This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 016: An Interview With The Black List Founder Franklin Leonard.
Welcome to episode 16 of the Selling Your Screen Podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Myers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com.
In this episode’s main segment I’m going to be interviewing Franklin Leonard. He’s a former development executive and now runs the ‘Black List’ website which is a place for screenwriters to get exposure for their scripts.
I’ve been using this site a little bit myself and in this episode I dig in with Franklin about some of the real specifics on how you can use this site to promote your work.
If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or if you’re watching this on YouTube please give it a like and leave a comment.
I want to improve this podcast so some honest constructive feedback is very much appreciated. Please, also, share these podcast episodes with anyone who you think can get some value out of them. As always, I do read every comment that I get and respond where appropriate.
I want to thank a few people who posted comments over at YouTube this past week thank you Diane Greenlay, Standford Crane,Maria Carasoka, Richard Hector and Constance Noun.
Also I just added the ‘Lego Movie’ screenplay to the ‘sellingyourscreenplay’ library so check that out if you get a chance. It was sent in by my friend Adam Strange. Please do, if you find some screenplays that you own, that you don’t see on the selling your screenplay library, please e-mail them to me so I can add them to the library.
A couple of quick notes:
– Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes
– I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on
– You can find all podcast notes at www. Sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts
– Also, if you want my free guide how to sell a screenplay in five weeks you can pick that up by going to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide; it’s completely free, you just put it in your e-mail address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide; how to write a professional LOG ON COVER LETTER; how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material; it really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay- Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide
I’m gonna(going) try to increase my podcasting production to once per week or at least four times per month. It seems to be bringing in a lot of traffic to the blog so we’ll see about if I’m able to keep that pace up.
I got a couple of general questions about listening to podcast at this past week so I thought I just run through a few things.
I got an e-mail from a screenwriter about how busy she was trying to work her real job, write and then also learn about screenwriting by listening to podcast and reading screenwriting blogs.
One thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re early in your screenwriting journey: writing is the most important part in becoming a screenwriter. And reading scripts is the second most important part.
So, if you’re short on time by all means, don’t worry about listening to this or any other podcasts. The writing should always come first.
I listen to a lot of podcast but I always do it when I can’t do anything else so I download them to my phone and then I listen to them while working or walking, or when I’m waiting at the dentist’s office or some place, or just waiting in line someplace.
Basically, any dead time I have, I just cue them up on my phone and then I listen to them so that I can turn that dead time into somewhat productive time.
Also, most cars these days have radios with that Bluetooth enable so you can pair your phone with the radio and then listen to your car’s speakers when you’re driving.
Driving is when I actually listen to the most podcast. So, again, I have a bunch cued up in my phone and I just listen to them whenever I’m driving, in the phone.
Anytime that I have, where I can physically be sitting at my desk and doing real work I am not listening to podcast, so I’m actually trying to get stuff done. So, that’s really my advice and if you didn’t know about some of that, as far as pairing your phone with your radio and your car, definitely check that out ‘cause it makes listening to podcast much more enjoyable. I mean, instead of listening to the radio or something like that, you can cue up some actually interesting content.
A few quick words about what I’m working on. As I up these podcasts to once per week I’m not sure if I’m really gonna be able to keep talking about what I’m working on as not much has changed since the last week when I did the last podcast.
So, I might start skipping this section some weeks if nothing major has taken place, but I will keep up dating with any major changes – anything, you know, really exciting or if I’m doing anything special in a given week or even a given a couple of weeks, I will update what I’m working on, but I don’t think I’ll keep this section up if I continue to put up podcast once a week.
So now, let’s get in into the main segment. As I mentioned at the top of this podcast I interview Franklin Leonard from the ‘Black List’ website. Here is the interview:
Ashley: Welcome Franklin to the ‘sellingyourscreen’ podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Franklin: Thanks for having me.
Ashley: Sure. So, to start out, I wondered if you could just give us a quick overview of your career in entertainment industry, how you got started, and kinda, how you got to where you are today.
Franklin: Yeah, I…So I’ve been working in the entertainment industry for just over eleven years now. Literally, I think my one year anniversary, my eleven year anniversary arriving was in Los Angeles last week. But, you know, I came out here, I’ve been working as management consultant at the McKinsey & Company,. I’ve been laid off with 5 months severance along with the rest of my class. And, you know, I’d always loved movies but it never occurred to me that, you know, there were jobs for people with my background in the industry. So I came out here in March 2003 with the return ticket leaving beginning of April. And I happened to meet a friend of a friend who told me that there was an agent at CAA looking for an assistant. I sent my resume in, interview the next day, I was offered the job the day following and started that next Monday.
I’d had to fly back to New York, like, pack up my life and move to Los Angeles but I started officially at CAA April 2003. I was there as an assistant for a year in the ‘Motion Picture Lit’ department. And then I got the job as a creative executive at John Owen’s production company just after he left running Paramount. I was there for about 8 months before going to Leonardo Dicaprio’s Company. I was there for about two and a half years which is when I started the ‘blacklist’. And then I went to work for Sidney Polak and Anthony Minghella at Mirage Entertainment.
