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Interview: The Black List Founder Franklin Leonard Talks Firefox Flicks Contest, Blcklst.com, and Future Plans

Interviews
by Jai Tiggett
June 19, 2013 3:36 PM
2 Comments
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Now in its second year, the Firefox Flicks Global Video Competition gives up-and-coming filmmakers a chance to gain exposure by creating one-minute videos on how mobile web access is changing our daily lives. This week I had a chance to speak with Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List, who serves on the panel of contest judges along with such names as actors Edward Norton and Gina Rodriguez and producers Couper Samuelson, Shauna Robertson and Helen Estabrook.

Leonard gave insight into the contest as well as an update on The Black List, the annual ranking of Hollywood's most popular unproduced screenplays, which launched a paid membership service on its website last October. The site, which offers writers anywhere in the world a chance to upload their scripts and have them read and critiqued by industry pros, has had over 7,500 script downloads to date.


JT: Tell me how you got involved with the Firefox Flicks competition.

FL: It came by way of Kristin Baird who administrates the program and my friend Couper Samuelson, who enjoyed the experience so much last year and asked if I would be involved this year. Firefox Flicks is very much consistent with the general ethos of The Black List, which is to celebrate talented people doing great work and to give them a platform of greater visibility, so to the extent to which I can help with that I'm always inclined to do so. And I've always admired Mozilla's approach to being a non-profit institution that makes the internet easier and more valuable. So the combination of all of those things made it a no-brainer for me.

JT: You've become sort of a champion of finding and shedding light on new talent. But The Black List started differently - simply out of your desire to find some great scripts to read over vacation.

FL: Yeah, the first Black List was definitely driven by self interest. I was just desperate to read some good scripts and came up with a reasonably efficient solution to that problem. I didn't think about it at the time, but realized very quickly that by solving my problem I was helping other people solve theirs. But what that experience did was show that there was a space for someone that was celebrating good material, particularly on the writing side. I think that writers are the most sorely undervalued part of the Hollywood movie making process, so the opportunity to shine bright lights on people who were doing great work was always a good thing for me.

And then also, I would never be so presumptuous to say my reason for existence, or the reason why people should care who I am, is that I'm finding new great talent, but I do think that what I've always wanted to do is provide a platform wherein new talent could achieve high visibility. And I think the Firefox program is doing that in an ingenious way. To say, "Make something for us that talks about the way that mobile is changing our lives," is very broad. But it allows talented people to make a short video and get it seen by a large number of people. And the hope is that in addition to finding success in the competition itself, they may find future partners, people who want to work with them and develop future projects. That may be a little idealistic, but I think these sorts of platforms are an opportunity to do that.

JT: How helpful has the competition been in launching careers for the filmmakers, beyond simply winning the prizes?

FL: I don't have a full sense of that since it's my first year. But in the same way that the role of The Black List is fundamentally unknowable, because you don't know who sees the list, reads a script, loves it, shares it with a friend, who then shares it with their boss who decides to buy it, etc. So I've always said the explicit role of The Black List is unknowable, but in aggregate its role is undeniable. And I think that when you give this much of a platform to people with talent the hope is that it begets opportunity.

JT: There are ten judges - yourself along with actors, producers, executives. What's it like working with everyone? What's the process?

FL: The process right now has been exclusively via the internet. We evaluate each individual project on our own and contribute our point of view and then the aggregate of those is determining the winners, which I also think is a good thing. I have enormous admiration for Ed Norton and I can foresee a scenario where, hearing his opinion, might abdicate my point of view to his. I think this way you get the unvarnished truth about each of our individual subjective opinions.

JT: In addition to promoting Firefox, what are you looking for in the entries?

FL: What I'm looking for in the short videos is the same thing I look for in feature scripts and movies, which is, make me look at the world differently. I run my own business; I run it largely off of my iPhone and laptop. So I'm acquainted with the ways in which mobile changes my life in a practical sense, but I think there are ways to talk about what that means without necessarily showing what it does. Apple has done a very good job of this in its ads. I want to be taken on a journey, no matter how short, that leaves me thinking about the world, thinking about mobile and the role that Firefox and Mozilla play, in a different way than I did before. What's been really exciting is that even in some of these early submissions we're seeing that. Technology is affecting our lives in so many ways we probably take for granted that having an opportunity to take a step back and be presented with those in a visual form is really exciting.

