’s awesome. We’re trying to find a project for him.” And if one guy is trying to find a project for him, you bet that another exec will try to beat him to the punch.

This really isn’t meant to be a bah-humbug, cynical writer perspective; it’s pretty much how this town works. “It only takes one yes”, couldn’t be more true. This town is like a high school game of telephone revolving around the new kid at school. Will he or she make it to the cool table and get asked to prom? Maybe. And if you’re lucky, maybe, you’ll be the prom king or queen next year. This year’s prom queen would have to be Diablo Cody for her return to the Black List, and the brilliant execution of last year’s Black List entry, JUNO.

However cynical I might sound here, there is something to be said for the writers on this list. Whatever they did, whether we agree with that script selection or not, these writers found a way to stick in the heads of a lot of influential people in this town. And really, when it comes to getting the next job, that’s huge! These writers deserve to be congratulated for working their magic on the page and in the room to make it to this list.

Regardless of how a script got there, The Black List is always an interesting lesson in development vs. box office. Last year 3:10 TO YUMA and JUNO were near the top of the list, both of which turned out terrific films, while the box office might not be huge. Also, THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE, which tanked at the box office. This year’s Black List seems heavy with political thrillers, which have been box office poison this season. (RENDITION, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, MICHAEL CLAYTON, THE KINGDOM). While creative writers are working with some amazing current stories and political tensions, audiences don’t seem to want to be reminded about what’s on their nightly news. These scripts might be great reads, but do audience’s care?

There were an astonishingly low number of comedies, and very few women represented on this list. In a year where Warner Brothers announced it would no longer make movies with female leads (which was later recanted) thanks to a handful of Nicole Kidman, Jodie Foster box office stinkers; no wonder female stories aren’t sitting at the popular table this year. Will there even be a Prom Queen next year?

I’m curious about what other writers think of the Black List. Is there a lesson to be learned or is just a strange industry practice that we observe annually? Recognizing what we think, maybe, could be the best, but we won’t say it’s the best, we’ll just say that we liked it so no one can question me about my personal opinion, because it’s OK to have one, right? Right? (When did this town get so scared to have opinions, btw?)

What if we polled 150 top writers and their assistants and made a list of which executives give the best Meeting? We’ll call it The Bucket List. Oh, no, sorry, just kidding, that’s a bad title reserved for something else. We’ll call it The Evian List. And next year the executives can get nervous to see if they’ve made the cut.

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Whit said...

Through my job as an agency reader, I covered 13 scripts on this year's Black List.

Of the nearly 600 scripts I read this year, my favorite one (by far) was SOURCE CODE, which got 13 mentions. I'm not even really a sci-fi fan, but I read this back in January and it still feels very vivid in my mind. Great script.

I read DUBAI, which I thought dragged quite a bit early on, but it then picks up considerably and becomes a really fun ride. Would love to see the location represented on film, imagining the over the top imagery of the city in my head was half the fun.

Thought BFF was a mediocre teen sex comedy, a great concept (think Four Proms and a Funeral) but not all that funny. It wants to ride the coattails of Superbad, but it's about 20% as funny. Actually, 20% as funny as Superbad would still be hysterical, so make that 10% or less.

THE BOOK OF ELI was very cool. I got to read two drafts of this and I liked it more the second time. It's a throwback to the Samauri and Western films of old, but set in a post-apocalyptic future... Very slowly paced early on, but a cool spin on Yojimbo and Fistful of Dollars.

I thought JENNIFER'S BODY was half as funny as Juno (at best) and the plot is very pedestrian. It has some gory kills, some nice laughs, and little else. No surprises here. Only a serviceable follow up to Juno, IMO. This could be a letdown onscreen.

UNTITLED CHARLES RANDOLPH PHARMACEUTICAL SCRIPT was a really fun read. Think Thank You For Smoking with cutthroat pharmaceutical reps. Would love to see this get made with a great cast.

MAGGIE LYNN seems like a natural progression for Craig Brewer. First he did rap, then the blues, now country. I saw a redneck Reese Witherspoon in this role. It's a fun script and a fiery lead character.

TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH is freaking weird, but a blast at times. I hope someone has the balls to greenlight this, but I doubt it. The lead character is a self-obsessed wannabe martial arts superhero who gets framed for killing the hack director of the film version of his popular graphic novel... And the film within a film stars... DOLPH LUNDGREN!! Please, someone greenlight this!! :)

I read 36 last year, but it was a draft by Dean Georgaris. One of the five best scripts I've covered out of over 1300 total. No idea why they re-wrote this. Just shoot it now. Haven't read the draft that made the Black List, but read another draft by Tony Gilroy that was not as good as Georgaris'.

And the other scripts that I read on this list were not that hot, so I won't name them b/c I'm a nice guy.

I have THE WAY BACK, ADVENTURELAND, NEVER LET ME GO, I WANT TO ____ YOUR SISTER, and THIS SIDE OF THE TRUTH (Ricky Gervais is God) sitting on my shelf. Looking forward to getting to them over the break.

Anybody else read any of these titles?

And don't worry Margaux, your ulcer will heal and there will be another list next year. Just tell your mother that your time is coming. :)

Julie Gray said...

Great comment, Whit, thank you for your observations!! Drop the Wave-inatrix a line; you definitely get a cupcake. Maybe you have more to share with Wavers about your day-to-day at work? Thank you again, you rule.

p.s. that's drop-me-a-line-at :P

The Other Pete said...

The Black List is just like anything else about writing in Hollywood – in the hands of a talented, dedicated professional (or pre-pro), it can provide important research into what's on the minds of script buyers. Unfortunately, it can just as easily be turned into a ready list of clich├ęs for next year's script season.

I am rather impressed that Tokyo Suckerpunch is still on anyone's list of anything, though. I thought it had been kicking around for quite a while by now. Just goes to show that even a dead project is never really dead. Maybe just in suspended animation.

Christian M. Howell said...

For me, it's just a reason to write more. I'd love to have that kind of buzz going.

Geena said...

I take the following from the Blacklist.

24 as a plot concept is fading fast. Teen sex, or adults behaving like teenagers having sex always works. Just need to giggle the right readers.
The world wants to shuffle the deck, hence science fiction with a hero bringing an optimistic ending can stand out. Even if the sci-fi script is too difficult to produce, the good sci-fi logline will pause the eye.

Jox said...

could I have a look at the "Tokyo Suckerpunch" script? check out my website or drop me a line at dolph.ultimate at gmail dot com