Shortly after I started working there Sidney was diagnosed with cancer. Shortly after that Anthony died and shortly after that Sidney past as well. It so remains one of the high points of my professional career though. Besides being extraordinary film makers they were both extraordinary gentlemen and I consider myself very lucky to have had them as both employers and also as examples as how one can carry yourself within the industry and still be successful.
After they passed I went on to Universal Pictures as a director of development. I was there for two years before getting offered a job at Will Smith’s company – ‘Overbrook entertainment’ where I was for two years and in September 2012 I left ‘Overbrook’ and decided to focus full time on the ‘blacklist’ and I’ve been doing that ever since.
Ashley: Great, great. So, these different jobs in Leonardo Dicaprio’s Companies, they were all development jobs, you were getting material, helping to package it, helping to write development…
Franklin: Yeah, as an executive director, working, you know, starting with the jungle in job all the way through to ‘Overbrook’. My job was, call it consuming the world, identifying the things that were being worth up passing to Katie C and when you, when the chain of command agrees with you then they are worthy doing everything you can, trying to get them made.
Ashley: So, when you started the black list, what was your, sort of idea; I mean did you have any idea what sort of turn into, what’s turn into or what was your idea just starting it?
Franklin : Yeah, no, no, no. It was really- I was just looking for good scripts, and good scripts to read over the holidays and I probably defaulted to the, sort of management consulting thinking in order to solve that problem ‘cause I’ve gone months without reading anything that I thought was worthy, sort of, walking into my boss’ office happy and slapping the script down on the desk and saying : ‘You’ll thank me in the morning’. That was my job. So I was either doing my job very poorly or the job was reading terrible scripts and passing on it in which case, you know, law school, probably would have been a better option and I should have listen to my parents, you know, if my LSAT score is still valid.
But no, I just sent an e-mail to Stephanie F at MyPeears, literally I think it was every woman that I had breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks with in 2003, I mean 2005. And after they send me their lists of their ten favorite scripts that year and in exchange I would send them the aggregated list and I slapped a vaguely subversive name on it, said I got them on vacation and I really didn’t think anything else of it. And when I came back from vacation it have been forwarded back to me several dozen times and you know, I think it became, some kind of intuitional art material relatively quickly and it was never my plan for it to become that. And truthfully, over the last decade, it really has just been about making the next right decision so that the, uhh, actually that what it is could actually be preserved and continue to be a tide that raises all the boats.
Ashley: I’m curious. As a development executive, um like, just as an example that first list, how many of those scripts had you not already read? ‘Cause that’s always one of the things : it seems like the scripts on there, are scripts that most of us, sort of know, that are, sort of out there in our pretty. ..So how many new scripts were you able to say : ‘O, I haven’t read that one and that one’.
Franklin : I think I maybe read half of the, maybe the top 100 scripts that were on that first list, you know. Each year, half, while you’re still working as a development executive , I would use that as an indication of how well I’ve done my job during the years, how many of the scripts that ended up in the top 20 that I have read prior to the list coming out. And that, you know, I consider myself very good at my job and I read obviously quite a bit of just, as the that I’ve became the blacklist guy people would send me the material that they may not send wide. But I was familiar with probably 75% of the scripts that were on the list. But I think that, I, ummm, I don’t believe for a moment that every script on the list is something that everyone is already aware of. Most people aren’t already aware of, unless you were doing aggressive tracking of the market from the cheriol throughout the year. But I think further the scripts that are on the list, even if they’re the scripts on the list that people are already aware of, they may have passed for million reasons prior to the list coming out and I think the list, shines a very bright spotlight on material that is often not or its face’s not very commercial and forces people to take a second look. People, very senior in the industry, that aren’t necessarily tracking the specter market or tracking the sample market – they’re actually focused on getting movies made or running the movies that are already being made. But they may, you know, go back and look at the script that maybe they have heard about or that their assistant had given them with a great deal more seriousness that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t been on the list.
Ashley: Did it do what you wanted it to do, like, did it help you find some new scripts that you get them in production and stuff?
Franklin: Well, not production necessarily, but it definitely got me, it put me, it made me aware of writers that I hadn’t been aware of, writers that I was very excited to work with. You know, I remember hiring Josh Zadimer, who was on a second list, with a script called ‘Villain’. He was a very young writer at the time, he didn’t have any credits and he was not represented, but we were happy and hired him to write a script called ‘Infiltrator’ that ended up being the number 4 script on the next box list which is actually, I think it’s still available script that’s quite strong. But he was competing against writers that had far more experience and far more produce credits than he did, but by virtue of _____, he came in and gave a great pitch and I had a ready script from the previous list which I hadn’t prior to the list coming out. We ended up hiring him and he did a very good job on that, that first assignment.
Ashley: OK, great. So, then how did this sort of ‘morfe’ into what we have today as the Black List Website where new writers can upload their scripts?
