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Arts & Culture

The Hollywood Black List Turns Overlooked Scripts Into Oscar Movies

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week Oscar nominations came out and, like many years, several of the films had something in common. "Arrival," "Jackie," "Manchester By The Sea" and "Hell Or High Water" all appeared on Hollywood's Black List. This Black List is actually a good thing. It's an anonymous survey, and Alex Wagner writes about it in The Atlantic. Hi, Alex.

ALEX WAGNER: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Briefly explain what this Black List is.

WAGNER: Well, so The Black List is not the blacklist that a lot of Americans may be familiar with, a sort of witch hunt that took place in Hollywood in the '40s and '50s. It is the...

SHAPIRO: The anti-communist - yeah.

WAGNER: Exactly. It is the invention of a former - young - film industry executive named Franklin Leonard, who on a whim decided to ask his Rolodex the central question that is asked in Hollywood - what scripts have you read that are good? It doesn't mean the most bankable scripts in Hollywood, but the scripts that had the most compelling character-driven plots, the ones they couldn't put down, and the ones that also weren't yet being made into movies.

SHAPIRO: To what extent can this list really be an antidote to the overwhelming flood of blockbuster, action, comic book, superhero, sequel-based, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera movies?

WAGNER: A surprising number of scripts from The Black List actually get made into movies, about a third of them. And a lot of the Oscar nominees that we see every year come from The Black List, so it's definitely a talent clearinghouse, if you will. But the thing that I realized in the course of reporting this story, Ari, is that this does not account for the majority of Hollywood's output.

In this day and age, the lion's share of films made by Tinseltown are tent pole franchises that will do well overseas, but The Black List is really powerful and can change the careers of young writers or people who are new to Hollywood. Once you have a script on The Black List, even if that script isn't turned into a movie, your writing career definitely has juice. And that's an important thing as we talk about the American narrative and who gets to tell these stories and the ways in which we bring people into the Hollywood talent pool.

SHAPIRO: Right, there has been so much conversation about diversity in Hollywood. And to some extent I'm sure the scripts in The Black List do better than Hollywood in general, and yet the people vetting those scripts on The Black List are still, you know, the agents, the managers, the Hollywood people. Is it really a solution to the problem?

WAGNER: Yes and no. So Franklin Leonard set out to hopefully grab a more diverse pool of writers on The Black List, that hasn't really been the case. Sort of as a rejoinder to that or maybe to compliment the survey itself, he's developed a Black List screenwriting - scriptwriting service, and that allows anybody anywhere in the world to post their screenplay to the website for a small fee and have it reviewed by a number of industry professionals. In that way it sort of changes the power paradigm, it changes the gatekeeping.

And more fundamentally, it doesn't necessitate that screenwriters move to Los Angeles and work in an industry mailroom. That is a livelihood and a move that very few Americans can make, and they tend to be wealthier and better educated Americans that have either the family resources to support their meager salaries or the networks to get in with the studios.

SHAPIRO: She did a ton of interviews for this piece in The Atlantic, people on the inside and the outside all over Hollywood, and I wonder if at the end of the day you took away that The Black List is a good solution to the problems that plague Hollywood or just evidence of how huge those problems are that even something as influential as The Black List really can't change the direction of this massive steamship?

WAGNER: So I guess I was a little bit heartened and a little bit despondent, if you will. It's - Hollywood's a huge machine, and the people that are still greenlighting the majority of films tend to be overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. "The Hunger Games" almost didn't really get made because people didn't believe in a film that had a female teenage protagonist. "The Butler" barely got made, it was basically crowdsource funding from 40 people because no studio would fund it.

SHAPIRO: And that was even after Oprah was on board. This was not some little-known project.

WAGNER: Exactly. I mean, "Slumdog Millionaire" very nearly went straight to DVD because the people who are deciding whether to get behind a movie are coming from a very specific place, and that is problematic and that requires systemic change. And as far as anyone in the industry being really very invested in creating that change and that disruption and allocating resources towards it, I just didn't see it.

SHAPIRO: That's Alex Wagner of CBS News and The Atlantic. Her new article is called "The Hollywood list Everyone Wants To Be On." Thanks, Alex.

WAGNER: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVENDRA BANHART SONG, "BABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.