JT: You see a lot of new talent and material, in this contest and in your work. Have you noticed any trends in the kinds of stories of people are telling or the ways they're choosing to tell them?

FL: There have been three dozen writers [from blcklst.com] signed with major agencies and management companies. We had one writer from San Francisco get a two-picture blind deal at Warner Bros. Another writer from Ireland sold his script to the producer of The Town. Another writer that's living in Sweden sold two scripts to a production company based in New York. So the trend I'm seeing, which I'm excited about, is that you don't need to live in Los Angeles or New York to make good content. And there are people all over the world who, through their laptops or pad and pen, are able to tell great stories that are at the same level of quality that people who are working in Hollywood and have been pre-vetted by the gatekeepers are capable of creating. They may have fewer resources, but it doesn't mean that they're any worse storytellers. And now that the means of production are available to everyone at a relatively low price, we're seeing a lot of great content being made by people who aren't necessarily part of the system.

"That's also what we're providing: a really direct and honest assessment of whether you should quit your day job, and hopefully some guidance on how to get to a place where you can."


JT: So you're seeing successes with blcklst.com already. Do you see the site opening doors with regard to diversity, whether that be gender or ethnic diversity or even diversity of experience?

FL: That's a great question and it's a real priority of ours. There are two big announcements I'll be able to share in another week or two, one of which is a direct response to [the need for diversity]. But in one very simple way I think the site does address some of those concerns. When you get a script that comes via our site you don't know who the writer is. You don't know if they're a man or woman because they can use pen names. You don't know if they're black, white, green, purple, blue. All you have is the script. And so to that extent, I think we have a sort of color-gender-age blind system in evaluating material. But there's certainly more to do. And I think that because of the historical legacy of gender biases and racial biases and other biases we should be even more conscious of that and try to create explicit opportunities for writers who are part of historically underrepresented communities, and I'm very excited that we will be.

JT: You left Overbrook Entertainment last fall. How much time are you now personally devoting to the blcklst.com site - to managing it, and even to looking at new projects?

FL: It's my full time job now. I've consciously not sought out projects to produce or be involved in, in that capacity, because I don't want to give the impression of a conflict of interest and also because frankly I don't have enough time. My goal right now is to build the best site that we possibly can, that is most helpful in making everyone in the industry but especially writers' lives better and easier. I'm going to take that as far as I can go.

JT: Assuming that the site continues to grow, do you plan at some point to get back into production and development?

FL: It's hard to imagine me not [doing that]. I came to Hollywood because I love movies and I wanted to be involved in making them. The Black List was a really happy accident and I think it would be crazy to not see what more I can do with it since my priority was never to have my name in lights; it was always to be involved in great material. I think that The Black List means I'm involved in some way in helping these movies exist. That, to me, is as satisfying as being involved in the way a producer is. But there are writers and directors who I've admired and dreamed of working with for my entire life, and there will be new writers and directors who emerge on a yearly basis who I'll begin dreaming about working with. So it's really hard for me to imagine at some point not wanting to be involved in that.

JT: Are there any particular projects or writers you're really excited about right now?

FL: None that I can talk about. But the things that have most excited me about what's happening with The Black List - a writer who used to be an advertising executive being able to quit his job because now he has a deal with Warner Bros. That's a great email to get. It's great to get an email from a writer in my home state of Georgia saying he just got signed by a management company and it wouldn't have been possible if it wasn't for The Black List. Those are the things that have been most exciting for me - real, tangible evidence that the platform we've created is working.

And then the other thing is, I'll get emails from writers who haven't gotten strictly positive feedback on their scripts, but they say, "This is actually the most concise, direct criticism I've gotten on my material. I've never been more excited to do a rewrite on it. And who knows if I'll ever get it to a place where it's good enough to get serious consideration from the industry, but I feel like I have some direction now." In many ways, that's also what we're providing: a really direct and honest assessment of whether you should quit your day job, and hopefully some guidance on how to get to a place where you can.

**

More about The Black List can be found at its website, blcklst.com, and on The Black List blog HERE.

Firefox Flicks announced their second round of early entry winners this week, which you can find HERE.

The competition continues through July 31 and contest details can be found HERE.

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2 Comments

  • F Urtgo | July 5, 2013 11:58 AMReply

    Anything to get some fresh stories from other than the usual suspects and their college friends!

  • Rod Wilson | June 27, 2013 6:20 PMReply

    Great Interview; I met him at the Screenwriting Expo in 2010. He'll do great things!

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