Franklin: Yeah, there are, there are 2 sort of forces that were working in concert, sort of, like lead me to build, build that up. You know, when the first list went out, in 2005, the term internet virality, was still relatively new. The Black List went viral in Hollywood the same weekend that Saturday Night Live Lazy Sunday video went viral which was, aa, you know still, it was phenomenal how quickly it sort of made it way around web and people were fascinated. By 2010, _________ pedia, that circulated the e-mail had become sort of adorable. And I knew there was potential with technology to expand upon our initial mission. And then, once we’ve launched the beta for that site, which sort of functioned as a real time Black List, that allowed initial professionals to write scripts, those rating would aggregate to create ‘best of’ lists. We build up recommendation algorithm, with some guidance from people who won the ‘NetLook’ prize. So, once we’ve built that we realized that there was, that we can use that platform to answer another question that had been a preoccupation of mine. And that was, you know, whenever I went to go speak at panels or do interviews like this, as the Black List guy, in reality the first question I was asked was : ‘You know, it’s great that you created this to help writers that were already represented, get the attention that they deserve, especially when they’re brand new to the industry but I wrote, what I think, is a pretty good script. I, you know, my dad doesn’t work in the industry, I didn’t go to college with people who work in the industry now, I didn’t go to college at all. What do I do to get that script in the industry?’
And typically, the answers to those questions were, one of 2 things. It was: submit to the Nicholls fellowship, which is you know – hands down, sort of the most important screenwriting competition on Earth run by the Academy and if you’re in the top 30 someone will probably call you;
Or the answer was: move to Los Angeles and network your brains out and eventually someone would read your script and if it’s good you’ll have an opportunity.
And I was, sort of, unsatisfied with those answers. The Nicholls fellowship is great and I have extraordinary admiration for it and in particularly for Greg Wheel, who has run it, you know, incredibly well for 3 years. But this idea that just anyone can pick up their life and move to Los Angeles and network in order to get a job and if that’s some indication of their talent as a writer I find, frankly, insulting. You know, if you have a family, and you have a job, and you know, financial responsibilities, picking up your life and moving to Los Angeles is irresponsible. And I just don’t believe that it should be necessary and I also don’t believe that person’s networking skill has anything to do or is in any way correlated with their ability as a writer and in fact I think that there’s a good chance that it might be inversely correlated.
So what we wanted to do is build an opportunity for people to submit their material to the industry without having to jump through the hoops that have nothing to do with their abilities as a writer. And we realized that we can sort of through the gate open, a little bit wider, on the site that we’ve had already created, charge a fee that will allow us to sustain as a business, and we can, very efficiently allow people to have their material submitted to the industry, have it evaluated by people who have the experience with the current market place, and if their work’s good we can get it to, literary, thousands of film and television industry professionals. And we launched in mid October 2012 and so far it’s going pretty well.
Ashley: So, is there some way of distinguishing between like, the original Black List and then this new service, the Black List? Is there some terminology you guys use, even internally, that sort of distinguishes them?
Franklin: Yeah, umm, we talk about the annuals list as the annual Black List and the Black List website. You know, I’ll admit that there’s some brand confusion. You know, I’m very attached to the name Black List, the source of it. You know, when I originally created the List in 2005, I know expectation or no idea it would become what it had become. But it was named that because you know; I’m politically pretty progressive, and I wanted to make a reference to the writers, many of them extraordinary writers, whose careers were ending because of their political beliefs. But I also remember growing up in West Central Georgia and I remember being in English class and being told, that you know, if you see white in literature that’s sort of good and pure and if the cowboys are wearing the white hat they’ll probably be hero and black is the opposite of that and if you’re, if the cowboys are wearing the black hat they’ll probably the villain. You know, you can imagine, the 11 year old black kid. I didn’t like where that was going. And I remember thinking you know, one day I’m gonna write a novel that sort of inverts that and I’ve never done that nor probably will I ever but I definitely look for opportunities that invert those color based assumptions whenever possible.
And, so, the initial was called the Black List. It became something of a brand. When we launched the website we sort of escalated the brand name to represent the entire organization.
The list, that is voted by the executives at the end of the year, is the annual list and the website is just simply the Black List or the Black List website.
You know, if writers say they had a script at Blacklist it definitely behoove’s you to ask what they’re referring to. Typically though, I think the past tense as in ‘I had the script on Blacklist’, usually refers to scripts that were on the annual list and ‘I have a script on the Blacklist’ refers to people that left something on the website.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, OK, yeah, so, let’s dig in, as I mentioned to you in the pre interview omis, I’m a writer and I’m actually using this site. I just, you know, have a bunch of real eady-greedy, nuts and balls types of question. First, let’s just start out: How many agents, manager, producers do you have? Do you have like a percentage of each one?
Franklin: I don’t have an employment break down and fortunately we currently have over 23000 industry professional members that range from agency assistant all the way to network and studio presidents.
Ashley: So you know, if it’s prenominal agents or if it’s pronominally producers?
Franklin: I think it ranges pretty widely. I don’t , I actually don’t know what the breakdown is at all.
Ashley : Has there been any crossover yet from someone who, you know, submitted the script to the site and then it made it to the annual Black List list?
Franklin: Yeah, there were five writers on this year’s annual list who found their representation being on the site in the previous year. Justin Kremer, who wrote ‘McCartey’ who was on _______________; Richard Cordiner who wrote ‘Shark is not working’who know a script line deal at ‘Warner Brothers’ who was discovered by one of the Brothers via the site. Zach Fregel, ‘Make a wish’, Duncan Obriel ‘Broken Cove’. I think those are the ones that made the list this year, maybe one that I’m forgetting but now there have been quite a few.
