Tomorrow sees the release of Ivan Reitman's "Draft Day," a sports drama starring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner. There aren't many reasons that it's particularly notable, other than being a late-period Ivan Reitman movie that doesn't have terrible reviews (merely middling ones). However, its claim to fame is that it's one of only a handful of produced movies to have topped the famous Black List when it was in screenplay form.
Founded in 2005 by Franklin Leonard, then an executive at Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way production company, the Black List set out to showcase the best unmade scripts in Hollywood, surveying development executives (now up to a pool of 500) on the best thing they'd read in the previous year. The organization has grown (now providing a script-reading service rated as one of the best and fairest in the business), and the December release of the list remains an event in the Hollywood calendar, and can make a career overnight.
The list has showcased Oscar-winners and blockbuster hits, but of the nine scripts that have actually topped the list, four remain unproduced: Western "The Brigands Of Rattleborge" which Park Chan-Wook is attached to; Jim Henson biopic "The Muppet Man"; GOP higher education comedy/drama "College Republicans," which the "Kill Your Darlings" team are making; and last year's winner "Holland/Michigan," which Errol Morris will shoot later in the year), while Benedict Cumberbatch starrer "The Imitation Game" is due for release later this year. Of the four that have been made, they haven't led to immediate success—HBO drama "Recount" was widely praised, but Susanne Bier's "Things We Lost In The Fire" was underseen and Jodie Foster's "The Beaver" was marred by the bad press surrounding Mel Gibson.
We'll see how "Draft Day" goes down in the coming days, but we thought we'd use its release to examine the track record of the Black List, by picking out the ten best and ten worst movies based on scripts that have been featured on the esteemed list. From the results, it seems clearer than ever that William Goldman's maxim of "nobody knows anything" still applies: scripts near the top have been made into terrible movies, and those in the lower reaches have proven to be among the best (it should also be pointed out that a good script is only the start: as we'll see, the blueprints can be departed from in ways that prove ultimately disastrous).
The Black List has done a lot of good over the years, but it's a reminder of the difficulties of the Hollywood development process that its hit-rate remains, even when you exclude many of the unmade scripts (some of which are featured here), around the 50% mark at best in terms of films that turn out halfway decent. You can take a look at our lists below (we did excluded films that only had one mention on the Black List), and weigh in for yourself in the comments section.
10. "Take This Waltz" by Sarah Polley (2012)
Black List Appearance: The 2009 list, with 10 mentions, tied with future Ryan Reynolds vehicle "Buried," the films that became "Red Riding Hood" and "The Guilt Trip," and much-derided Gus Van Sant drama "Restless."
In 2007, cult Canadian actress Sarah Polley made her first venture into directing, aged only 28, with the enormously powerful, mature-beyond-her-years "Away From Her." "Take This Waltz" was her follow-up, a more personal story that packed an emotional punch of its own, and while there are a few missteps in the execution, the potential of her script was mostly beautifully realized. Polley's film centers on Margot (Michelle Williams), a Toronto-based writer who's happily married to cookbook author husband Lou (Seth Rogen), but starts to long for something more passionate, in the form of rickshaw driver Daniel (Luke Kirby). The film's quirks were enough to turn some off—Williams' character's childishness, her murder-riffic banter with Rogen—and here, at least, Polley's a better writer than director, particularly when it comes to an ill-conceived sex montage towards the end that stops the film dead in its tracks. But for the most part, this is a raw open wound of a movie, focusing on that rare beast, a complex, sometimes unsympathetic, but fascinating central female character, and with an aching pain at its center. The cast (including Sarah Silverman as Rogen's sister) are all tremendous, and it's a rare film that treats sex and lust seriously, rather than just as a plot device. The film's especially fascinating when viewed in the context of Polley's follow-up, the autobiographical documentary "Stories We Tell."
9. "Toy's House" by Chris Galletta (released as "The Kings Of Summer" (2013))
Black List Appearance: The 2009 list, where it picked up fifteen votes, placing it behind the upcoming Ed Zwick film "Pawn Sacrifice," but ahead of Rashida Jones' "Celeste & Jesse Forever."
Another movie that might not have gotten made without the Black List, "Toy's House" (which premiered under that title at Sundance, before distributor CBS Films changed the name to "The Kings Of Summer") was the feature debut of Letterman writer Chris Galletta. After a few years in development, acclaimed shorts director Jordan Vogt-Roberts landed the job, and pretty much knocked it out of the park. The film stars Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias as three small-town teenagers who, tired of being treated as children by their parents, escape to the woods for a summer, building their own house and living how they want to. It's emphatically a comedy, but one with a seriousness at heart, and refreshingly, it's an antidote to the "man-child" trope that's dominated the genre in the last decade: these are child-men, eager to become adults as fast as possible. The film's loose and even surreal in places, but Vogt-Roberts carefully establishes a tone that lets that in without breaking the reality of proceedings. He also shoots it beautifully, with a dreamy Terrence Malick/David Gordon Green look to proceedings that sets it apart immediately from more conventional laughers. Plus it's very, very funny: a host of TV favorites like Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Kumail Nanjiani and Hannibal Burress turn up, but it's "Hannah Montana" star Moises Arias who steals the show as the bonkers, truly original creation Biaggio. Sadly, the distributor couldn't work out how to sell the film, and it didn't quite find the theatrical audience it deserved, but this feels like it'll be a touchstone for aspiring filmmakers who grew up on it in years to come.
8. "Margin Call" by J.C. Chandor (2011)
Black List Appearance: "Margin Call" placed seventh on the 2010 Black List with 31 mentions—one place above the film that became "American Hustle" and two above "Argo," and just behind "Stoker" and the upcoming "Triple Nine."
A film like "Margin Call" is the lifeblood of the Black List—a screenplay from a first-timer, about a fairly uncommercial subject matter: in this case, the financial crash. But thanks to its high placement, "Margin Call" got made, and repaid the voters' faith: it was critically praised, a near-revolutionary hit on VOD, and even picked up an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. Set at a too-big-to-fail fictional investment bank inspired by Goldman Sachs, Lehmann Bros. et al, it follows various employees from low-level risk analysts (Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley) to the CEO (Jeremy Irons) in the 24 hours or so as it becomes clear that a disastrous crash is imminent, as they try to save their own skins. Writer/director J.C. Chandor beautifully sketches out the range of characters, almost none of whom are out-and-out villains, and casts it smartly with an ensemble of talented performers who haven't necessarily had roles to match their skills—it's the best that Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Demi Moore have been in a decade or so. Chandor clearly immersed himself in research, because the financial tech-speak is convincingly drawn without being confusing for the layman, and he manages to make it into a gripping thriller as well as a complex human drama, while also shooting the talky film with a certain degree of flair. It might remain the most definitive film about the recent financial crash, and in Chandor, launched a serious talent (he went on to make the very different, and even better "All Is Lost," and has the equally promising "A Most Violent Year" on the way).
7. "In Bruges" (2008)
Black List Appearance: Picked up seven mentions on the 2006 list, sharing a position with "Superbad" (not that one), the script that, after much time in development, will become this summer's James Brown biopic "Get On Up."
The enfant terrible of the British theater scene in the 1990s (he once got headbutted by Sean Connery at the Oliviers, the UK equivalent of the Tonys), it took some time after the success of "The Cripple Of Inishman," "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" et al for Martin McDonagh to break into the movies. But after the Oscar-winning success of his short "Six Shooter," he became a hot property, and the result was the terrific "In Bruges." On the surface, the film seemed to be a late-breaking Tarantino-wannabe in the way that so many had done in the decade before, but anyone who knew McDonagh's work was expecting something more, and the film really delivered. Sure, the script, which sees hitmen Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell sent by sweary boss Ralph Fiennes into temporary exile in the titular Belgian city after Farrell accidentally kills a child during a job, features some very creative uses of the F and C words, and the occasional blast of ultraviolence. There are quirky characters (Fiennes, who showed himself in a new light as principled family man/crime boss Harry, Jordan Prentice as a drug-addled dwarf movie star), and quotable dialogue ("You're an inanimate fucking object!"). But it's also much more soulful than many of the films of its genre, with a purgatorial old-school religious feel perfectly captured by its setting, and a pair of gorgeous performances from Colin Farrell (never better) and Brendan Gleeson. McDonagh couldn't match it with follow-up "Seven Psychopaths" (though it's better than many give it credit for), but this is still one of the more notable directorial debuts of recent years.
6. "Juno" (2007)
Black List Appearance: The first list in 2005, where it placed second, with 24 mentions (behind Allan Loeb's "Things We Lost In The Fire," filmed a few years later by Susanne Bier).
A minor mainstream-indie sensation that ended up a Best Picture nominee in one of the strongest years for cinema in recent memory, Jason Reitman's film of Diablo Cody's breakthrough script attracted a fairly hefty backlash long before it was out of theaters. Seven years divorced from the initial hype, and it stands as an atypically smart, distinctive and moving teen comedy to anyone who doesn't knee-jerk reject anything that they deem as hipsterish. Focusing on Ellen Page's title character, a smartass older-than-her-years teen who's been unexpectedly knocked up by her pal (Michael Cera), and the potential adoptive parents (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) who look to adopt the upcoming spawn, it's no wonder that Cody's script proved popular on paper, with the slang-y dialogue immediately setting it apart from similarly themed projects. But the real power is beyond that. Cody creates a wide-ranging ensemble of real people (those who dismiss the dialogue fail to realize that beyond Juno herself and her best pal, the other characters have wildly different speech patterns), not cartoons, and isn't afraid to cause them real hurt (Bateman putting the moves on Page is closer to Todd Solondz than John Hughes). And in Reitman, hot off indie-com "Thank You For Smoking," it found the perfect man to direct. The recent "Labor Day" aside, he has a very assured handle on tone, and knows how to get killer performances from his cast. Page was an immediate breakout, but Bateman, Garner, Cera, J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney all deliver something close to career-best work in the film.