Ashley: Yeah, that’s great. So, OK, so here’s just getting into some of the actual; as a writer when I log in and I’m looking at other people’s scripts there’s a chart of a rating distribution in lines. One line is orange and it’s labeled ‘Uploaded scripts.’ The other line is grey, called ‘non uploaded scripts’. What are the ‘non uploaded’ and what are the uploaded?
Franklin: Every member of the writer’s guild east and writer’s guild west and as of today’s writers actually go to Great Britain is able to list their screenplays on the site, free of charge. So in addition to being on the site it enables writers to upload their material and get it to people in the industry. You know, we also function as Google for screenplays within the industry. So we have a listing, of literary, thousands of other scripts that circulated over the industry over the last decade. And those scripts are rated by industry professionals just the same as aspiring professional screenwriters are rated.
So, the non-uploaded scripts are scripts that are listed in our database but are not hosted in our database. And as you might expect, the rate of that distribution is shifted probably about 2 points up from the distribution of the uploaded scripts. It accurately reflect that fact that folks that are working s professional writers or writing on higher level than average that those that aren’t.
Ashley: So when you say they’re not hosted, they’re in a database but not hosted, does that mean like when you go to some, when I’m looking at the scripts at the bottom there’s a bunch of other scripts that I might like. Do those WGA scripts, are they potentially in that list? I can somehow click through and find them?
Franklin: Yeah, you can find a lot information about the script, but not the script itself.
Ashley: So the script is not hosted, I see.
Franklin: The script is not hosted, but there’s a listing in the database in the same way that you might list your script just without the actual file attached. And most of us folks are represented so when it’s listed you know, you got the title, the author, the log line. You also have the representation information, or there’s a producer attached and a _______ professional, when I see that, you know, someone’s written a script that I’m interested in finding a copy of I see their representative agency, I can than call that agent and say : ‘Hey, this script sounds interesting. I’d like to know more about it.’
Ashley: OK, I see, I understand. OK, So, again, I’m looking at these distribution charts and it looked like 23.7% equals a 5, 17.9 was a 4, and I just basically add that up. So, am I right in thinking that the basically the ratings of 1,2,3,4,5 equals 56% looking at that distribution chart. So is that basically what that means, that 56% of all the ratings are a 5 and below and then 44% would be, I guess, above six and above?
Franklin: Yeah, that’s right.
Ashley: OK, OK.
Franklin: Ultimately, it’s a symbol histogram just reflecting all of the ratings and the distribution of all the ratings that have been made that far.
Ashley: OK. And that was my other question? Is it, is that a ‘it’s not just the scripts that are currently hosted or in your database – it’s like if I pull my script off does that remove it from those percentages?
Franklin : No, yeah it’s a great question though. That reflects all ratings that have been made for every single uploaded script over the course of the life of this site.
Ashley: I see, I see. OK. ‘Cause that’s what I was thinking – it seems like obviously if you get a bad rating you probably gonna pull it down, so those ratings would constantly shift.
OK, so let’s talk about. You have a section called the ‘Top List’. And, can you tell me, I mean I’m reading the section that says : Exceeding the community average of 5.69. Now, again, what I just did up, I added up, it seems like 56% is about 5, so is it, are you telling me that roughly 50% of the scripts are, or maybe 45%, are making the ‘Top List’? What percent gets on that ‘Top List’?
Franklin: Uhmm, it’s actually relatively low percentage, much lower than you’re expecting ‘cause again – in order to get in the top list you have to have at least two ratings, and those, average of those ratings needs to be above the community average scripts that are currently hosted. So I think you rightly identified, for example, the average of all the evaluations, all rating made over the life of the site is below 5.6. The current average for all ratings, for scripts that are currently hosted on the site, is, I believe, 5,5 -5,6 like you said. So, any script that is on that top list or anywhere on the Top List needs to have an average rating through 2 or more ratings, at least for the month Top List. For the quarter Top List I think it’s 3 ratings, for the year Top List I’ll say it’s 5. You need to have an average rating than 5, 5.6.
If I had to guess as to the number of the percentage it’s probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 to 10%.
Ashley: OK, and so, but, taking a step back – so, you’re talking about like the last month or some time constrain, so like, scripts if they had 2 ratings and let’s just say they get an average of 7, so that’s above that bench mark of, 5.6. It’ll stay at the TOP LIST for a month and then if it doesn’t get any more ratings it will fall off the Top List.
Franklin: It’s a little more dynamic than that. You’ll notice on the site, you can sort of determine which Top List you wanna see. So if you wanna see the Top Uploaded List – months to day, quarter to day, year to day, it’s gonna generate the list of the top scripts based on ratings made over the previous month. So yes, if you had two sevens in the previous month you will definitely be included somewhere in that list.
Ashley: So, one thought that occurred to me just as a user was – I upload the script, and I get, I buy one rating and if the first rating is really bad then there’s not a lot of point buying a second rating. But you’re saying there’s some togetherness Top List, there’s some like time constraint, so you’ve gotta get those two ratings in some certain amount of time period, like in maybe a month or something. Is that correct? You see what I’m getting at though.
Franklin: I do. I think it’s, again, I want to encourage you to look at the Top List, sort of dynamic charts of those most highly rated scripts over the previous month.
Now, if as a writer you want to make sure that you end up in the Top List for the previous month, then yes, it would be necessary to have two ratings in that first month. But I don’t think that it’s a, mmm, I never want to suggest to people that they give us money. So I wanna clarify, I wanna preface my statement with that, mmm. But I do want to explain what the potential advantages are to buying an additional evaluation. It’s for example; you get a low rating at your first evaluation.
The first element of that is that, you know, storytelling and the evaluation of storytelling is subjective; we’re talking about an art form and there are gonna be some things people love , some things people hate. It’s for example; your first evaluation is 5, but you believe it’s quite good and you can then get another evaluation and it’s possible that your next evaluation is going to be an 8. But I reference 8 specifically because if you get an 8, once a week, every Monday we send out e-mails to all our industry members saying : ‘Here’s the list of the scripts that our readers read over the previous week, that got a score of 8 or better overall. So it’s not just, getting an evaluation is not just about being in the Top List. There are millions of ways in which we draw attention to people’s material on the site. One is the Top Lists, one is these weekly e-mails highlighting all the scripts that got 8 overall or better; but others are recommendation algorithm that allows us to make recommendations to individual users based on their individual taste alongside everyone else taste on the site. And we also send out e-mail, and also the recommendation e-mails go out on Friday. There’s always a dynamic recommendations being made through out the site. And there’s also an e-mail that goes out every Wednesday, that is targeted based on each individual member preferences. So if I’m a comedy producer, if I’m interested in comedies that have a very strong dialogue I get an e-mail every Wednesday that lists for me every comedy, that got 8 or better on dialogue by the Black List readers in the previous 7 days.
Ashley : I see, and it kind of, one of things I noticed, one of the things, like you gotta a download chart for the Top List, how many downloads and I think that’s very helpful and I was wondering : is there any kind of a chart for this is ‘how many downloads from the Top List’ and then this is ‘how many downloads from the site in general’. ‘Cause I, that’s the real like, you see where I’m going with this is; if you don’t get an 8 or you don’t get into the Top List is it worth to keep your script up there?
Franklin: Yeah. I think this is why we provide sort of complete transparency about the volume of traffic to your script. And I said it before and I’ll say it again : if we’re not getting you traction on your material, then you should not give us your money, you should take your script down. You know, we publish sort of regular day to ___, the most recent big one was late August, late October last year. Sort of trying to get people some guidance around the traffic on the site. So, for example there’s a chart on our annual report which you can review directly via our homepage. That shows the number, the average number of downloads depending on what your highest overall rating is.
If I remember the numbers correctly, if your highest rating is a 6, you know, on average, the average number of downloads for scripts whose highest rating was 6 was 2.55 or 7, I wanna say it was 4.55, for 8 I think it jumps to like 15. And then for other it goes even higher. But, hum, you know, I’ll take that note under advisement, it’s an interesting suggestion. I’m not sure on how much the global view on site activity would help guide each individual writer in terms of weather their script is getting traction. We thought the best way to do that would be to provide absolute transparency on the volume of traffic to your page and then also give you a sense of what the certain Top scripts are getting. You can sort of base your decision on whether to continue to keep your script posted based on that.
Ashley: Yeah. I mean I guess, I have four scripts up there, one of them is kind of, I just bought a rating for it, so it’s kind of new, but the other three, mine are fringe. I have one that’s got two ratings, a five and a six, so it’s got a five point five, so that one, as I said, I think it was up for a month or two, and it didn’t get any downloads, and that’s why I don’t know if I should keep it up. And that’s why I’m kind of asking the question. If I saw some overall stats saying, well, what you just said, well you get two downloads if your highest rating is six, and this one has a six…
Franklin: That’s all an average though. [cross talk] ..That have a higher concept log lines, that are probably getting more, but the vast majority of them are probably not getting any. Again, I think that’s, it’s not for me to say one way or the other, but I think the reality is that industry professionals are looking for the best material. And I’m not saying that your script is not that, but I think within our ecosystem, a five point five is slightly better than average. It actually is a little bit below average for the scripts that are currently hosted on the site. And as a consequence, I think given a choice between a script with a five and a six, and a script with an eight and a nine, they’re always going to download the eight and nine.
Ashley: Sure, sure, sure.
Franklin: I mean not always. It depends on the log line and what they’re looking for, but they’re far likelier to download the script with the eight and nine than the five and six.
Ashley: Obviously, yeah. Well, it might have to do with the log under the genre or something along those lines. So, the one thing that I think was a little bit ironic was the one download that I had on my script was actually before it got any ratings, and that kind of leads me to my next question: is there a lot of purpose to having a script up there and not purchasing the ratings?
Franklin: Yeah, I mean, absolutely, I think that we gave people, when we launched… I went back and forth on this. There was a part of me that wanted to say, to upload a script you’re required to purchase evaluations, because it makes it easier for us to know if your script is good, and then make recommendations. But ultimately we decided not to require anything, because we wanted to provide as much flexibility as possible for the writer using our site. And I think that there are, and we’re starting to see people get tracks in for their material without buying an evaluation necessarily, and one of the ways people do that is query using the link. They network and say, “My script is hosted on the site. If you want to download it, you can go here and download it.” I strongly advise buying an evaluation, not because it’s necessary, but because if your script is evaluated very positively, the process can happen very quickly. If you pay for an evaluation, and your evaluation comes back as an eight or better overall, or even having some eight component scores, you’re going to be included in that Monday email, and people are going to pay attention. So you’re less likely to get traffic unless you’re doing something else to draw traffic to your script. But for the most part, people are on our site not to look for any script, or a script with a certain log line, they’re looking for really good material. And unless you can provide an indication that it is really good material, you’re less likely to find real traffic. And the reason we have the evaluations is so that you can establish, “Yes, my script is good.”
Ashley: So, I think I already know the answer to this question, but I wrote it down because I was a little unclear at the time. On each script, there’s reviews and there’s ratings. For every purchase, when you purchase a review, they give you a rating and a review. But the producers and agents, they can only give you a rating, correct? They can’t give you a review.
Franklin: Yeah, that’s correct.
Ashley: Ok, ok. So there’s no way to see who has – I’ll get to this a bit, later on – but I did exactly what you just suggested. I just did a query blast, and I included, for my most recent script, and I did get six downloads. Is there a way of seeing who has downloaded the script? It says professional download, but I don’t see a way to tell what actual company that was that downloaded it.
Franklin: No, there is not.
Franklin: We keep very extensive records of that, but we don’t make that information available.
Ashley: Ok. I’m not concerned with someone stealing my script or anything like that, but as I said, what I did was a query blast, and the day I did the blast, a bunch of people downloaded the script, and so I would like to follow up with those people. And I can’t tell who they are because I sent the query letter to so many people, so I can’t tell who they…
Franklin: And that’s exactly why we don’t provide the information, because we don’t want writers to be following up in an inappropriate way. Not that you would do it inappropriately, but a lot of writers do. And we wanted to provide a safe space where industry professionals could download material, and if they did like it, reach out to the writer, but not put themselves in a situation where they were equally likely, if not more likely to then be harassed by writers following up. I know in my case, when I was an executive, I was less likely to read material if there was the possibility of follow up, than I would be if I could read it, and if I loved it, know that I could do something with it, but not have to worry about it if I didn’t.
Ashley: So, it’s a suggestion that I made to the Ink Tip folks at one point, and it fell on deaf ears, but I think this would be very valuable, and I didn’t see it, maybe it’s on the site, but I would be curious to see more genre, and maybe you said “this big data dump,” maybe it was included in that, but I would be curious to see number of downloads by genre and dig into some of those stats. I would also be curious when I click through on specific people’s scripts, again, maybe the writer would have to agree to let this happen, but I would like to see the number of downloads that certain scripts were getting, just so I could see with my own eyes, what producers and agents and managers are kind of looking for. And I did yesterday, or a couple days ago, one where you request to read a script, and the writer requested it. So it seems like that can add a lot of value and just give writers additional value for being a part of the site. They can read other writers’ scripts that are getting good reviews, they can see what’s being downloaded, see what genres are most popular, that kind of stuff.
Franklin: Yeah, we do have pretty deep genre analysis, about five months into the life of the site. If you go to blcklst.com/monthfive, you’ll see really, I sort of nerded out on this one, both genre and sub genre, how often the scripts were being downloaded, what we would have expected the volume to be, based on the number of scripts that were submitted, and which genres were over-indexing and under-indexing. There’s also a little bit of further information along those lines on our annual report, again, directly linked from the home page. As far as letting writers see the number of downloads from their fellow writers, it’s definitely something that we’d be open to. We haven’t really explored it. We do allow, for example, right now, writers to make visible their ratings, but only if they so choose. We have an explicit do-no-harm policy, so all writers are able to control what information, if any, they make available, to any part of the community.
Ashley: Yeah sure, that’s great.
Franklin: But the volume of downloads is definitely something that I feel like we could give them the option to make public. But again, we already, we launched this a couple of months ago, the ability for writers to download their fellow writers’ scripts, or to do so with permission, has been around for a few months, and we actually, I think we’ve seen over two thousand downloads of scripts by writers of their fellow writers’ material. I think what’s been most surprising to me has been the fact that over seventy five percent of the scripts that are hosted on the site are available for download by writers, by other writers. I’ve been really surprised and impressed by the extent to which people do want to share their work with folks who aren’t even industry professionals.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah, I downloaded a couple and started to take a look at those. So I think that’s excellent. I want to commend you too. I have some background in web development, and the user interface you guys have put together is excellent. It’s a really polished, nice site, so you’ve done a great job.
Franklin: I deserve literally no credit for that at all. All that credit goes to my art [unclear], who is an ace programmer-designer. I’m very lucky to be partnered with him in this venture. And frankly, over the last year, Terry Wong, who works with us now, has contributed greatly also to the evolution of the design. And we have a lot of exciting things coming in that regard as well.
Ashley: Perfect. So another question that I was wondering, can you give us any insight into how the visibility algorithm works? You have two sections, at least from a writer perspective, when I’m looking at someone’s scripts, you have related scripts, and you have “if you like the script, you’ll also like these.” Obviously as a writer I haven’t rated any scripts. So I’m just curious how you decide: is it by genre, is it similarly rated scripts? How do you determine what scripts to show us?
Franklin: Similar scripts is definitely by genre, tagging, sometimes a representation issue [?], and that’s how the algorithm determines similar scripts. “If you like these scripts, you may also like these scripts” is a bit of an inversion of our recommendations algorithm, and we use the ratings from industry professionals to basically say, and our readers, to essentially say, someone who really likes this script, based on the ratings, what are the other scripts that they also really like?
Franklin: And essentially what the algorithm does is it looks at groups of people who love one script or one person who loves the script, and then it looks at other scripts that they rated highly, and tries to make a prediction about what rating this other person will rate it, this sort of fabricated person will rate it, and then sort of list the top ones for each script as “if you like this, you might like this.” It’s very similar to Amazon, or Netflix, or any one of those recommendations algorithms. It’s just looking at the coincidence between people who like this and people who like other things.
Ashley: I see. Let’s talk just a second about the featured script. I get an email, I guess it’s every week or two weeks.
Franklin: Two weeks.
Ashley: And how do you choose those scripts that get featured?
Franklin: Typically those scripts are scripts that have either gotten consistently high ratings from our readers or from our industry professionals, but they haven’t gone anywhere for whatever reason. Or they’re scripts that have unusually divergent ratings. They’re scripts that are beloved or quite hated. And we want to foreground things that are a little more divisive and a little more polarizing, because if someone loves it, that’s an indication that someone else might.
Ashley: One thing that just kind of occurred to me was, going back to something you said earlier, you mentioned that, as I said, a script gets a bad rating, let’s just say they get a four or a five, and then they do another rating, and they get an eight. Let’s just say they got five ratings of a five, and then they finally get a rating of an eight. Would you include that in this weekly email to the professionals because they hit that one eight, or is there some sort of weighted average with the other bad ratings?
Franklin: Overall, eight gets you included in that email. That email is literally just as simple as, here’s all the scripts that got an eight or above, for at least one [?] of the previous week. One of the things I should mention is if you get two successive evaluations, and they differ by three or more points.. So if you got a five, and then you get an eight, we offer you a third evaluation at a cost, which is twenty-five dollars, so literally fifty percent off of what you initially paid for those evaluations. You can get a third evaluation. And the reason for that is that scripts that are highly divergent, we want to be able to make better recommendations to the people who are likely to like it, not recommend it to people who are likely to not like it. And having more data around those scripts is valuable for us. So we want to make it as inexpensive for you as we possibly can without going into debt ourselves, to get that additional rating, so that we can identify folks who may like your work.
Ashley: Have you seen any difference in the average ratings of agents and managers vs. the paid readers?
Franklin: On average, I think I looked at this maybe a couple of months ago, the rating of industry professionals tends to run on average about point five points higher than the ratings of our readers. I think there’s a number of factors behind that. The most significant one is that I don’t think most industry professionals are going online to rate people’s scripts negatively. There’s no real upside for them in doing that, except for just improving the data that we have so that we can make better recommendations to them. But I think, by and large, if I’m an industry professional, and I read a script, and I’m not into it, I stop reading after thirty pages, it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to go online and rate the script negatively. But I may, if I read a script and love it, go rate it positively, to bring more attention to the script.
Ashley: Yeah, that was kind of my thought, and that’s why, as an experiment, I put the link to my script, and as I said, I did get six downloads from that. Do you have a percentage of how many downloads, what percentage of agents and managers come back and rate the scripts that they’ve actually done?
Franklin: Right now it looks like it’s about one in seven.
Ashley: I got seven so..
Franklin: It’s about fourteen, fifteen percent. We do want to find ways to incentivize industry pros to rate the scripts they’ve downloaded and read. The challenge there though is we don’t want to incentivize people rating scripts they haven’t read. And so, we haven’t been quite able to square that circle yet, but again, it’s more important to me that the ratings are going to reflect people’s actual opinions about material, than that we have a high volume of ratings. If we can find a way to have both, then obviously we’ll be much happier, but in the meantime, until we figure out how to do that, we’re going to leave people to rate scripts that they’ve actually read, and not to force them or even incentivize them.. We just don’t want to create an incentive structure that encourages behavior that has less than ideal integrity.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah, I agree. So I think that was my list of questions. Are there any questions that you think maybe I should have asked but didn’t? Is there anything else you want to say about The Black List site?
Franklin: Yeah, I think some of the things that I would just highlight… There’s a few things. The first is that I think, I think this would probably be inevitable given your podcast is called Selling Your Screenplay, but I think people sort of look at us first and foremost as a business that, if you submit your script, we’re going to sell your script. And that’s not who we are. We make no guarantees and no promises along those lines. In fact, we’re very transparent about the fact that the odds are long, even within the context of our site. However, I think that it’s important to remember too that what we do provide is fast, high quality, direct feedback on your script, regardless of what stage you are at in your career. I don’t know anywhere else where for fifty to seventy-five dollars, you can get someone who has worked recently in the industry at a very high level as an employed reader for a major agency or management company at a minimum to read your entire screenplay and give you feedback about what they think about it. We’ve done over fifteen thousand script evaluations. I think it’s a pretty remarkable number, and our complaint rate is about one point five percent, within those fifteen thousand, which is really remarkable, because people are justifiably sensitive about their own artistic work. We have partnerships with The Writers Guild East, The Writers Guild West, The Writers Guild of Great Britain, that allow all of their members, if you’re a member of one of the guilds, you can list your scripts in our database, and we can drive incoming phone calls to your agents about your back catalog. And there is literally no downside, because you are able to hide any information that you don’t want to make public about the scripts. So I highly encourage anyone who is a member of the guilds to list their scripts as part of our database as soon as they can. And then we have partnerships with a large number of television and studio networks now. We’re partnered with Warner Brothers Pictures. Three more times over the next eighteen months, we’ll send them a short list of ten writers for consideration for two step guild minimum blind deal, one of which was awarded via this process in mid December. We have a partnership with Disney to help identify writers with diverse perspectives for their residency features writers program. We have a partnership with TNT and TBS to identify a writer of drama and a writer of comedy for a blind deal, with both those networks. The four writers who are not chosen for each of those opportunities from the short list, their work will be circulated to all of their active show runners for staffing consideration. We have a partnership with the YouTube channel Wigs, which was started by Rodrigo Garcia and Jon and Jake Avnet, to identify a writer for a blind deal to write a pilot for a new series on their YouTube channel. We have a partnership with the Hasty Pudding Institute of seventy and seventy, which is the third oldest theatrical organization in the world, that has put up twenty thousand dollars for a writer of satire or significant social commentary, that will be judged by, among others, Helen Estabrook, who produced Whiplash, which is a former Black List script that won the Jury Prize and Critics Prize at Sundance. We partnered with the Sundance Institute to identify writers for their labs. I think I’m missing one, but I can’t remember what it is off the top of my head.
Ashley: That’s a lot of partnerships.
Franklin: We’ve got more coming. Continue to be tuned in, and you’ll be excited about it. We also, last year, in October, did our first screenwriters’ lab. We invited six writers, who’d never made more than twenty five thousand dollars, out to downtown Las Vegas, hosted by Tony Hsieh and the Downtown Las Vegas Project, and Billy Ray, who wrote Captain Phillips, Kiwi Smith, who wrote Legally Blonde, Jenny Lumet, who wrote Rachel Getting Married, and Brian Koppelman, who wrote Rounders, came out and were mentors, along with Scott Myers, who is our official blogger, for Go Into the Story. We were all expenses paid for a week, and we had an experience which, I feel reasonably safe in saying, changed the trajectory of their professional screen writing careers. I’m pleased to announce that we will definitely be doing that again this year, again in downtown Las Vegas, probably the first week of October. And then lastly, there’s a lot of free stuff available on the site that doesn’t require giving us any money at all. Scott Myers, who does our official screenwriting blog, Go Into the Story, I really don’t know how he manages to generate that much content.
Ashley: He’s a blogging animal.
Franklin: I’m convinced he has some sort of time stopping machine in North Carolina that allows him to generate work at that level and that frequency. But you’re trying to educate yourself about how to be a screenwriter and how to be a better screenwriter, there’s really no better place to look than his blog. We launched The Black Board, which is an online community moderated by Shaula Evans, which is a great, positive community where you can get guidelines and help and meet other screenwriters online.
Ashley: I get quite a few emails every week from people who are looking for professional notes on their screenplay. I don’t currently offer this as a service, but I do work with several other excellent writers and producers who will give you professional notes. So if you’re looking for notes on a script that you’re working on, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants. In this week’s Writings Words section, I wanted to touch on a few things that Franklin talked about. It should be really, really clear in all this that rejection is part of the game. Just because your screenplay doesn’t work on The Black List doesn’t mean you should stop trying to market it. As I mentioned in the interview, I’ve uploaded four scripts, and they’ve all received pretty mediocre scores. That doesn’t even remotely deter me. Of the four scripts I’ve posted on the site, I’ve optioned three of them. So just because they don’t work on The Black List doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for them somewhere else. The one script that I never optioned I just finished about a month ago, so who knows, I might end up optioning that one too at some point. In my case, I optioned the three scripts that I did option. I optioned them using my own email and Fax Blast service. But you as a writer have got to find a marketing channel that works for you. This might be it. But you really won’t know until you try it. I never did very well in contests, and I sort of feel like this has the same vibe, where there’s a premium put on sort of more literary scripts, as opposed to more commercial fare. But who knows, that’s probably a bigger topic for another day. As another example, a script I sold a couple of years ago that was produced last year called Rush Lights, that was actually one of my early scripts, and I entered it into a bunch of contests many, many years ago, including the Nicholl Fellowship, which is considered the best screenwriting contest out there. They didn’t like it, and in fact, none of the contests liked it, because it didn’t place in any contest, but yet I was able to eventually sell it, and it did eventually get produced. So again, the key is to never get discouraged by the rejection. That’s all part of the process. In any event, I’m a little skeptical that I’ll ever do very well on The Black List site, but I’ll probably keep trying it out with a few more scripts. I’m definitely going to upload my most recent spec, a low budget horror thriller script that I’m finishing up now, so we’ll see how that goes. But the bottom line is, you should try these various services and see what you’re getting, see where you’re getting traction. You may find that you have good luck with The Black List, and if you do, keep uploading more of your scripts, and see if you can find a match. Again, the only way you’re really going to know what works for you is by trying a bunch of different things. Anyways, that’s our show, thanks for listening.